This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Emily Bloch, youth culture and education reporter of the Florida Times-Union, which participated in the UNC-Knight Table Stakes program in 2020-21.
Question: What communities do you serve and what can you tell us about the history of your organization?
Answer: The Florida Times-Union is the state’s oldest newspaper. It’s an institution that has historically served a predominantly white, affluent audience. The issue is that the traditional audience is not a true reflection of our entire community. Jacksonville is a BIPOC majority city and in recent years, our newsroom has worked to serve a diverse readership.
Q: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?
A: Our mission when we joined Table Stakes was to better connect to our community and to do a better job at being public-facing, promoting our work using methods that reach a diverse audience. (The UNC-Knight Table Stakes initiative is a yearlong program run by the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media and funded by the Knight Foundation.)
I work really hard as an education reporter to make sure student voices are being featured prominently in my stories. Far too often, it’s easy for education reporters to get hung up on what a school board member is saying without thinking about the people whom those policies are impacting firsthand.
And what’s the best way to get in touch with those young people? Duh, on Instagram.
We knew young people (and others!) already followed us on the platform, but there was still this disconnect between our grid and our audience. As part of my focus, I revamped our Instagram page to
- Feature more young people
- Proactively engage with the people on our Instagram
- Let their responses help drive our coverage
Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?
Q: How did you go about solving the problem?
A: Our main focus was re-thinking our digital strategy.
As a youth culture and education reporter, I already use non-traditional social media (Instagram, TikTok, Reddit, etc.) to reach sources. Now, it was a matter of taking a proactive approach — using those same platforms to promote stories and establish lines of communication where readers feel like they can interact with a person, not a company.
As our Table Stakes coach, Cierra Hinton of Scalawag, told the UNC Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media: “The focus was really rooted in Instagram being a platform with a more diverse audience, and really wanting to leverage that platform to reach younger, Black and brown audiences that they hadn’t been connecting with previously.”
I got creative with built-in Stories features on Instagram — using the slider feature on Stories as an interactive way to help people find out where they could get the COVID-19 vaccine when it first rolled out.
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Users would slide the arrow to tell us which Northeast Florida county they lived in. From there, based on their response, I had a tailored answer ready that listed local vaccination sites. We got tons of replies thanking us and expressing surprise that there was a real person behind the screen.
Other examples of Instagram engagement that worked in our favor included spotlighting a school dress code protest that young people organized. The organizers saw previous student protests and initiatives we featured on Instagram, so when they wanted publicity, they knew to tag us on the platform. We created a carousel with their photos explaining what was going on that was widely shared.
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More recently, when the City of Jacksonville announced it was pausing its curbside recycling pickup because of labor shortages, we created a carousel explaining when things were stopping and where people could go to drop off their recycling. We launched the Instagram carousel before our story was even live, creating buzz and anticipation for more details.
The newsroom also hosted six virtual events in the last year, connecting residents with experts. We engaged with about 500 people on a variety of topics. For instance, when we learned that young people in the community were concerned about the COVID-19 vaccine, we held a virtual event — open to the public — that connected young people to local doctors and health officials to help address their concerns. We later hosted another COVID-19 event, as well as events about food deserts, women leaders sharing advice with young women, mental health and the Affordable Care Act.
Q: What worked?
A: Overhauling our Instagram posts so they could stand on their own, with or without clicking a related story link, is something we found advantageous. We’re aiming to give readers “news they can use” in a digestible 120×120 pixel graphic or carousel. The engagement and even subscriptions have followed along the way, including a more than 300% increase in accounts reached and content interactions in the last 11 months on Instagram.
We know we are reaching a younger audience with this initiative, because on Instagram, 29% of our audience reach is in the age range of 25 to 34 years old in the last 30 days.
Q: What didn’t work?
A: We originally set out to grow our followers by an astronomical number, hoping for a surge from 17,000 to 50,000. That didn’t happen and honestly, it was sort of a blessing in disguise.
Instead of a lot of likes on a post with no comments, we now regularly see a moderate number of likes and full-fledged discussions happening in the comments section. Readers are politically engaged, asking questions and expressing how they feel about topics ranging from the city pausing curbside recycling to the removal of Confederate monuments around town.
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Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?
A: Instead, while we didn’t get a massive jump in followers, we did actually see a giant surge in engagement based on content interactions — likes, comments and shares. Our content interactions increased by more than 200% in six months and now 300% in under a year. And you know, the followers also increased along the way, by nearly 2,000. Even more important, people started actively tagging the Times-Union when there was an event or situation going on they wanted reporters to know about. Real people — not PR agencies. That was new.
Our Instagram increased its monthly average of accounts reached to 40,500 and increased its monthly average content interactions to 4,900. It also gained nearly 1,000 new followers by the end of the Table Stakes program.
Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?
A: We learned that wins on Instagram and social media look like a lot more than just follower counts. Our content interactions, the number of comments on posts, impressions, etc. have all soared since rethinking our strategy. (We tracked followers, accounts reached and content interactions in a Google Sheet, along with top performing posts and Instagram stories each month.)
Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?
A: Try different things. Instagram is a place for creators. Our most creative out-of-the-box posts are often the most successful.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: For newsrooms to succeed, leaders need to invest time, money and resources in social media. We’ve done all this in-house, which is amazing and I think goes to show the need for reporters to think about digital strategy. But juggling duties as a reporter too, I can’t manage our digital presence as much as I’d like to. For real growth, companies need to invest in people. There also needs to be an understanding that metrics won’t be static. They’re going to ebb and flow. But in the end, trying new things and breaking out from the norm will be rewarding.