Developing the social side of print journalism

Bryan DeVasher (@BryanDeVasher and @RTDNEWS), the social media editor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, came to our class on Tuesday and reflected on the days when multimedia and social media did not exist. When he started his journalism career, he never would have imagined being in the job he holds today. DeVasher worked for the Daily Press in Newport News for 13 years prior to his position at the Times-Dispacth, which he has held for five years now.

By Allison Landry (@allielandrysays)

DeVasher graduated from Southern Illinois University in 1986 and started out in journalism working for the student newspaper. He recalls having to fight with other reporters over the scarce availability of computers. He started out covering city government and entertainment.

“We pasted pictures up by hand, and to find out how big to make a photo we had to use a proportion wheel and use X-Acto knives,” DeVasher says. “You look back at it now, and it just seems like the dark ages.”

But today, DeVasher is right at the cutting edge of the profession. With the creation of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, the position as a social media editor is becoming more and more prevalent in the workplace. DeVasher is responsible for maintaining the news website, monitoring current and breaking news as well as reporting for social media.

Every day in the newsroom brings new challenges as well as new opportunities.  Daniel Finnegan, the editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, assigned DeVasher the social media editor position when they both realized how widespread and important Facebook and Twitter were becoming for the distribution of news.

DeVasher was surprised how quickly involved the readers became in social media. Soon, the RTD was gaining followers and likes faster than most of the other print news organizations in Virginia.

“We have the most followers of the four biggest papers of Virginia, so we built this whole community,” DeVasher said. “And 25 years ago, I would have never have thought we would be where we are.”

Technology is constantly changing and the way we get our news today could drastically change over the next decade. DeVasher said that in the future print news will most likely move online, but this shouldn’t discourage prospective print journalists.

“It’s important to stay involved and constantly check the news, Twitter, or other social media,” DeVasher said.  There will always be news, and there will always be a need for writers, he added.

Social media also creates an important online presence for print that was hard to achieve before, he said. Print journalists can now create a better presence and project their personality through their social media accounts.

“The immediate response on Twitter is desired for followers,” DeVasher said.  “There may be stories that weren’t heard on the scanner, and so when a national story breaks we can follow these links and get the information we need as well as invite our followers’ feedback.”

Twitter is also helpful in getting news tips. DeVasher said the #RVA hashtag is valuable to the news organization because people often tweet tips, for example when a riot breaks out or a fire is observed by a nearby neighbor. Then his job is to keep track of the latest information regarding a story and get reporters, as well as photographers, out on the scene.

DeVasher said the goal is to get every reporter and photographer involved in social media. This is especially helpful for sports and breaking news. He said one of the biggest highlights of his career was being able to head to Texas last year for VCU’s participation in the NCAA basketball tournament.

“That was great, we increased our social media presence and we created a Tumblr blog called Hoops Town USA to keep people informed,” DeVasher said. “Everybody was so invested in what VCU was doing last year that we would have been remiss not to do so.”

What matters most, DeVasher said, is that journalists use these new tools to their advantage. If a big story breaks, then reporters can now use their own tools rather than constantly rely on a professional team getting out there in time to catch the story.  Facebook alone brings in over 15,000 hits a month, he said.

As technology continues to expand, it will be interesting to see how much more change will happen to news reporting and journalism. In the near future, DeVasher said, all Times-Dispatch staff will receive smart phones to make reporting more immediate.

“Facebook and Twitter have the feature of making an interaction feel more face-to-face and involving the community,” DeVasher said. “With social media, we can compete with TV on their turf. Now we can post a story online and we can then tweet it, giving us a little more immediacy than we did before.”

Allison Landry is a journalism student at VCU’s School of Mass Communication and can be reached at landryae@vcu.edu. She tweets under @allielandrysays and can also be found on Facebook.

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