Lee Odden

How Journalists Use Search & Social Media

TopRank ran a survey of journalists, reporters and editors on their use of search and social media in 2008. We found 91% use search engines like Google to do their job. 64% use social networks.  Published in Jan 2010, a George Washington University and Cision survey of journalists reports 89% use blogs and 65% use social networks to research stories.

As prep for a presentation I’m giving Thursday at Online Marketing Summit on the intersection of SEO, Social Media and PR, I reached out to a few local journalists and industry news contacts and asked for examples of how they used search engines or social media to do story research.

Newsrooms are cutting staff and reporters and editors are hard pressed to do more with less. Tools like search engines and social media make available a tremendous amount of information in real-time.  The news world is a world of deadlines and it would seem the use of search and social networks to source experts or people/companies that fit a story angle would be ideal. Even respected news organizations like the BBC are encouraging their journalists to embrace social media.

This kind of insight is very helpful to understand how companies can make their news content more easily discovered via social web participation, content and optimization.  Why is that important?  According to TV News Reporter Jason DeRusha, “Private business does a horrible job cataloging their expertise in a manner that’s search engine friendly.  This is a real opportunity, as journalists become much more crunched for time, and use search as quick way to identify local experts.”

National Public Radio’s Jon Gordon uses search and social in a way that epitomizes the response we received from all types of journalists: “I use search engines on almost every story.  I use social networks to find additional sources, as well as for story idea generation and story feedback.”

Here are a few examples of how journalists use search engines and social media tools to connect with story subjects. Not all of them are business situations, but are helpful as feedback on where to spend time creating, optimizing and socializing news content.

I begin every day at search engine. It doesn’t matter what story I’m working on, it always starts with a search. I work on a segment called “Good Question,” so I often type my question directly into Google, and see what comes up. When searching for local experts, I’ll often take the subject matter, tack on the word “Minneapolis” and add the word “expert.”

For example, last week I did a story on whether cursive handwriting was vanishing because of e-mail. I typed “Minneapolis handwriting expert” into Google, and found several local handwriting analysts. Next, I searched for private schools (because public schools are often challenging to get permission to shoot at) and found the school we used for our story.

For my story on whether we get enough Vitamin D in Minnesota, I searched “Vitamin D” “Minneapolis” and “expert.” If a local company showed up very high with their own expertise in those results, I would have called that company.
Jason DeRusha, WCCO (CBS) TV News Reporter

Often times, the use of search engines and social media sites intersect. Here is an example provided in our initial survey:

I was writing a column about the planned partnership between Google and Yahoo. I tracked down potential sources first using Google and LinkedIn, and came across a white paper prepared by a senior fellow at the American Antitrust Institute. While I could not easily find an e-mail address, I went to Facebook where I located him, then sent a message. He replied and we followed up with a phone interview.
Marketing Industry Journalist

In some cases, news publications also run real world events. Example: iMediaConnection has ad:tech, MediaPost has OMMA, Search Engine Watch has Search Engine Strategies. Here’s some great insight from MarketingProfs on how they’ve used social media tools for finding writers, case studies and speakers:

We do use social networks extensively to find key writers or speakers for our events or publications. I also use it to monitor key issues to cover in our newsletters, seminars, research, and so on: Social networks are a great way to take the “pulse” of a topic. What are people talking about? Is this a hot-button issue or not?

For events: Social media is integral to programming the agenda. We always distribute the proposal form for potential speakers via various social channels (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn).

Same for our case study collections: We mine for good stories by asking Twitter/FB/LI. For example, “Who has a good story on social media ROI?”

We always harvest an abundance from this “social Google,” open-ended approach. Once we have harvested leads from those channels, our seminar programmer or writers can follow up via email or DMs, whichever.

LinkedIn is a great place to mine client-side folks. It’s especially valuable for us as we try to include a significant percentage of client-side speakers at our events, and often client-side folks are harder to uncover/book. And obviously, our case studies always feature client-side folks.

We also use Idea Scale to crowdsource topic ideas for our event agenda.

We use Flickr all the time to find creative common graphics for use on the blog (or for the contributed pieces I do for AMEX Open Forum); we use YouTube and Slideshare to see possible speakers or presenters in “action.”
Ann Handley, Chief Content Officer, MarketingProfs

Some Journalists are more tech and social media savvy than others resulting in some unconventional uses of social channels to create efficiencies in reaching sources:

“One of my key social-media tactics for work is a bit obscure: I autofollow everyone who follows me (using SocialToo). The reason for this: Crucial exchanges for stories occur via DM, which is why I do not want to ever think about whether there is reciprocal DM-ing with this or that person. Once this is set up, I can use Twitter as a sounding board with questions related to stories, get initial responses via public tweeting, then take them into private DM-ing as needed (or switch to e-mail or the phone). With close to 10,000 followers now, this is a system that works well – with parallel sourcing via ProfNet and HARO, which I see as two legs of a tripod. Twitter is the third.”
Julio Ojeda-Zapata, Technology Editor at St. Paul Pioneer Press

Sometimes the information found isn’t what companies or individuals would want a reporter to find:

I routinely track down potential interviews by sending out a Tweet. Most recently, we came across a number of Toyota car owners who fell under the recent recalls. It would have been very difficult to find those people in a short amount of time without this type of technology.

