To get the news to our readers wherever they are – and to get it there first.
To build trust with those readers.
To tell those stories fully across mediums.
And, let's be honest, to get those clicks back to our website.
Those are our objectives for social media at the Chicago Sun-Times.
That's what we set out to do over the past year, particularly on Twitter and Facebook. We staffed our digital desk around the clock on major news stories, like the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, of interest to our readers in Chicago. We retweeted our reporters' and photographers' accounts to introduce readers to the friendly faces behind the bylines. We weren't afraid to use new tools – be it Instagram photos, YouTube videos, Soundcloud audio, GIFs we've created, Vines, pins or even new websites designed with social media in mind – to tell the story. We've conveyed this in the voice of a trustworthy friend, smart and sometimes snarky.
And that's what we've done, building traffic on our website, consistently beating our competition on breaking news and in engagement and exponentially growing our audiences on social media.
"Sometimes street, often silly, intermittently scrappy." That's how Chicago alt-weekly New City described the Chicago Sun-Times in naming us the best local newspaper of 2014 over the Chicago Tribune.
And that's not inaccurate, especially when it comes to our approach to social media.
As journalists we're committed to the truth: We balance verifying facts with being first to a story. We also balance being objective with being human on social media. Some stories, especially breaking news, demand straight delivery. But we also try to be human: we let our sense of humor show when we're sharing photos of the Shedd Aquarium's rescued sea otter or yet another Chicago snow day. We also are sensitive when reporting lives lost to violence, using Google Maps to produce weekend shooting trackers and sharing the stories of lives lost in Chicago through our Homicide Watch series.
Our digital team experimented with new media to best tell these stories, most notably this year with a new YouTube channel. We introduced short shows starring our columnists, like movie critic Richard Roeper's "Roeper Rundown" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." We also have broken big investigative stories down to "3 Questions" and hosted a popular political talk show, "Off Message."
We even spent six months developing a new website, Newsfeed, that was designed around how our readers use our website and social media in particular to consume news. Individual tweets, Instagram photos and YouTube videos could be embedded in the feed on our homepage or on topic pages that mimicked trending topics on Twitter and Facebook. Those topics allowed us to build coverage as a story developed and helped readers find all the stories we'd produced on a topic they were interested in. We ran the most popular or newsworthy topics in a "trending" bar across the top of the page.
The Sun-Times also has let our readers' interests inform our reporting online. Noting the popularity of crime stories, we turned our breaking news desk from a private wire service into a popular blog and Twitter account (@CSTbreaking).
And very early on, we recognized the scope of the story happening in our own backyard as protests erupted in Ferguson. Chicago's own torrid history of racial segregation and inequality made this a no-brainer for us: We re-organized digital desk shifts to have a de facto "Ferguson editor" directing coverage, overseeing our reporters and photographers in the area and keeping them safe.
While our work in Ferguson appeared in the usual forms – stories for our website and newspaper – our investment in sending social media-savvy staff to the town also allowed the Sun-Times to be a global leader in Ferguson coverage. Before outlets like the L.A. Times and BuzzFeed News were able to send their own reporters, the Sun-Times played a crucial role in amplifying the story. And as protest momentum grew, so did our coverage. We connected online with influencers in Chicago's healthy activist community to amplify our coverage, and as protests broke out here in our city, we followed them, too.
When the Chicago Sun-Times added an editor for social media and engagement to our digital desk in late 2013, we had 76,710 followers on Twitter and 37,734 fans on Facebook. Over 2014, those numbers more than doubled on Twitter and quadrupled on Facebook, even as many publishers complain algorithm changes have hurt their reach.
We also introduced our YouTube channel this year, which we grew to more than 3,800 subscribers.
And then there are the anecdotal results, the tweets from readers that our reporters are so accessible on Twitter or the comments asking when the next episode of "Off Message" will be posted on YouTube.
Our social media efforts in Ferguson, in particular, garnered thousands of social shares. The instantaneous nature of Vines brought us hundreds of thousands of video plays, and our photographer's work was featured in places ranging from Mashable to the New York Times.
Why we should win
In the past year, the Chicago Sun-Times has gotten the news to our readers wherever they are, using best practices and analytics on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as well as experimenting on other platforms.
Our digital team has gotten our readers the stories that mattered most to them, and we've gotten there first. We've told those stories fully, in a voice that's natural to the Internet.
And it's worked. We've built traffic on our website, beat our competition on breaking news and in engagement and grown our audiences on social media.
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