Julia Haslanger
Sep 24, 2015 · 8 min read
NPR social media editor Lori Todd

Getting a legacy organization to adopt social media into its lifeblood is no easy task, but NPR seems to be faring better than most.

Who’s behind the scenes, pushing the newsroom to get on board and experiment with new social tools?

“We have a small social media team that supports all of the editorial uses of social media,” says social media editor Lori Todd, ticking off the main responsibilities of the two-person team:

  • Strategy and decision-making around the main social accounts
  • Coaching and training individual journalists through a newsletter, one-on-ones, and brown bag formal training sessions.
  • Working with digital media and the product team on strategies for where NPR is going with social media.
  • “And we don’t want to ever forget that really important part that we’re really lucky to have here: really experimenting with the new tools of social media and how we might want to use those. In my previous positions that was not something I was given the time or luxury to do; here it’s a core value to the job.”

So what does all that look like, day-to-day? To find out, I followed Lori around the office on Aug. 20, and here’s what I saw:

NPR’s Washington, D.C., headquarters on a cloudy August morning.

Lori starts her day at NPR’s Washington D.C. headquarters around 9 or 9:30 a.m. She begins by taming her inbox, seeing if anything needs immediate attention, and tying up loose ends from the day before. She bookends each day with a check-in at the desk of the homepage editor (who mans the @NPR social media accounts) to see how things are going. So far today, things are going fine. Jimmy Carter is holding a press conference, which is keeping everyone busy.

On Lori’s agenda for the day:

  • Post to the Social Sandbox, (the Tumblr for NPR’s social media desk)
  • Record how a Snapchat experiment went the previous day
  • Edit planned tweets for Hurricane Katrina anniversary coverage
  • Look over plans for the Pope’s visit to see how social can get involved
  • Drop by the Tiny Desk Concert
  • And, like every day, stay on top of the news and help out anyone who asks.

During huge breaking news situations, Lori and Wright (who’s worked at NPR for 10 years) move over to sit at the breaking news hub. And even if she’s not in the office, Lori tries to be helpful when big news breaks by flagging for the homepage editor when a particular reporter’s tweets are worth watching or retweeting.

So, first up: Posting to Social Sandbox about an email she received from international correspondent Ari Shapiro.

“He has been in Turkey this week covering the migration crisis that’s happening, and he just had an ‘aha’ moment that social is truly an extension of his journalism” and not just a delivery mechanism, a way to drive traffic or build a brand.

That’s the kind of statement social media editors live to hear, so Lori was eager to share Ari’s note with others. She prepped the post on Tumblr, and then formatted it as an email to go to ~800 people internally at NPR who receive Social Sandbox updates.

While she was working on that, an email came in from the visuals department asking about how well certain kinds of Twitter images perform. It wasn’t something that Lori had hard data about, but she responded with what she knows anecdotally.

At 10:30 each morning, the social team holds its stand-up meeting. People from other departments join in the meeting, too, depending on what projects are in the works. Today’s meeting includes product manager Mathilde Piard and social marketing manager Brittany Brown. (Wright Bryan, the other half of the social media desk, is out on vacation.)

The trio discusses projects in the works (including how the Snapchat experiment wen the day before), difficulties with outside vendors, how to celebrate National Radio Day, and where they stand on choosing interns. The meeting lasts less than 15 minutes, and everyone heads back to her corner of the four-floor office.

After the meeting wraps up, Lori’s back to juggling email, including a few replies to her Sandbox email about Ari have come in, all positive. To communicate and plan across departments, she uses HipChat and Slack, along with Google Docs galore and a few Trello boards. The two Slack channels that are particularly valuable for her work: the channel where headlines get hashed out, and a channel Lori built that shows everything that’s published (which is particularly useful for copy editors to know when something goes live), along with every NPR tweet and Facebook post.

“Everything then is searchable, which is great,” Lori says, especially when you’re wondering if a story has been shared yet, or need to quickly get a link to a specific social post. She built the channel in Slack, using an RSS feed, IFTTT and Zapier.

Lori dives into reading NPR’s plans for the Pope’s visit. Social media hasn’t been included in planning meetings yet, and she’s trying to find her “in.” Among other things, she wants to shoot down an idea she’s heard secondhand about starting a new Twitter handle for all tweets about the Pope’s trip, and instead suggest a liveblog where they could curate social content from reporters and others with more of a narrative voice.

