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Fourth in a five-part series based on 50 interviews with journalists at four U.S. metro newspapers on how they are embracing the innovation of Twitter

Michelle Serra started her career creating public relations pitches to help recruit young men to join the U.S. Marines. But a job posting for a new social media manager at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution caught her eye. The 27-year-old Serra got the job with one big task: Fix the AJC’s social media strategy.

Her assessment of the AJC’s social media efforts is blunt: “They were doing social media, but not doing it well. Journalists can tell their stories, but social media is a little different.” Her first day on the job gave her a lesson in breaking news because it was the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. “I had to dive right in and assert myself in the process in a friendly way,” Serra recalled. “God forbid if it hadn’t worked.”

Serra works for the AJC’s former circulation department, now called audience development to reflect the shift from tossing newspapers onto driveways to a 24/7 digital platform. But she sits in the newsroom, surrounded by journalists who were initially leery of a marketing person in their midst. Newsrooms have traditionally been walled off from any business operations to avoid any attempts to influence news coverage. Indeed, the Chicago Tribune once kept advertising staffers from getting off the elevator on the news floor.

“News people don’t like PR people because there is a sense that they are vacuous, empty people,” AJC Managing Editor Bert Roughton said. Serra “is the opposite. She is rich in content. She is a very gutsy young woman who can own a room. She has the bossy air of a newspaper person. I think news people respond to that.”

The changing world of journalism has forced reporters and editors to get more comfortable with different roles, which can include cooperating more with advertising and marketing departments. Journalists are painfully aware of the tougher financial times facing their newspapers. They know that survival requires them to be nimble and open to change.

Twitter is now one of the fastest-growing news distribution channels. Figuring out the best use of the social media platform clearly requires putting the best minds together, regardless of old department titles.

Twitter is now one of the fastest-growing news distribution channels. Figuring out the best use of the social media platform clearly requires putting the best minds together, regardless of old department titles.

Amber McDonald was a freelance journalist before she joined the Tampa Bay Times as its first social media specialist. In this role, she leads a multidepartment team to develop the entire company’s social media strategy. She now talks like a marketing guru, not a journalist. “We are constantly watching our strategy and pushing numbers,” she said. “We bring people along by having the data.” Other journalists toss around phrases such as ROI, or return on investment, when talking about how their newsrooms are evaluating how to use social media.

Amanda Wilkins, senior digital editor for entertainment and lifestyles coverage at The Dallas Morning News, said she has flipped “my thinking” about embracing Twitter as a “marketing function.” Indeed, each team in the newsroom reports to an editor, who reports to an advertising manager. It’s one of the more dramatic changes in tearing down the walls. “It was a little strange at first,” she said of the blending of news and advertising structures. But she adds: “They leave news entirely up to us.”

Having this dual news-advertising hierarchy has complicated matters at times. For instance, The Dallas Morning News’ social media team is based on a separate floor from news and is run by people in marketing. Michael Landauer, the digital communities manager at The Dallas Morning News, said his team has to cater to both advertising and news departments, which he refers to as being in “a hurt locker” between the two.

To figure out the right balance and blend of social platforms that are best for the newspaper, Landauer meets weekly with the managing editor and digital editor.

AJC Editor Kevin Riley believes the integration of outsiders into the newsroom is key to figuring out the best social media strategy. “I think newsrooms have to commit themselves to working side-by-side with people who are experts on attracting people to our digital content and do the things to get the great work we do in front of the maximum number of people,” Riley said. “We’ve never driven circulation trucks out of the newsroom because we had other people to do that. Now we have to be right there with those who are doing the equivalent of that in the digital age.”

Twitter tips

  • Form cross-department social media strategy teams to brainstorm new ideas.
  • Invite social media strategists from retailers or restaurants to a lunch to talk about what works to attract customers. Merchants don’t stay in business without filling seats. The same approach can help build a news audience.
  • Empower the 20- and 30-somethings to take charge of projects instead of relying on senior staffers to do them.

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