Jodi Gersh on Social Media-Driven Journalism

Jodi Gersh is the Director of Social and Strategic Brand Marketing at USA TODAY. She has been with Gannett since 2000, and has helped guide the company through the social media revolution. She will be speaking on a panel with the Washington Business Journal’s Jennifer Nycz-Conner at xPotomac on how the digital media revolution’s continuing impact on journalism.

The following is an interview conducted with Jodi on behalf of xPotomac as a sneak preview of her session. You can see her speak at xPotomac on August 27th in Georgetown (register today using the code “Geoff” and get 20% off). Any typos or errors are mine, not hers.

GL: What’s the biggest thing you have seen changed in journalism as a result of social media?

JG: The two-way dialogue and as journalists we are no longer deciding what you need to know. People are telling us what they want to know. It’s a different dynamic. Journalists always trusted their gut, and [decided] this is what you need to know; this is what we are going to report; this is what’s important.

In social media, you get interactions and pings from the crowd saying, “Hey this is what’s important.” If you are doing it right, you start to recognize this is something we maybe wouldn’t cover or an angle we wouldn’t take, but it is resonating with the people so let’s do that.

GL: You have a unique perspective because of your position within Gannett, and USA TODAY and its local newspapers. How do you differentiate between the stories on social?

JG: There is a difference.

Local journalists live in those cities. So they can be tweeting with someone and then run into them at the supermarket. It’s harder for USA TODAY to have that kind of relationship because the community is everywhere, BUT they can be a very engaging brand online. They have engaging personalities and they have very social content.

On a local level, the brands can also be engaging, but the journalists have more of a connection, an emphasis on being recognized, being knowledgeable, being experts in their community, and living in the same place that they are reporting on. It’s very different. The way both local and national approach social is very different.

Of course, social content is social content. Choosing what to share and how to share it, that’s going to be the same nationally and locally. You want to make sure the way you share things on social media is going to engage the audience that’s in that social zone.

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GL: How has data changed the formula?

JG: There are different types of data, and we actually have many, many types of dashboards. We are looking at a way to pull it into one dashboard. We have social data, we have website data, and we have audience data for our communities of people.

Last year, actually, we rolled out a whole training program for all of our journalists where they were shown how to look at and use their dashboards. So rather than just making the data available, we walked them through what it means and how to take action on it. If you see something happening in Chartbeat or Omniture, how can you do something to see if it will make it better? We have put a big emphasis on using data that way. Actionable.

There’s the marketing funnel and the data coming in from our CRM, our audience, our subscriber databases and our email sign-ups. There’s a lot of data there, and we have a whole other team looking at that. I am not as involved with that right now. Although for paid social, it is all relevant.

GL: What was it like on the broadcast side before the split [Tegna is the new company representing Gannett’s former broadcast properties]?

JG: I worked with social champions across all of the TV sites. There were different ways they looked at social for TV than the ways we looked at it on the publishing side. When you watch your local newscast, you’ll see a few local stories, then you will see stories from other local markets, affiliates within the network. You are accustomed to that.

They would approach social the same way. They weren’t just sharing their local stories, they were sharing stories from across the network if they were super social. Things like a cat stuck in a tree, saved by a fireman.

There was always a back and forth about whether that made sense for our print or publishing sites to do. For the longest time, I felt that didn’t make sense, that this kind of news was a commodity, and that everyone is sharing that viral story about the cat in the tree.

I believed local publishing sites shouldn’t do this, and especially after our Facebook reps told us if every news site shared the same story they won’t show it to as many people. They don’t feel like that is a good user experience. It’s not curated.

Now we’re trying to decide if there can be a mix of that. Can you go for the slightly easier social win even if it is not a local, local story, if you are also providing good local content? Can you create related content for social media that ties into a local market? The answer is probably yes. Those stories are popular, even if they aren’t from your local market.

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GL: You’ve seen the rich media trend, but you work with all types of media. Which media forms are winning out, or is the rich media trend hyperbole?

JG: It’s hard to answer that. When you say which kinds of media are winning, I think that people’s media diet includes all kinds of media. Obviously, print [like newspapers] is slowly dying. Will it ever go away? Circulation is going down every year, and every year they say print is going away, they say five years, but it’s been like that for 20 years. I think there will always be print.

It’s not always by age. There are some hipsters who like their Sunday newspaper, and it’s totally fine. Yes, it’s an older demographic that usually subscribes to newspapers, but that doesn’t mean younger demographics don’t like newspapers.

We’ve done a lot of focus groups with the millennial age group and younger Gen Xers. The way they share information is so different. They are not necessarily loyal to a brand but getting that information from their friends has gone to a whole new level. We were speaking with some younger millennials, and they get their news from their friends via text message. They will take a screenshot of a story on a website and send it to their friends.

So you can see the media type could be anything or anywhere. People get news today on Instagram. How is that? The media diet is really varied, podcasts are in there, apps, photo storytelling.

GL: We’ve seen social become a validator, the success of a story becoming measured by how well it is shared. We’ve also seen the value of conversation. We’ve seen hard data. Have we seen the end game for social or are we going to see something else come along and blow this thing up again?

JG: I don’t think so, we haven’t hit the end of it. I was just talking to someone about how only a few years ago, we started having social media managers in the newsroom. We said, well this is kind of a temporary thing because in five years we won’t need social media managers anymore because everyone will be social.

It’s the opposite now because social has become so fragmented across so many different areas. It’s more important to have a group or people in organizations who understand where and how it’s being used. We’ve got our circulation department using it, our ad sales people selling it, we’ve got editorial using it, we’ve got brand people promoting it; it’s all over the place now.

We’re not at the end point. It is so much a part of the fabric of everything, yet we’re still not where everybody truly understands it. Five years ago you had executives who said ‘why are we wasting time on social.’ But now that’s all they ask for, but they still don’t totally get it. Until everyone gets it – which might not ever happen – we’ll still need expertise.