Next on her agenda: Editing planned tweets around the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Summer interns had put together a timeline and text for dozens of tweets to use during two weeks around the anniversary, but they didn’t have a chance to finish it. “It’s taken multiple rounds of edits. I’m halfway there,” Lori says. The anniversary is fast approaching, and Lori sets up a time later in the day to chat with someone in the visuals department about the images chosen for the tweets.

A glance at the Katrina anniversary tweets Google Doc, during the editing process.

Her edits include a mix of fact-checking (tropical storm vs. tropical depression), adjusting the focus, ensuring planned images make sense, and testing the tweet lengths. This project is a special circumstance — the majority of tweets aren’t planned out and critiqued this extensively.

Lunch comes from one of a gaggle of food trucks parked a couple blocks over. Another option would be the new NPR building’s cafeteria, with plenty of seating to watch public radio celebrities compost their leftovers, if that’s your thing.

It’s a big organization, and the DC office has hundreds of employees, so it takes time to get connected to everyone. Lori just started at NPR in June, and says a lot of the job is just fighting for visibility and fighting to get included. She’s taken to sometimes just walking around the newsroom as a way to get to know people IRL.

“Building those relationships for our role in the newsroom is super important,” she says. “Right now, I’m the girl who always emails people, because everyone gives me email, but I’m trying to develop those face-to-face relationships so I’m brought into the conversations earlier.”

Even when there are too many meetings (up to 6 or 7 hours a day sometimes), “I’m always happy to go to a meeting because it means social media is being included and part of the planning process.”

Anyway, back to our day. After lunch, she responds to a few questions about how to sign up to receive the Social Sandbox emails, continues to edit the Katrina tweets, and does prep work for a Facebook Q&A that two reporters are doing the following day.

At 1:25, it’s time to head upstairs for the Tiny Desk Concert. (Pro-tip: Don’t schedule any meetings during the Tiny Desk Concert.) Today’s musician is Chris Stapleton, a country songwriter and singer. (You can listen to the concert over on All Songs Considered.)

Country singer and songwriter Chris Stapleton performs on Aug. 20, with his wife, Morgane, singing harmony alongside him.

The rest of the afternoon flies by: continuing prep work for the Facebook Q&A, meeting with an editor from visuals to talk about licensing issues around using a certain photo on Facebook, helping someone navigate an update to Facebook Insights, and lots of responding to emails.

As the afternoon wears on, I ask Lori a somewhat awkward question that’s been on my mind: How’s it feel to replace Melody Kramer? (Melody Kramer is as close as social media editors have to a celebrity — she’s well-known and widely lauded in the community. She recently completed a Nieman fellowship after leaving NPR earlier this year to go work for 18F.)

“I’ve had a hard time with that,” Lori says. People in the office would introduce her as “the new Mel,” “But I’m not. … Our role is the same title but it’s slightly different.” She says her skills and interests align more with Wright than with the work Melody was doing.

“It felt like I had big shoes to fill. And I didn’t feel like those were the shoes I necessarily wanted to step into, and I don’t think I’m being forced into them either.”

“It made me scared to even apply for a job here because I’m not her.”

Lori hadn’t worked in public media before taking this job, instead coming to it with experience growing a social media team for Tribune publishing in Florida, and earlier in her career working as a page designer at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Austin American-Statesman and the Miami Herald.

She also spent two years working outside the news industry after being laid off from the Miami Herald during a round of cuts in 2010: She went to work for a corporate marketing firm doing social media coordination. She says she learned a lot of good skills, including project management, but she knew she wanted to get back into a newsroom, stat.

“I felt like there was a huge thing missing from my life. It felt like there was no real value to my work. That it was doing nothing good,” she says.

“I feel very strongly about needing to work in a newsroom.”

This piece was created as part of my research into the community of social media, engagement and community editors in newsrooms. I’m a graduate student in social journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. You can find more of my work here.

Social Journalism 101

Understanding the new roles for journalists in newsrooms — particularly around engaging and growing audiences

Julia Haslanger

Written by

Journalism nerd exploring audience engagement, analytics and newsrooms. My path so far: WI ▹ Mizzou ▹ CO ▹ DC ▹ NYC ▹ Chicago. Engagement consultant at Hearken.

Social Journalism 101

Understanding the new roles for journalists in newsrooms — particularly around engaging and growing audiences

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