Reaching the summit

Building up our social media and digital links with a week of workshops

Tom Standage, deputy editor (centre), kicks off the summit with a pep talk for the social team. A correspondent on a call does some impressive lunges in the background.

It is the job of our social-media team to lift our character from the pages of The Economist and share it with wider audiences. But the process of making content for a newspaper is very different to that of building an audience for the same content on social media. It requires its own skills and approach. And that is why, as we continue the digital transformation at The Economist, we organise an annual digital and social-media summit.

In 2016, our first summit was structured around a hackathon. Editors, correspondents, picture editors, designers and developers got together in teams to generate new social-friendly formats for our content. In 2017 we took a different approach, focused on learning and sharing skills while thinking critically about our social-media presence.

I’d like to share a little more about this year’s summit and what I learnt. I know that it’s the kind of thing that readers of Severe Contest like to nerd out about!

Hear today and tomorrow

On day one of the summit, we held a workshop on podcasts, roughly split into two halves. The first half discussed what we do on podcasts, including how to preserve the voice of The Economist while foregrounding the personalities of our writers. It’s worth situating this discussion in the wider context. Podcasting has undergone something of a revolution in recent years. The numbers of people listening to podcasts is skyrocketing, and new series are launching every second. The field is growing ever more competitive, with people in sheds going up against mega global publishers, and often winning. The Economist’s excellent podcasts engage thousands of listeners every week, but you’ll notice that nothing stands still. We’ve been experimenting with digital audience development tactics for some time, such as stimulating further debate around our shows on our Medium publication.

Cheryl Brumley, podcast producer (centre), trains editors and correspondents on recording sound. “Hold it like an electric razor” was my favourite tip.

The second half of the podcast workshop got practical, as our producer Cheryl Brumley taught colleagues how to record good sound when out reporting in the field. The workshop covered how to use a phone’s voice-memo app to grab atmos at an event, such as a protest; how to use a proper recorder, such as a Zoom, to tape an interview; and how to speak to yourself and your recorder in the corner immediately after experiencing something as a reporter. Podcasts are increasingly incorporating these kinds of sounds, so the more journalists who can record things when they’re out and about, the better.

A million voices

“I am on Twitter through a latent sense of junior high school FOMO,” said Dan Rosenheck, our data and sports editor, who helped run our Twitter workshop. Dan explained to a room full of colleagues how Twitter relieves his anxieties about missing out on the important conversations in his field. His approach is one of many — in fact when I spoke in the workshop I tried to make the point that there are as many different ways to use Twitter as there are people on the platform (counting the bots, I guess).

I showed how Patrick Foulis, our business columnist, uses the threading function to convert his weekly column into a series of tweets (left); how our Berlin bureau chief, Jeremy Cliffe, uses Twitter to beta-test his ideas before they’re strong enough for his stories or blogs; and how Sophie Pedder, our Paris bureau chief, comes into her own at the time of breaking news in France. My aim was to reduce any anxiety that colleagues may have about doing Twitter “right”. For the super nerds, we also brought in Amy Zima from Tweetdeck. It’s a powerful platform that really opens up the world of Twitter, especially for journalists (thanks Amy for coming along!).

Now see here

We held a number of workshops on our visual output during the summit. The Snapchat team opened up their usual conversations to get input from other designers, developers, editors and the social team in order to think about how how we can share and reuse our related work better. Our motion graphics animator, Nino Bennett, led a workshop on using After Effects. We’re planning for him to run a weekly session for colleagues, so we can diffuse his skills into other departments, including the social team.

Nino Bennett gives some training in After Effects
Kaitlin Tosh from the social team showed editors how we build our vimages. Coffee and notebooks are clearly essential.

We also spent a lot of time talking about our vimages, a category of social-native video made by our social team and given a silly name. Using only still images and text converted from an article into a script, we can easily find a bigger digital audience for some of our stories than sharing a link to it.

One of the most important lessons I learnt during the summit was the importance of joint script work. The social team spent an hour critiquing our recent outputs, suggesting improvements, and even jointly editing the script for a forthcoming vimage. That one was eventually published (left): I hope you can see the script is clear and gripping (shout out to Aryn Braun for making it).

I’m going to make sure the team continue this practice of critiquing and refining each other’s scripts before they’re seen by editors. We hope it’ll improve everyone’s work.

Trust me?

My highlight of the week was our panel debate. As a social-media editor, I frequently find myself in enriching conversations with others that I always want to share with my colleagues. So I brought a few contacts into The Economist’s office for the benefit of everyone, and we discussed the question: How can publishers build a digital presence that their audience will trust?

I was grateful to our guests: Charlie Beckett, a professor in the journalism department at LSE; Cordelia Hebblethwaite, head of digital at Newsnight for the BBC; Will Park, a social media editor at The Times; and Ziad Ramley, a former social media lead at Al Jazeera. It was a fascinating discussion between these guests and our editorial colleagues.

A severe contest for sure. Our panel debate about trust and social media. From L-R: Charlie Beckett, Ziad Ramley, Cordelia Hebblethwaite, Will Park and me, Adam Smith

I would recommend other social-media editors doing the same — bring the debate we’re all having into your house. Colleagues are essential to the work you do, so it’s good for them to hear what you’re talking about with peers in the industry. And likewise, the viewpoints of other editorial colleagues in this debate can help you to keep your own work grounded. For example, although I think a lot about trust in social media, I hadn’t once thought about this point made during the debate by Brooke Unger, our Americas editor: “We don’t have difficulty convincing people to trust us, but what we and society have difficulty doing is convincing people that they ought to care about trustworthiness. So the question is: can the media evangelise for the importance of trustworthiness?”

Keep it social

Brooke’s question is pretty wonkish, but that’s the kind that we like to grapple with. Our summit was the perfect mix of skill sharing and deep pondering about the nature of our work. It was also exhausting! We made sure to keep up the energy with complex sugars, a team meal and a few drinks — a social team has to be social, right? 🍻

If you have any thoughts or questions about running an internal summit like ours, I’d love to hear from you.

Adam Smith is deputy community editor at The Economist.

Would you like to sample content from The Economist? Sign up for our introductory offer