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How One Reporter Used Social Media to Build Bridges

By Renay San Miguel
May 7, 2010 5:00 AM PT

Christine Maddela, the weekend anchor at WKRN-TV in Nashville, joined Twitter on July 1, 2009. It took her all of three days to discover the microblogging service's potential impact on journalism.

How One Reporter Used Social Media to Build Bridges

"Three days later, on July 4, (former Tennessee Titans Quarterback) Steve McNair was murdered, and I broke the news of McNair's death on Twitter," Maddela told me during a phone conversation this week. "I was getting this information in, and I confirmed it. We were not on the air at that point and not breaking into programming, and I said, 'People want to know about this,' so I did it. I got a lot of responses. People wanted to stay abreast of the details.

"I have embraced Twitter since then. Twitter and I have a strong love affair," she added.

Nearly a year later, that relationship went to the next level as Nashville found itself at the mercy of the Cumberland River. Torrential rains last weekend sent the Cumberland roaring over its banks, resulting in a historic flood for Music City; at last count, 18 people had died, more than US$1 billion in damages were done to homes and businesses, more than 50 counties were declared federal disaster areas. The list of waterlogged landmarks included the Grand Ole Opry, Opryland Hotel and LP Field, home of the Titans.

When Power Fails

As you can imagine, Nashville's traditional media outlets immediately went to DEFCON 1 for the story. TV and radio stations stayed on the air for hours, bringing viewers as much up-to-date information as they could. However, a lot of that didn't do much good for those who had lost power in the disaster. Enter Twitter, available on smartphones and other mobile devices that had access to broadband networks. Thanks to the McNair story, Maddela had already developed a reputation for her use of social media in breaking news situations, so many Nashville residents knew to seek her out on Twitter.

And she delivered. "What I'm just trying to do is serve everyone in whatever media format I can, because people are hungry for answers when there's disaster all around them, and they don't have power and can't turn on the TV," Maddela said. "I've gotten messages from people who say 'You saved my grandma's life because she was trapped in her house.'

"I'm getting chills just telling you about that. It brought tears to my eyes," she added.

The rapid downpour and resulting floods caught nearly everybody in Nashville off-guard. "[Residents] had no idea what to do, and for some people, if I was a lifeline on Twitter, then that's amazing. Now with Twitter and social media, being able to disseminate information and organize volunteers and financial donations -- it's really changed the game. It's changed media."

Because the flooding hit during her normal anchor shift at WKRN, she found herself in a continuous state of multi-tasking hell at the disaster's outset, ad-libbing information on the air as it came from officials and the public for 15 straight hours -- but also tweeting out that info, and receiving reports and questions from residents - during commercial breaks and other downtime. Soon Twitter was incorporated in a more organized way into the station's coverage. "We had a question and answer period where they would put my Twitter page on the monitor behind me, live on the air, and I'd tweet, 'Who has questions about the flooding?' -- whether it's 'Can I drink my water?' 'Is Interstate 40 still closed?' -- and I would pull up their tweets on the air, answer them on the air and on Twitter."

The waters are now receding, and the situation has moved from rescue to recovery. Nashville's media-watchers are weighing in on Maddela's performance, including Betsy Phillips, blogging for the Nashville Scene alternative weekly: "Of all of the television folks, Maddela seems to really get (how to use social media.) She's sending out messages to her followers during commercial breaks. She's acting on tips or asking questions her followers have asked her. She's joking around. She's just being available. She benefits from a direct and immediate line to regular Nashvillians and they benefit from a direct and immediate line to her. As the media is forced to either adapt or die, Maddela's adept use of Twitter gives a hint of what the best impulses of the digital age will look like when married with the strength of traditional media."

'Journalism Nerd'

So Maddela and WKRN's coverage of the Flood of 2010 go into the still-developing playbook for local news outlets and their use of social media to enhance -- not replace -- their newsgathering. That playbook includes a chapter on Seattle's media and how it used Twitter and Google Wave to help cover the murder of four police officers and the two-day search for the suspect, something I wrote about here in early December. In both cases, the back-and-forth between news outlet and citizens required some extra vetting and work on the part of journalists who found themselves with hundreds of newsgathering partners willing to help. Twitter helps narrow that gap between news-giver and news-consumer, and also turns that relationship on its head.

Maddela would seem to be the perfect choice to help fashion that blend of digital and traditional storytelling. A graduate of the University of Missouri's celebrated journalism program, she got an early taste of big-city news, reporting from Washington, D.C., for regional Missouri outlets while finishing her degree. She then worked in El Paso, Texas, focusing on immigration and border issues, before joining WKRN in 2006. She's been in the business for seven years. In my experience, that means she's more wiling to consider using Web 2.0 tools in her job and isn't intimidated by the accompanying technologies.

She's blending disciplines in other ways; she has her own media consulting company and guides athletes, politicians and business leaders through mock interviews to help them hone their messaging. "I'm kind of on the other side of the fence there," she said. "Helping people get better when they're interviewed helps journalists get better interviews."

The self-proclaimed "journalism nerd" also preaches the social media gospel during public speaking appearances and is more than willing to give her opinions on how the new technologies are impacting her business.

"There's a lot of ways to mess it up," she said. "From our perspective, I see a lot of poor tweeting. It sounds so trivial, and Twitter is still a trivial thing to a lot of people. I got a Twitter award from one magazine and my mother said, 'What is that? You got an award for that?' But one of the things I love is that a lot of people on Twitter are young people, and this gets them invested in their community and keeps them posted on what's going on -- this draws people to news. I have a lot of young followers on Twitter, and I feel like we've connected online and they now watch TV. These are people who haven't watched local news ever, really.

"At the same time, as a journalist, you have to know your role as journalists in the community," she added. "There's a lot of bad Twitter usage going on. Twitter can strengthen credibility, or completely trash it."

'It's Not About Us'

Maddela's love affair with Twitter and her use of it at work is making her more valuable to her current and future employers. But she's also savvy enough to know that these changes are happening to the news business whether anybody likes them or not. The screens where her work and those of her TV news colleagues appears are getting smaller; appointment television in the news business has morphed into news-on-demand from a blossoming number of outlets. The power now lies in the hands of the news consumer.

"We just need to remember that. It's not about us. We need to serve our viewers wherever they are best served. If it's on their cellphone or laptop or their PC at work, on the radio -- wherever. I'm not naive to say it's all about people and that we don't need advertisers. I know it's a business, and we have to watch out for that too. But if it's regional news, then we just need to be prepared and look ahead in our changing environment -- how we individually as journalists remain credible, and how our business in general stays relevant. We need to be relevant in people's lives."


TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation. San Miguel is host/managing editor for Spark360, which produces news-style paid content for SMBs distributed via branded Web video portals and social media platforms.


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What do you think of today's voice recognition technology?
It's great -- the tech has improved vastly in recent years.
It's the wave of the future, but quality is still hit or miss.
I like it for texting, especially when I'm driving.
I only use it when I have to, like with IVR systems.
I avoid using it, because most voice systems are still terrible.
It's an unnecessary frill that I can easily live without.