While most people use social media to connect with friends and colleagues, reporters often use social media to convince strangers to talk to them.
Sapna Maheshwari, who reports on the advertising industry for the New York Times, hosted a panel on social media for news gathering and reporting at the Society of American Business Editors and Writers conference in New York City.
Jason Del Rey, senior editor for Recode, has no shame in getting sources to follow him on Twitter so he can direct message them.
“I will favorite their last 10 Tweets. If I already follow them I will favorite a bunch of their tweets and then unfollow them and follow them,” he said. “The last resort is just tweeting at them ‘Follow me’ and I’ve gotten over the desperation that that sort of displays.”
Wall Street Journal personal technology columnist Joanna Stern admits she does the same.
“Some journalists would be like no you shouldn’t [ask people to follow you] because then other people would sort of know you’re going after those sources,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a tip-off to people, but you still have to see that in your feed and be following both people.”
Molly Hensley-Clancy of BuzzFeed primarily uses Facebook groups to find sources for her stories on for-profit colleges and universities. She misses the days when Facebook allowed users to pay $1 to send messages to people they weren’t friends with.
She now uses lists to separate her real-life friends from the sources she friends in order to message them. Any personal posts she makes on social media are hidden from her source lists.
Del Rey uses Social Rank to search the bios of people who follow him on Twitter. The tool allows him to catch when people take @ names or keywords out of their profile bios.
“They think it’s pretty creepy when I reach out to them and say, ‘It looks like you left Amazon. Let’s talk,’” he said.
Journalists can have a tough time verifying information from anonymous forums like Reddit.
Maheshwari and Hensley-Clancy both use thelayoff.com, where people post rumors about potential layoffs, to find which companies are letting employees go. They vet any information they find on the site, but the two said they’ve been able to break stories based on the tips.
The panelists also used social media to focus story ideas. Stern says she will search Twitter for people complaining about a technology frustration to see if it’s worth writing about. If people aren’t complaining they way she thought they would be, she might write the story anyway in order to start a dialogue.
All four panelists agreed that all reporters should use Twitter — daily. They use it as a search engine, a tool for promoting their stories and a place to find sources.
“Nine times out of 10 I find that people are just more open on Twitter than you would think with such a public platform,” Del Ray said. “So it’s a great place to sort of get in front of people who otherwise I would have to go through throngs of PR people to get to.”
Stephanie Lamm is a senior at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Media and Journalism. She interned on the business desk of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this past summer.