These tweets are 🔥: How The Detroit Free Press created a unique social media voice

A few months ago, a hoax Twitter account purporting to be Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib made some waves online. The Detroit Free Press covered the story, but it also took to Twitter to try and discredit it.

A few weeks before that, the Free Press also reported a story about the band Metallica making a donation to a local community college.

It shared the story with a pun-filled thread.

Both of these instances show how the Free Press has developed a distinctive voice on Twitter that it hopes will grow its reach and make sure its journalism reaches more people.

This week in Solution Set, we’re going to look at the Detroit Free Press’ Twitter (and broader social media) strategy. We’ll dig into the origin of the account’s voice, how it decides what to tweet, and lessons it’s learned from going too far.  

Solution Set is a weekly report from The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Every Thursday, we take an in-depth look at one hopefully useful thing in journalism, share lessons, and point you toward other useful resources.


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Now, here’s the TLDR:


TLDR

• The Challenge: In 2011, The Detroit Free Press decided to experiment with its voice on Twitter by using a sassier persona on its sports account.

The Strategy: The Free Press has expanded the strategy to its main account, and it uses the approach to both make jokes and tackle more serious issues.

The Numbers: The Freep has a team of about 11 people working across its social and digital coverage, and in recent years its Twitter following has grown by about 138 percent.  

The Lessons: The paper knows it can’t be overly reliant on social platforms, but it sees the platforms as a tool for connecting with its community and reflecting their work.

The Future: It is thinking about how its social approach will translate to a world where we’re sharing more and more in private groups.

Want to know more?: Scroll down for examples of other news orgs who are good at Twitter.

Anything to add?: There’s still time to join us for our first #NewsBookClub meeting next week! Scroll down for details.


The Challenge

Twitter was a different place in 2011. Some of the big stories that year on the platform? A user in Abbottabad, Pakistan unknowingly live-tweeted the Bin Laden raid. Charlie Sheen accumulated 1 million followers 25 hours and 17 minutes after joining Twitter, a world record at the time.

#Winning.

That year, The Detroit Free Press also started experimenting with its Twitter presence by trying to introduce a “snarky, fun” voice to its sports account, @freepsports, Brian Manzullo, the Free Press’ social, search, and audience editor told me.

The experiment started before Manzullo joined the Free Press when Stefanie Murray (now Director of the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University), Mark W. Smith (now Director of Social and Operations at The Washington Post), and Anthony Fenech (now the Free Press’ Tigers beat reporter) worked on the paper’s digital desk.

“It was different than what people were expecting, and I think that’s what made it successful: People expected news and sports updates all the time,” Manzullo said. “They were still doing that, but they were giving it a little bit of a voice. It helped build engagement and equity with that account.”

Manzullo joined the Free Press in 2012 as a sports web editor, and he helped continue the work with the @freepsports account. In 2016, he became the paper’s web editor across all sections and helped bring this approach to the paper’s main Twitter account, @freep.

“I was largely charged with dealing with social because we didn’t really have any social media editors per se,” he said. “We had a team of web editors and a digital manager, but there wasn’t anyone who was tasked with just overseeing social. And now that I’m doing that we’ve kind of taken it to a different height.”


The Strategy

The Free Press’ goal with Twitter, and social in general, is to “be better or be different,” Manzullo said. And it thinks of its approach as if it was a surfer waiting for a big wave to come in.

“If you’re out there without a surfboard and you see waves, you can’t just run home and grab your surfboard. You’ll miss them. A big part of social preparation is making sure you’re in position to react to those moments,” Manzullo said.

He continued: “There will be a lot of time during big events where we will work in the moment and let things fly, see what happens, and gauge from there. There are other times where it’s more serious and more touchy where we have to be more mindful of things. Those are the times I’ll run ideas by other web editors and other people in the room.”

That surfer-seeing-the-waves moment comes in different forms, and regardless of how it’s approaching the stories the Free Press tries to keep a consistent voice that is representative of Detroit. “It’s direct, it’s gritty, and snarky,” Manzullo said.

On March 17, practically the entire state of Michigan was watching the Michigan and Michigan State basketball teams play in the Big Ten Tournament championship game.

Michigan State came from behind to beat Michigan, and the Free Press tweeted how most people watching the game felt. (I had a different reaction.)

“That was something I looked at closely because I wanted to see if people got it and understood what the context was or if they were reacting negatively. The overwhelming majority people were taking it and having fun with it in their own way.”

The tweet got national attention, but Manzullo knew that the state’s core audience was following the game and would know what the @freep account meant.

