Murrow Monday: Texas Tribune Social Media

The Texas Tribune has one full-time staffer dedicated to social media, but the digital outlet’s 2019 National Murrow Award for Excellence in Social Media – its second in the category – took a team effort, says Social Media Editor Bobby Blanchard:
Our engagement fellows played a huge role last summer in keeping things running. Our chief audience officer, Amanda Zamora, and other editors here helped guide the ship. And everything and anything we do on social media is a direct reflection of the amazing journalism our reporters do.
Indeed, the “Families Divided” project showcased in the Tribune’s social media entry also earned the Tribune national Murrow Awards for Breaking News and Continuing Coverage.
As part of our regular look behind the scenes of Murrow Award-winning newsrooms, I asked Blanchard to share more about the Tribune’s winning social strategy.
What does your social media team look like?
Our audience team is run by our chief audience officer, Amanda Zamora. As the social media editor, I report to Amanda and am in charge of keeping the wheels spinning on all our flagship social accounts. Also on the audience team: Natalie Choate (who is in charge of media relationships, partnerships and marketing), Sarah Glen (who runs our membership efforts as our Loyalty Program Manager), Cassandra Pollock (who writes The Brief, our daily free newsletter, and helps with The Blast, our daily premium newsletter), Alex Samuels (our community reporter who helps with callouts, runs the Facebook group and writes a lot of explainers) and Emily Yount (our designer and developer on the audience team).
I’m the only full-time employee devoted to social media — everyone on the audience team is hyper-focused in certain areas but we all collaborate very well and play off of each other. We are always joined by one or two engagement fellows — who are either college students or recently graduated college students. They work very closely with me in helping run our flagship social accounts. We are also usually joined by a marketing and communications fellow that works closely with Natalie Choate.
During the Families Divided crisis last summer, our engagement fellows were Regina Mack — now the social media editor at Texas Monthly — and Marilyn Haigh — who is now working at CNBC in New York.
Our fellows work closely with me to ensure we’re owning the conversation online and are doing everything we can to elevate the journalism we’re producing on the site. I work an early shift of about 6 a.m. - 3 p.m. I start working at home at 6, walk to work around 6:45 a.m. and then leave at 3. That varies depending on the news cycle -- sometimes I start a little later, other times earlier. But the news doesn’t stop at 3, obviously, so our engagement fellows work an afternoon to early evening shift to keep things running during that time.
Mack and Haigh were instrumental during the summer of 2018 and played huge roles in helping me run our socials during the families divided crisis. Our engagement fellows help me keep my head above water. I simply can't do what I do without them.
The entry including several examples of threading on Twitter and including lots of detail in the tweets. It looks like you’re going for engagement metrics rather than clicks back to your site, which many newsrooms try to use social for. Why the different approach?

For us, high engagement metrics on social come with (not in place of) a high rate of clicks back to the site. So we’re going for both. When a tweet or a Facebook post is taking off, we almost always see a spike in traffic to the site from that post. And we almost always also see a spike in follower growth rate on those platforms when a post off-site spikes. The extra details and the attention to writing makes the social content perform better. Better performing social content results in more people coming to the site and more people following us on social. More people following us on social results in more people clicking on the next story we share. And so on and so forth.
So let’s say we have a high-performing tweet thread about the conditions in migrant detention centers — like we did on Thursday. This thread performs several functions. First, it ensures we are a leader and part of an important conversation about detention centers. We’re a leader because we’re adding really important context. It completes our mission of engaging and informing Texans. Second, it elevates Texas Tribune journalism that is a little more evergreen -- like this tracker of unaccompanied migrant children being held in Texas shelters. Third, it increases people’s awareness of who we are and gets more people following our social media accounts.
What role does social have in establishing your brand? How (if at all) is it different on different platforms?
The Texas Tribune strives to inform and engage Texans around the policy and politics that matters to them. That’s our mission. That’s our brand. So just about everything we do on social goes towards meeting that mission. That means sharing everything we publish on Facebook and Twitter. That means sometimes linking to and sharing news articles by other publications. That means explaining wonky policy or translating complicated court proceedings. That means answering people’s questions on Reddit with southern hospitality. And that means showing off our accountability-driven journalism on Instagram. Our strategies differ a little platform to platform. But I think there are some very common themes throughout.
What’s the workflow – how do you get material from the newsroom to the platforms?
I’m lucky in that I sit in the middle of the newsroom, next to several other editors and close to reporters that routinely break news. So physically, I am very close to the production. I also have Twitter mobile alerts turned on for every reporter in our newsroom plus many of the other reporters in the Texas press corps. I utilize Crowdtangle plugins with Slack to monitor key phrases being used across social as it relates to the beats we cover. We have a CMS Slack channel that our engineering department made that alerts me anytime someone in our newsroom hits the “publish” button. So, I’m rarely surprised by breaking news that publishes on our site. I almost always have a few minutes heads up, if not more, thanks to where I sit in the newsroom and the way I use mobile alerts. I work with reporters in advance on headlines in a slack channel called #headline-hoedown to ensure headlines are optimized for social and search. If I have questions or I want another pair of eyes, a fellow editor is merely a tap on the shoulder away. I attend two “stand-up” meetings every weekday with other editors so I am in the loop on our editorial strategy and I know what is coming down the pipeline.
We use Sprout Social as a social content management tool. Everything we publish goes out on Facebook and Twitter. Stories with strong images are featured on Instagram and powerful quotes are turned into quote cards. Other stories that are about wonky policy or are big talkers get explanatory tweetstorms and are turned into Twitter moments. When our stories are being discussed on Reddit, I jump in as u/TexasTribune to add context or other details.
What’s your typical day like?
I sign on around 6 a.m. at home. The first thing I do is send the editors and other audience team members an email that includes the following bits of information: What is trending on our site, what is trending across social (i.e., what are people talking about), what our peers in the Texas media industry are talking about and what I am planning on talking about on our social accounts that day. This email takes me anywhere between 5 to 25 minutes to write depending on how busy the day is. Here’s an example of what that email looked like on June 19th, 2018.

