Vol. 36, No. 2

Reporter, professor shares insights on the future of communications

by Marilyn Cavicchia

You might expect that a veteran newspaper reporter and assistant professor of journalism would lament the trend away from printed media and toward online communication.

In the case of Leon Alligood, a former reporter and war correspondent for The Tennessean who is now an assistant professor of journalism at Middle Tennessee State University, you’d be wrong.

“The idea that communication jobs are going to go away in the future is ridiculous,” Alligood told attendees at the National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section Workshop in Nashville this past October. The medium may have changed, he explained, but the public’s appetite for information is enormous—and someone has to write all that content.

What’s more, he said, while there are some differences between writing for a newspaper and writing for social media or another online resource, the basics remain the same—good reporting is still good reporting.

Old skills, new tools

Communicators, do you remember that inverted pyramid you learned about in school—the model in which your article begins with the most important detail and then broadens to include others as the article progresses? It still works, Alligood said.

In fact, he noted, search engine optimization—the practice of writing in such a way that a particular piece will be easily found by Google and other search engines—requires that same ability to zero in on and prioritize the most important details. It’s true that SEO requires using keywords, Alligood added, but in many cases, those words are ones you should make sure to put high up in the article, anyway—so the need to include keywords doesn’t mean the article will necessarily be clunky or poorly organized.

In the case of  Twitter, how do you fit enough context and analysis into just 140 characters? You can write a tweet to “tease” a longer article, Alligood said, and then include a link for more information. This way, he noted, the tweet functions like a headline for a newspaper article. In fact, he said, writing tweets involves the same challenges and requires the same skills as writing headlines; “It’s no coincidence that the people I know who are best at tweeting are also copy editors, people who have written headlines.”

The imperative to be brief is such a great way to focus your writing, Alligood noted, you should challenge yourself to say what you need to say in 140 characters or less—even if you’re not going to tweet whatever piece of information you’re working on.

Whether you’re a reporter or a bar communicator, Alligood said, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media offer a way to deliver “timely, useful information that is wanted by your audience.” Whether they friend, fan, or follow, users let you know that they want to hear from you—which means social media can be a powerful way to get your message out. In fact, the ability to instantly connect with people who actually want that connection makes social media such a great communication tool that Alligood wonders why any organization wouldn’t want to use it.

“If you’re not tweeting,” he said, “I  should ask you, ‘Why aren’t you tweeting?’ ”

Use it, don’t abuse it

For some, social media still seem a bit too frivolous for a bar association: It used to be that the messages being conveyed were on the order of celebrity gossip and detailed accounts of what one had for lunch. More and more, though, Alligood said, users of social media are relying on Facebook, Twitter, and other such sources for serious news.

For example, Alligood noted that when he asked his friends how they had first heard of the death of Muammar Gaddafi—which occurred the day before he spoke at the workshop—they all said they’d learned of it via Facebook, Twitter, or email. Not one reported having learned about it directly from a more traditional news source.

Whether you’re going to use it to pass along hard news that’s of import to lawyers in your area or simply as another avenue to publicize your bar events, developing a social media presence requires a careful plan, Alligood advised; for example, who will do the writing and posting, and how often will the Facebook page or Twitter feed be updated?

Frequent updating is one key to keeping people engaged, he said; “As hard as it is to get people to come initially to a Facebook page, if you give up consistently posting, it will be harder to get them to come back.”

On the other hand, it’s possible to accidentally merit the dreaded unfriending or unfollowing, simply by posting too often. When The Tennessean first ventured into social media, Alligood recalled, the Nashville-based paper tweeted and Facebooked just about everything—and quickly learned it was overloading its audience.

It might take some time to find the right balance, so that you’re posting frequently enough that social media users can connect with you, but also with some discretion. “Not all topics are worth the time and effort to tweet about it and put it on Facebook,” Alligood noted.

The future of journalism

Alligood shared where he thinks journalism is headed; some of the guidance he gives his students might be directly useful to bar communicators, and some might help prepare them to assist the next generation of reporters who will soon call, email, or text looking for law-related information.

Hyperlocal is a big buzzword now, Alligood said; some of his students have left mainstream media to work for Patch—an AOL venture that focuses on delivering news tailored to particular towns and suburbs (visit www.patch.com for more information).

The trend is toward a more conversational, less formal tone, Alligood said, because that’s what seems to work best online. For example, a friend of his who covers city council for an online news source might write, “I just spoke to the mayor,” rather than adhering to the traditional prohibition against writing news pieces in the first person. Readers feel a closer connection with that writer, Alligood said, and believe he’ll give them the inside scoop.

But that doesn’t mean all the standards of formality should be abandoned; Alligood advises his students to write in simple, declarative sentences without a lot of attempts at artistry—and without using slang and acronyms that are widely used online but might be off-color or simply inappropriate. “You always have one or two every semester whom you have to convince that putting ‘WTF’ in your news story is not a good idea,” he said.

Some of the same attributes of the online realm that can help bring a story to life—the ability to add video, and the drive to post news items almost instantly—can also create a real challenge for a reporter, Alligood said. Today’s reporters need to be able to write a good story, shoot video that’s suitable for uploading, and do it all on a very tight deadline.

For example, one of the last articles he wrote for The Tennessean was about an opera singer who was the grandson of former slaves and who was invited to sing in the church where his ancestors and their owners had worshipped. Alligood’s article caught the eye of USA Today, resulting in national exposure and emails from across the country. But between writing the article, shooting video, and handling other details involved in making sure the article presented well online, Alligood said he worked on it from 11:30 a.m. one day to 3:00 a.m. the next.

To students who say they don’t want to work that hard, he acknowledges, “You’re not going to get rich—and you’re going to work very, very hard.”

Still, he believes, for journalists and other communicators, the excitement of having access to so many new ways to tell a story and connect with others outweighs the challenges involved. That’s why he tells his students, “You are so fortunate to be studying to be a working communicator in this day and age.”