“Our audience is focused on Detroit and the state of Michigan,” Manzullo said. “Michigan is a very homebody state, if that makes sense. Most people who live here or who were born and raised in Michigan are very passionate about their state and think their state is better than everyone else.” [Editor’s Note: This is because Michigan is better than all the other states.]

While the Free Press shares jokes and fun memes on Twitter, it has also taken the same approach with more serious topics.

After former Michigan State doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexual abuse, the Free Press account tweeted a thread of all the names of the survivors who came forward and testified against Nassar.

Manzullo said he came up with the idea about 20 minutes before he sent out the thread, but in that time he ran the idea by four women on the Free Press’ digital desk to get another opinion about whether it was appropriate.

“Those are the times when we have to powwow about it, and bounce ideas off of each other,” he said.

While I’ve focused mostly on Twitter so far, the Free Press’ broad strategy is consistent across platforms. (Though we’ll talk about its approach to Facebook and Instagram below.)

“Our focus from a social standpoint is to make our journalism as socially optimized as possible — from the headline to the promo image that comes up when you share it. We focus a lot on optimizing those things because it makes our journalism more shareable,” he said.

Overall, Manzullo said the publisher is trying to optimize for engagement. “Those are the variables you’re in most control of,” he said.

Here’s how that translates to some platforms:

• Twitter: Retweets and likes.

• Facebook: Likes, comments, and shares

• Instagram: Likes and comments

“I monitor those and look for trends. I monitor how it’s affecting reach for stories and focus on increasing visibility across social platforms.”

When it comes to trying to drive traffic back to the Free Press site, the paper’s social team focuses on headlines, the promo images, and the way the stories look when someone shares them.

“I think the connection between engagement/referrals is pretty loose, but I also think that the more visible we are and the more equity that we’re building on social platforms, the more clickable our content is across other areas.

So even if someone searches on Google for a story and finds ours, it makes us more clickable in that realm. The hope is that it turns folks into more habitual readers to Freep.com and turns occasional readers into loyal readers.”

For most newspapers, that would then result in trying to turn loyal readers into paying subscribers, but the Free Press does not sell digital subscriptions and does not have a meter or paywall.

The Free Press, however, has also had occasional stumbles and it’s tried to use those as learning opportunities.

For example, it recently published a somewhat critical story about a recruit who is planning to play college sports. The paper mentioned the player’s Twitter account in the tweet, and it got some criticism from followers who thought it was unfair to the player, who was still only in high school.

“It brings up a question: Is it appropriate to mention someone like that on Twitter, or should we maybe not do that?” Manzullo said. “We always have to think about the kind of reactions our social posts will draw out of people. And if we think it’s going to be a negative reaction, maybe we don’t do it or we do it another way.”

As a result, the Free Press has become more judicious with how it tags people and other accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.


The Numbers

It’s not necessarily the best way to gauge success, but since January 2016 the Free Press’ Twitter following has grown by about 138% — from 125,000 followers to 464,000 followers.

And while Manzullo wouldn’t share specific traffic figures, he said social referral traffic was up by about 30 to 40 percent over the past 12 months, and that has primarily been driven by Facebook.

“Part of it is Facebook’s algorithm, part of it is what other news organizations are starting to do with social. But our efforts to make our journalism more visible on social platforms is a big reason why we’re seeing that success as of right now.”

The Free Press has a team of eight web editors and three digital managers who help oversee the paper’s social presence.

And while the Free Press has gained attention for its pithy tweets, only about 20 to 30 percent of the tweets are handwritten, Manzullo said. The rest are automated using Social News Desk.

“The fun stuff that we do, the breaking news tweets we send, and also for our biggest stories like investigations we’ll hand craft tweets for those,” Manzullo said. “We’ll do tweet storms that go over different media and different data points for stories. We also use tweetstorms as an opportunity to refresh a story in someone’s timeline.”

For comparison, everything it posts to Facebook is actually written by a staffer.


The Lessons

Don’t trust the platforms: While the Free Press has seen increases in traffic from social platforms and worked to optimize its coverage to maximize its impact on them, it’s important to remember that at the end of the day, the platforms are interested in really just maximizing revenue and ensuring that people spend as much time as possible on their sites.

“As you know, social media is a double-edged sword. You’re still dealing with a self-interested third-party platform. We have to be mindful of anything that could happen in the future regarding algorithm tweaks — especially with Facebook, since it makes up a great majority of our social traffic.”

While Facebook, Google, and other platforms enable publishers to reach new audiences, they shouldn’t become overly reliant on them as traffic sources that are critical to their business.

Still, Manzullo said he thinks it’s important for news organizations — especially local outlets — to have some presence on the platforms to, as the cliche goes, meet readers where they are and hopefully build some loyalty.