I walk to work sometime between 6:45 and 7:15 most days. Once I arrive at my desk, I always ask myself the following questions:
  1. What is the conversation today around Texas policy and politics that we’re going to try to own?
  2. How am I going to meet the Texas Tribune’s mission today?
  3. How am I going to advance our strategic plan today?
I use a BSJ (Best Self Journal) to map out my day with those two questions in mind. There are a few dozen little tasks I need to do every day to keep the wheels greased, and I use Habitica to track that. I then start programming out content on our main flagship accounts on Facebook and Twitter. I save time to do some programming on Instagram and Reddit, as well.
I attend a stand-up meeting at 9:45 with other editors in the newsroom. This is really helpful to me to ensure I know what’s coming. We have a standing meeting at 2:30 later in the day. The rest of my day is a balance of meetings, analytics work, monitoring developing news, preparing enterprise socials for any upcoming projects and trading off handling newly published stories with our fellows. Every day varies a little bit depending on the news cycle. If something happens, I give myself permission to throw out everything I have planned to ensure we can pivot properly. I can always play catch-up later.
What’s your strategy for balancing longer term planning/strategy and the tempo of news, especially for projects like “Families Divided,” which won Breaking News, Continuing Coverage, and Social Media?
I would estimate about 60%-70% of my time is spent towards running on our daily social operations and the other 40%-30% of my time is towards long term planning and strategizing. I’ve been telling myself for a long time now that it needs to be more like 50-50, but that balance is really hard to strike. It also ebbs and flows. During the height of the Families Divided crisis, almost every second of my workday was working towards ensuring we were elevating our journalism on social and getting the news out. In that moment, that was the most important thing. I give myself permission to prioritize. I block my calendar when I need to block my calendar to make progress on that long term stuff. I literally put time blocks in that say "not available." Because sometimes I'm not available.
As a solo social team, it’s just impossible to do everything and be everywhere. How do you balance everything and have a life? What are some things you’ve said “no” to?
I’m ruthless in determining what is worth my time. I have to be able to move the needle, meet our mission or our strategic plan AND measure the impact and success of what I’m trying to do. If I can’t measure how successful or unsuccessful my efforts are, how do I know if I’m moving the needle or making any progress?
A big thing I’ve said no to recently is TikTok -- more why here. The TL;DR though: I don’t believe TikTok can help me advance our mission so it isn’t worth spending 5 minutes on it a day — let alone the actual 30-45 minutes it might take to run it right. I admire what some newsrooms are doing on TikTok — I’m just a smaller team than a few newsrooms. I have to be ruthless.
A healthy work-life balance results in better work. Taking care of yourself is huge. This is a creative job, and I need time to rest and relax to refill my creative juices. Sure, I could work 12 hours a day and be everywhere at once. But my boss wouldn’t let me (thank goodness for good bosses) and my work would really suffer. Maybe I would be everywhere at once, but I would be performing poorly everywhere at once. Time away makes time at work better. The best thing I did for myself to ensure that I had a life outside of work was get a dog. Really. A dog is a living and breathing creature who needs care and attention and time. And that made a huge difference in my life until late April of this year when Murphy — my rescue lab-mix — died. He had a very difficult cancer prognosis that we had been fighting for months. My coworkers and bosses were exceptionally supportive and gave me all the time and space that I needed to grieve. Murphy was my best friend. But after his passing, I suddenly really struggled with a work-life balance. I didn't want to unplug from work. Not because of work or anyone at work, but because of me. My anti-anxiety/depression medication wasn’t working anymore. And I noticed — or at least I personally felt — an impact in the quality of work I was producing. So I went to see my doctor who modified my medication. I made a real effort to leave work to come home on time each day. I felt like my quality of work increased again. And then in May, my partner and I went to a local shelter and we brought home Odie. Work-life balance has returned. I’m leaving to go home on time most days again. After all, Odie is waiting for me. And I think I’m better at my job. … But all that to say take care of yourself outside of work and the product you produce at work will improve. That isn’t possible without management that actively works to support that and remind you of that. I’m exceptionally lucky and privileged in that regard.
What are 2 or 3 things your management does to actively support workplace balance? 
We have really helpful rules in place that are guidelines about when to contact someone after hours that management implemented and follows. Basically, after hours contact about work is for emergencies only. And management follows that. My direct supervisor meets with me routinely to elevate what is on my plate and what all I am doing, and she takes things off my plate when it gets to be overcrowded. And when I have had an especially busy time and possibly longer-than-usual hours, my supervisor tells me to take comp time. The verbiage there is really important. She doesn't ask me if I want or need comp time. She just tells me to take it and it is expected that I do and she follows-up about when that comp time is happening until I take it. 


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