January 8, 2011 was the day that got the ball rolling.
I had been unemployed for almost three months when I woke up that Saturday morning. Before starting my weekend plans of filling out various job applications, I checked my email around 10:30 a.m. A New York Times breaking news alert caught my eye:
News Alert: Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona Reportedly Shot in Tucson
I wound up spending the majority of the day tweeting various updates gathered from local Tucson news outlets and the 24-hour cable news operations, as well as videos, photos and graphics related to Gabrielle Giffords and the shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner.
It was the discovery and publication of this graphic that got the most attention — to date, it has over 120,000 views and for a few days, it led to a flooding of new followers on my Twitter and Tumblr accounts.
Over time, I realized that my social niche was going to be breaking news, but with several breaking news feeds on Twitter at the time — including @BreakingNews, an MSNBC.com property — my feed was going to have to do a few things different in order to stand out.
• I’d have to be fast: This meant following a variety of news sources, discovering and monitoring hashtags and enhanced tags on Twitter and Tumblr, and keeping up with trends on all social platforms. It also meant following only a handful of people, at first, in order to weed out the social noise.
• I’d have to advance the story: It wasn’t enough just to publish one or two updates on a story. Social was moving away from a “news feed” and toward that of a visual medium like television (and the rest of the internet). The feed would have to advance the story with the first photos, first video, first court documents on social platforms.
• I’d need to stick with the facts: Anyone who wants to hear opinion programming can flip on talk radio or any of the 24-hour news channels during primetime. There was a great need for a social news platform that was devoid of opinion, that stuck with the facts. I credit this idea with driving some of the success behind my Twitter and Tumblr feeds.
• I’d have to hustle for news: When a big story broke in my backyard, I went from being an armchair quarterback to a roving reporter. When a hole opened up on Southwest Airlines Flight 812, a flight bound for Sacramento, I drove the five minutes to the airport to speak with passengers as they arrived. When an evangelical preacher predicted the world would end on May 21, I covered the story in front of his Alameda home and was verbally assaulted by one of his supporters (the video had over 80,000 views on YouTube before it was pulled). When a large industrial plastics fire broke out in the town next to mine, I spent over an hour on location snapping and then uploading photographs of the blaze. Being active gave me a competitive advantage over those who sat in front of a computer and hit “retweet.”
• I’d have to give away what I created and acquired: I obtained several exclusive photographs from the Domodedovo airport terror attack and several exclusive videos from the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan. And, against the advice of many in the industry, when CBS, FOX, ABC, the New York Times and others came calling, looking to purchase the rights to the photos and videos, I did them one better — I gave it to them for free. For me, it wasn’t about making money off of content that others gave me the rights to distribute. It was about exposure, and the hope that said exposure would land me a job. It worked, as ABC News, the New York Times, the New Zealand Herald and others picked up my work and gave me attribution. I soon became followed by several big news organizations, including NBC News, ABC World News, the Associated Press and others. Briefly, my YouTube channel became the most-viewed, beating out ABC and the AP. I’m in the process now of giving away my secrets.
There were several people who I credit with bringing my social platforms success:
• Anthony de Rosa: Shortly after the Gabrielle Giffords coverage began, he followed my account on Twitter and began referring me to his followers. Anthony was also one of the biggest supporters of my Tumblr activity, recruiting me to contribute to the Tripoli Neighborhoodr blog during the Libya revolution and giving exposure to my Tumblr tutorial in April.
• Neal Mann: The Sky News freelancer, who is now full-time with the news organization, was one of my biggest cheerleaders when it came to continuing my social product and finding a job. I think Neal’s vision for me was larger than my own at times, and his encouragement kept me going.
• Ernie Smith: The creator of the Short Form Blog provided my content exposure at a time when it wasn’t getting very much. Ernie and the Short Form Blog helped me build an organic audience on Tumblr by promoting my content and allowing me to contribute breaking news material during some of the larger stories of the year, starting with the Japan tsunami. Ernie has also been a great friend and colleague.
• Alex Johnson: The MSNBC.com editor followed me during the Gabrielle Giffords coverage and put me in touch with some great people at MSNBC.com and Breaking News, including Anthony Quintano, Cory Bergman, Amy Duncan and Thomas Brew. Alex is, perhaps, the biggest reason why my Twitter feed was a success this year.
• Ethan Klapper: Ethan gave my news gathering and reporting exposure by interviewing me for his 10,000 Words blog on MediaBistro. “Keep on fighting the good fight,” he told me at the end of the interview in reference to my ongoing job hunt (I don’t know why that stuck with me, but it was a source of great encouragement). Ethan is one of the most down-to-earth social journalists I had the privilege of getting to know this past year, and landing a job at the National Journal right out of college is only the beginning of his success.
There have been many others who were a source of support, encouragement and smarts over the past year — Craig Kanalley, Kate Gardiner, Jared Keller, Robert Hernandez, the Pantsless Progressive, Dana Franks, Niketa Patel, Dan Lopez, Erica Zucco, Evonne Benedict, Paul Balcerak, Sam Rubenfeld, Mandy Jenkins, Donna Cordova, Amy Wood, Judy Farah, Vadim Lavrusik, Sue Llewellyn, Anna Gonzalez, Nathan Byrne, Andrew Vazzano, Jen Lee Reeves, Liz Heron and many others — so to those journalists, I say, thank you and here’s to 2012.