Cara Anthony, IndyStar’s millennial-focused reporter, marks her territory with ‘a hot pink highlighter’
Charged with capturing the short attention span of millennials in Indianapolis, Cara Anthony checks metrics first thing in the morning. That’s before she does a radio spot or jumps into the comment threads on her latest articles or starts crowd-sourcing quotes and tips for her next stories on social media.
For the 27-year-old IndyStar reporter, this is what a typical day looks like:
“My day starts at home with a social media sweep. I go to Twitter first. Then I check Facebook to see if I have new friend requests. My next stop is Instagram. I make the rounds on IndyStar.com before checking in at the office with my writing coach. The rest of the day is filled with interviews, lunch and metrics.”
It’s important to note here that Anthony’s focus on metrics, engagement and emerging platforms doesn’t come at the expense of traditional reporting skills. At Gannett, and in most transformational newsroom cultures, that traditional skill set — the ability to find stories, conduct effective interviews and craft top-notch journalism — is a baseline; a prerequisite. But, increasingly, so is the ability to build a personal brand, be responsive to an audience that demands interaction and pivot as that audience discovers and adopts new habits.
And research, like the latest from Piper Jaffray, bears out Anthony’s strategy. Instagram reigns as the most-important social network for teens, eclipsing Facebook — a network where many news organizations finally feel comfortable. But we shouldn’t get comfortable anywhere. Snapchat is on the rise and, undoubtedly, a new contender will emerge to challenge its ascendency before the ink is dry on many more trend reports.
Take heed ink-stained wretches: change is the new normal.*
And that is something that is being noted and commented on throughout the news business. In a watershed moment speech delivered last week, and republished in The Washington Post, executive editor Martin Baron said:
“We are moving from one habitat to another, from one world to another. We are leaving a home where we felt settled. Now we encounter behaviors that are unfamiliar. Our new neighbors are younger, more agile. They suffer none of our anxieties. They often speak a different language. They regard with disinterest, or disdain, where we came from, what we did before. We’re the immigrants. They’re the natives. They know this new place of ours well. We’re just learning it.”
We get the subtext: hire millennials. Our staff needs to reflect the communities we cover. Diversity of all kinds, including in age, is key to our ability to connect with the communities we cover. And we should never be comfortable.
Reporters like Cara Anthony get it and are redefining what it means to do the job and do it well for increasingly fragmented, niche audiences who have plenty of entertaining, informative options — from Snapchat to Periscope to Kik — competing for their device time.
On a recent visit to the Indianapolis newsroom — a place of considerable action in the past few weeks — I talked to Cara about her work, work ethic and her first few months of working with a content coach:
One-sentence job description in your own words: Lois Lane by day, Internet hunter by night.
Define what being a beat reporter means to you: I’m marking my territory with a hot-pink highlighter right now. But when I’m done, my readers will be insiders. For me, it’s about being an expert.
What does being a “brand” mean to you? Visibility is the key. Why do people around the world love Beyoncé? Easy answer, she is everywhere! On my phone, my television, in my magazines, on the radio — I see her all the time. Readers can’t consume you if they can’t see you. The concept is simple. I want my readers to see me. I’m not Beyoncé, but I am a brand.
How do you take ownership of your brand? The first step is believing in your content. I can’t stress that enough. If you believe in it, promote it. Promote it morning, noon and night. Also, learn how to produce your own work. It’s an empowering skill. One night after deadline, I asked an embed producer to teach me the ropes. Since then, I’ve become the owner (or the Beyoncé) of my content.
How do you connect with your readers? I jump into their conversations on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. I respond to both fans and critics. Critics appreciate hearing from me. They’re often shocked when I respond.
How do you seek out and connect with new audiences? I’m trying to partner with local radio stations in our market. Millennials like music, so I want to reach them between Kayne West and Taylor Swift. I’ve been somewhat successful. For example, Radio Now 100.9 invited me on the air two weeks ago to talk about my one of my listicles. Bingo.
Who are your readers — or who should they be? I’m drawing a range of readers because my beat is under construction. Ultimately, millennials in Indiana will be my audience. I’m 27, so I can easily relate.
Do you spend much time thinking about how the audience is getting to your reporting or experiencing your brand? If so, how does that change how you approach your job? Most readers find my content through Facebook and Twitter, so I’m always working to increase my social media presence. I usually ask myself questions before I post. What will make them laugh? How can I start a conversation? Copy and pasting links without context is counterproductive. Don’t do that.
When we spoke a couple of weeks ago you said it’s “easy to get lost in the sauce if you’re not fighting for [readers’] attention.” How do you fight for it? Creativity is the answer. I think outside of the box now. I’m not afraid to try something crazy or new. My method is working.
You no longer have an “editor,” but a “coach.” How does that relationship work? Big change here. My writing coach encourages experiments and exploration. Editors had a similar role, but I’m not sure they celebrated independence in the same way they do now. I spend less time waiting on approval and more time reporting.
“I eat three times a day. I check my numbers six times a day or more.”
Do you pay attention to metrics? Which ones? And how do those numbers affect how you approach your gig? I eat three times a day. I check my numbers six times a day or more. It’s a part of my daily routine now. With help from our audience analyst, I’m using Chartbeat to determine when millennials want their news. We don’t always want it in the morning. I can tell you that. I’ve noticed spikes well after 7 p.m. on a weeknight. But it really depends on the content. My readers like “things to do” lists, photographs and insider tips. The metrics don’t lie.
When reporting and thinking about the content you produce, do you give any thought to alternate story forms? I wouldn’t survive without alternative storytelling. A narrative is rarely my first choice. My news director encourages innovation. Don’t get me wrong — I love reading narratives. I’m just not a fan of the pyramid principle. That’s not my strength.
I have three go-to’s: the listicle, the Q&A and what The Star calls the “chunkticle.” What’s that? It’s basically a listicle with more information, more words and more news. For me, news is easier to write and digest this way.
What are you excited about (when it comes to your job)? Creative freedom gives me life! I danced around to “Happy” by Pharrell for three straight days after we published my first big trend story about tiny houses. The story’s photo gallery yielded more than 500,000 page views. Now I find myself constantly making voice memos or scribbling ideas on Post-it notes. My mind is crowded with story concepts. I love my new freedom.
(*One interesting aside: In some of our newsrooms, it is the older staffers — the veteran reporter with a 30-plus-year career who has seen presses, content management systems and editors come and go — who are most willing to embrace that change. And, surprisingly, they are usually accompanied by an equal-but-opposite number of recent J-school grads who still hold out hope for walking in the same time-worn footsteps of Bob Woodward and tend to eschew social media as something they do for fun, not for work. They approach journalism as one would role-playing: As something static and fixed in time. That time being like 1973.)