Just today I was feeding and getting information through Twitter on the house explosion in Edina that helped our crews navigate around the situation and get better pictures of the breaking news.

Also, I used YouTube to find video of a man who is being investigated by a Ponzi scheme by the Secret Service. It turns out he had many videos of himself giving sales pitches to potential customers. We used the video on the air where otherwise we would have never known what the man looked like.

We often use Facebook to get photographs of crime suspects and or victims. And police investigators tell me Facebook is one of the first places they check when investigating someone involved in a crime.
Chris O’Connell KSTP (ABC) TV News Anchor/Reporter

Sometimes it’s not your content that gets discovered, but a connection to someone else that leads to being found:

This fall I was working on a feature about ethnic weddings in the Twin Cities, for our Weddings magazine. I was looking for recently married couples of various cultural backgrounds. I posted a query on Facebook to my recently married or engaged friends. Their responses led me to three of the five couples interviewed (via email contacts). After initial email correspondence, I interviewed the couples by phone and in person.
Senior Editor, Mpls.St.Paul magazine

I think this quote from Chris O ‘Connell sums it up nicely: “social networking has changed the way we do business and how we are able to get news and sources faster when deadlines matter.”

We’ll be conducting a new survey on Journalist Use of Search soon and will be posting more detailed data on how stories are sourced, tools used, preferences of types of information and more.

If you are attending #OMS10 be sure to check out our session on Social Media, Search and Public Relations at 3:15. It will be a very informative and engaging set of presentations from: David “dk” Klein, Dana Todd, Rand Fishkin, myself and moderator duties handled by Sally Falkow.

Does your company incorporate news optimization as part of your online marketing and content strategy? Do you optimize and promote news content differently than marketing content? Do you track whether the media finds your content via search or social media?

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Lee Odden About Lee Odden

@LeeOdden is the CEO of TopRank Marketing and editor of Online Marketing Blog. Cited for his expertise by The Economist, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal, he's the author of the book Optimize and presents internationally on B2B marketing topics including content, search, social media and influencer marketing. When not at conferences, consulting, or working with his talented team, he's likely running, traveling or cooking up something new.


  1. I tell clients every day that in order to be found they have to venture into the online space as some point. Some are still really scared of the social space and it boggles my mind sometimes. Journalists and reporters don’t have time to search around the streets for that hot story anymore. They filter through the social networks until they find what they need and if your not there then your not anywhere for the most part.

  2. Avatar toddlohenry says

    Dude! This is all great strategery but here are the tools that the news media needs to carry it out; http://e1evation.com/2010/02/16/7-tools-for-the

  3. Fantastic article. I wish I could think of more to say than that.

  4. Another great post proving the importance of the online world for..pretty much everything. Online has changed the rules of the world so much!

  5. Avatar seo_training says

    A local (Louisville) TV station has used social media to fuel “special investigative reports” of late including one on how cheaters are getting discovered through their social media profiles.

    Here's a link to the story:

    They also did one not too long ago about how a status update can impact your criminal case should you get busted for something.

    I find it particularly interesting that old media used to denounce social media as a “fad” or “waste of time,” likely because they felt threatened by it, yet now they're using it for sourcing stories and breaking news.

  6. Oh,awesome article…First time here and find very awesome article

  7. Great piece, I’ve used social media in a similar way like most of you guys. I guess my approach is more on listening in conversation and then using the overall/more responses to build and engage to my target audience. Thanks

  8. I bet journalists at Fox News don't like how people are using the new Register.com ad campaign that is running on their site http://theimprobablepundit.blogspot.com/2010/03


  9. Great post! As a journalist just starting out in a new city, I had no idea where to find out what was “happening” without a lot of legwork or having to ask stupid questions….that was years ago. Now i'm jealous of reporters and journalists who have this information at their fingertips.

  10. Great post! As a journalist just starting out in a new city, I had no idea where to find out what was “happening” without a lot of legwork or having to ask stupid questions….that was years ago. Now i'm jealous of reporters and journalists who have this information at their fingertips.

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