Highlight wins: When the @freepsports account began using more sass, there were some in the Free Press newsroom who weren’t convinced that it was the right tone for a newspaper to take on Twitter.

But then the Free Press made a pretty noticeable goof.

In December 2014, as Michigan was finalizing a deal to hire Jim Harbaugh as its football coach, the Free Press published a photo of his brother John on the front page of the paper by mistake. Oops.

On Twitter, @freepsports owned up to the mix-up and addressed it with humor.

The response online was universally positive, and the experience helped change minds in the newsroom.

“Everyone in the room saw the reactions to that, and even some of the copy editors who had worked on that edition were thankful for that reaction because it took a huge negative, something that would’ve been catastrophic years ago, and turned it into a positive and a saving moment online. It changed the conversation completely, and when people saw that they realized the power of a voice on social media.”

• Every platform is unique: You probably know this already, but it’s worth repeating: You should create unique strategies for every social platform.

Audiences have different expectations for each, so you do yourself and them a disservice by just duplicating content.

Here’s how the Free Press thinks about Facebook — and Instagram:

“It’s more algorithmically based, so we have to think about what people are going to see five to 10 hours from now,” Manzullo said. If we post something at 10 o’clock we have to be mindful that many people don’t see things on Facebook until they get home from work. We try to be as relevant as possible for as long as possible for each post. Sometimes it’s something we don’t have to overthink, but if there is something that’s’ really in the moment we have to make sure it’s still relevant for folks seeing it 12, 13, 14 hours later.”

• Twitter is not real life: Though it can be worthwhile to have a smart presence on Twitter — or any other social platform — it’s important to also remember that Twitter isn’t representative of your community.

The Pew Research Center on Wednesday published a report that found while 22 percent of Americans use Twitter, those who use the platform are younger and more likely to be Democrats than the general public.

The survey also found that 10 percent of U.S. Twitter users produce 80 percent of tweets.

The New York Times earlier this month also published a report that found that Democrats on Twitter tend to be more liberal and are not representative of the broader Democratic electorate.

“Today’s Democratic Party is increasingly perceived as dominated by its “woke” left wing. But the views of Democrats on social media often bear little resemblance to those of the wider Democratic electorate.

The outspoken group of Democratic-leaning voters on social media is outnumbered, roughly 2 to 1, by the more moderate, more diverse and less-educated group of Democrats who typically don’t post political content online, according to data from the Hidden Tribes Project,” the Times reported.

Again, while social media can be a valuable tool for newsrooms. It’s important to put it in the appropriate context.


The Future

The way we use Facebook and social media is changing.

A number of stories in recent months have highlighted how users are less likely now to share things publicly on Facebook and instead are moving conversations to more private spaces like chat apps and closed groups.

To account for this change in behavior — especially among younger adults — the Free Press has started thinking about how it can either create these spaces or be better about reaching readers where they are.

For example, The Free Press created Woodward 248, a Facebook group and newsletter for residents in some inner-ring Detroit suburbs. (Woodward is the main thoroughfare in the area and 248 is the area code. It is also where I grew up!)

“I’d encourage all news organizations to try this, to establish and develop a voice by putting yourself in the shoes of your audience,” Manzullo said. “Especially if you’re a local news organization, the audience is right in the room. You’re the members of the community, but also what sorts of things are we doing to help listen to the community and to the audience, and are you reacting appropriately to what their wants and needs are. Using this voice has really helped us from a social standpoint. We still have to do other things like host events and meet people face-to-face — nothing will ever replace that — but what sorts of things are we doing on social media that will help develop a relationship with our target audiences?”


Want to know more?

• The News Media Alliance published a great Q&A with Manzullo last year on the Free Press’ Twitter strategy. It helped me prepare for our conversation.

• The Washington Post is really good at Twitter. Here’s the latest example from today.

• ProPublica: Also very good at Twitter. (Check out this classic @Freep/@ProPublica action.)

• Another platform publishers should pay more attention to? Reddit. Here’s how The Texas Tribune utilizes the platform.


Anything to add?

Mark your calendar: Next Wednesday, May 1, at 1pm EDT, we’re having the first meeting of the Solution Set News Book Club. We’re meeting via a Zoom call. You can sign up and get more details here. (Including how to join our robust Slack channel.)

It’s not too late to join us. We’re reading “The Content Trap” by Bharat Anand. I still have about 100 pages left, but it’s fantastic and I can’t wait to discuss it with everyone.

The goal of the Book Club is to get people thinking about the larger issues facing journalism — especially local journalism — and hopefully expose people to new sources that can offer solutions for how to tackle some of our major challenges.

Please feel free to reach out with any questions or anything.

See you on Wednesday!

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