The Detroit Free Press has garnered attention for its hip and snarky Twitter account. It turned heads with its coverage of Aretha Franklin’s funeral (examples here and here and here), memes to promote voting in the primary and cow puns. However, it’s not just fun and games. The Free Press’ Twitter account made headlines during the Larry Nassar sentencing, when it tweeted each survivor’s name in a stream of more than 150 tweets as the hearing was playing out, which led to a “THANK YOU” image and later a Free Press front page. They strike the perfect balance between lambasting the Lions’ terrible start to the season and somberly covering breaking news.
Brian Manzullo is in charge of social media as Social, Search & Audience Editor at the Detroit Free Press. He oversees the social strategy with the help of the digital staff. On social, he manages the Free Press brand accounts and writes the manual messaging. We caught up with Brian for an Alliance 5 Answers, to learn how the Free Press’ social media balances breaking news and nuanced snark.
Is there a vetting process for tweets?
Sometimes, especially for our bigger stories, we’ll run tweets by each other on the web desk and workshop them to perfection – it’s me, our senior news director for digital Anjanette Delgado, senior digital planner Pat Byrne and a team of web editors. But there are also many cases where I just tweet things out and see where it goes, particularly if I know it’s not going to be controversial. We take somewhat of a “ask for forgiveness rather than permission” approach to social media, though we certainly don’t look to cross the line. More often than not, we find readers really appreciate the added voice and, if we run into a situation where we need to backtrack and/or apologize, we try to be as transparent as possible, though that hasn’t happened often at all. Here’s a great example of that transparency from late 2014, via our @freepsports account.
The other half of this is we do automate many of our tweets on @freep and @freepsports using dlvr.it; stories that post on our website are added to a queue for auto-posting on our Twitter accounts, with the headline of the story. That way, we’re able to keep populating our Twitter accounts regardless of the time of day or week, and it allows us to think more creatively about what we’re posting manually rather than inundating ourselves with hand-crafting dozens if not hundreds of tweets a day.
What are the social media guidelines to follow?
We have an engagement-first strategy on social media. Our goal is to surprise, inform and engage our readers day in and day out, whether they’re finding our content and commentary on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or elsewhere. There’s so much noise on these platforms coming from so many directions, we want to stand out in some way, and showing personality and voice on a platform like Twitter is a great way to do that. We have a distinct way of connecting to our readership in metro Detroit and around the state of Michigan with the way we communicate on these platforms, whether it’s funny tweets, videos, GIFs or even memes. This also works to our advantage because each of these social platforms want engagement and use it as a major factor in their algorithms, which only helps us in terms of surfacing our content in front of more readers.
We translate this strategy to Facebook quite well, where we have one of the highest interaction rates among American newspapers on that platform, according to CrowdTangle, and we do it with a mix of social-optimized content, videos and photos/memes. (More examples here and here and here)
It’s really important to note that the success we have in the social space isn’t possible without outstanding content to begin with, and not just from our writers and editors; our photo and video team is among the best in the country and provides us with exceptional visuals for us to work with on a regular basis. That’s critical.
How do you describe the voice of the handle?
We try to be fun, light-hearted, conversational and sometimes snarky on @freep, but also serious, informative and clear when we need to be. We want to show there’s a human being behind the account, one that’s committed to delivering the news like everyone expects of us, but also someone who isn’t afraid to engage readers in fun, quirky ways that make sense with our audiences.
What was the decision to have the handle engage and be so personable and “hip”?
This actually started several years ago with the @freepsports Twitter account, as a way of giving it a “kick in the pants,” and readers loved it. We were able to grow that account exponentially thanks to that, and it was an easy realm to do it in because sports tends to be on the entertainment side and less serious than, say, politics.
When I moved to the news side in 2016 (I started as sports web editor in 2012), we thought over ways of how we could translate that to @freep. We knew we had to be more careful with it, given the size of the account and the seriousness of the news, but figured we could fine-tune it in a way that better connects to our audiences and doesn’t make us seem so much like a “grandpa in the nightclub,” so to speak. And we aren’t afraid to respond to trolls, as long as we have an appropriately tactful response.
How do your followers react to the tweets?
They love it! Or at least 95 percent of them do (that’s a pure estimation). Understandably, when you put voice behind a brand account, you’re going to have a small bit of polarization, but we’ve managed to limit the number of detractors and those who suggest we should only “report the news.” The truth is we still do that, but we also want to surprise and engage because we know that’s what readers want on these platforms, and that has led to growth in audience, both on our Twitter account and ultimately to the number of readers that come to our website from Twitter.