Old Media Interview: Erica Smith, journalist and social media industry watcher

November 10th, 2008

Erica Smith is a journalist who works for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a designer for print. Despite working in print, she has carved herself a spot online through the Web sites and blogs she maintains. Probably her two most-popular running features are a comprehensive list of newspapers that Twitter and a tally of newspaper layoffs and buyouts.

Erica Smith

“I spend too much time online,” she said. Among her Web efforts are a tally of newspaper layoffs and buyouts, newspapers (and individual journalists) who use Twitter, and headlines that start with “man.”

Official position at paper:
Now: Designer for the dead-tree edition.
Soon: Web designer, building maps and graphics and fun things like that.

What role do you play at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch when it comes to Social Media or the Internet in general?

I update our Facebook page, do some Twittering (usually for breaking news) and have a blog for the Weatherbird. I play with maps and data. And I push others to use Twitter, Cover It Live, blogs, video and other social media as part of their jobs.

What’s your take on the newspaper industry? Can it be turned around? How?
If I knew how how to turn it around, I’d be rich. (I’m not rich.)

The newspaper industry is in trouble, but I don’t think this is the end. The focus is just confused right now. For a long time, newspapers forgot they were a business. Now they’ve remembered and focused solely on the business part. We’ve got to find a balance and a way to reach our audience. That’s going to take some experimenting; sure, there will be a few wrong turns on the way, but there will be a lot more right turns.

What’s the history of graphicdesignr.net?
Graphicdesignr started about a year ago when I wanted to re-learn (and learn) some Web skills. I’d had an anything-goes blog for a few months so I gave it a narrower focus, added it to graphicdesignr.net and started playing. Now the site is home to two blogs and my portfolio.

When and why did you start keeping track of Newspapers that Twitter?
That project started back in December; the first numbers were posted in February. The Post-Dispatch (@stltoday) had just started Twittering. I wanted to see what other papers were out there, and what (and how) they were doing. There were 55 Twitter accounts (23 papers) on that first list. On Nov. 1, there were 793 Twitter accounts. There will be even more on the December list.

In compiling this list, what has surprised you the most?
How quickly it has grown. What a difference it makes when publications interact with followers. And the number of accounts that are dormant, but still gain followers. People are reaching out to those publication and being ignored.

What type of feedback have you received from within the industry and outside of it?
Feedback has been great from the start. Since the list started, people have sent me new newspaper Twitter accounts every month. We’re journalists, we like data. And we like to see ourselves succeed. Even non-journo Twitter enthusiasts comment and link; perhaps because there aren’t (well, weren’t — there are getting to be more) many ways to measure Twitter.

How do you keep up with all the work that goes into keeping the numbers up-to-date?
It takes a few hours to go through and track down numbers on the 1st of every month. Everything is set up in a spreadsheet, so that makes it easier to organize. Another hour or so to format it, pull out the numbers of the “winners” and “losers” and it’s done. I add Twitter accounts as I find out about them — usually every two or three days.

Why is social media important in general? Why is it important than the mainstream media embrace it?
Social media has a lot of power, and it shares that power with anyone who wants to participate.

Politics aside, look at how the Obama campaign used social media. He used every kind of social media I can think of, and used most of them very well. The viral nature of the campaign, the layers and personalization let strangers connect, built a community and empowered both individuals and the community. Of course, it’s not a perfect approach — social media typically appeals to younger Web surfers. Older voters may feel left out; more traditional marketing reaches them better.

There’s no reason mainstream media cannot learn from, adopt and adapt those same practices. And then do more and do it better.

If your media outlet isn’t using Social media, what three things should you do in the next week?

1. Sign up. Not for the company — for you. Join Twitter. Join Facebook and LinkedIn. Join Digg or Mixx or StumbleUpon or Reddit or Delicious — or a couple of them. Join Google Reader or Bloglines or any feed reader and subscribe to a couple of feeds. Friend and follow people, interact, share. I guarantee you’ll learn new things, and come away with a great link, story tip or idea every day. Find what works for you. Find what you think would work for your publication. Those are the things you can take to the powers that be to show them the usefulness and need for social media.

2. Blog. See if you can start a blog for work. (If they say no, start one on your own.) Find your niche, something that you can offer a unique perspective on. Web videos? Technology? Photography? Video games? Sports teams? Cooking? Pets? Celebrity gossip? Bicycling? Beer? I know there’s something there. Cultivate and promote your blog (start with the social networks you joined). Look for other hidden talent at your paper, and get them involved in blogging.

3. Play and plan. There are all kinds of fun things on the Internet; explore. When you hear of something new, see if you like it/can use it. Take a look at how you use the Internet and how you get news. Ask co-workers how they use the Internet and how they get news. Ask friends, parents, relatives, strangers. Come up with a plan on what your publication could do, and push your editors to try just one of them.

Thanks, Erica! We’ll go back now to obsessively reading your blogs.

Know an old media fogey we should consider for a Q&A? Please comment below or message us on Twitter.

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Entry Filed under: Newspaper,Old Media Interview,Twitter

  • http://www.stephanieromanski.com/ Stephanie

    I love your blogs Erica, read them obsessively too :) Great Q&A – listen to this guru – she knows her stuff! Thanks OMNT for talking with her.

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