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Telling ‘Stories’ on Social Media

For journalists and news organizations, social media can be irksome. The platforms are in constant flux: an updated algorithm or a new product can appear out of nowhere, suddenly upending a carefully-crafted social media strategy.

One feature, however, seems here to stay (at least for now): the “Story” format. It began on Snapchat, but Facebook and Instagram now have their own Story features, with close relatives like Twitter Moments, Medium Series, and Google AMP Stories hovering nearby. The platforms might be different, but the idea is the same: users swipe or tap their way through a vertically-oriented series of photos, videos, and text that somehow tells a news narrative.

Journalism + Design invited a few experts to come and tell our students about best practices, tips, and tricks for telling Stories.

Kerri MacDonald, social media photo editor at The New York Times, runs the publication’s Instagram account. Her challenge is turning lengthy, deeply-reported articles by Times writers into bite-sized Stories—a task that is especially difficult when the topic at hand is complex. A recent story focused on the female students who were released from Boko Haram, and how their lives have changed since.

“It always hurts to change writers’ words and chop them down, but you have to on this platform,” said MacDonald. Still, she added, “The goal for us is to tell a full story. You can’t forget to have a narrative—do your very best to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.”

For Kaitlyn Jakola, copy chief at Mic, the platform in question is more recent. She’s in charge of Mic’s work on Google AMP stories, a new kind of web page that’s built to be viewed on a mobile device and represents the search engine behemoth’s own foray into the visually-driven, vertically-oriented storytelling space. The articles that Mic publishes as Google AMP stories are designed for that medium from the very beginning. The challenge, Jakola said, is identifying which articles have the right elements for the platform. “We still want it to be a good, solid story—something that people want to read about—but that can be told in bites,” Jakola said. “And it needs to lends itself to good visuals, whether they be photos, videos, or illustrations.”

An illustration from a recent Mic article on Google AMP stories.

Kayla Epstein, social media editor at The Washington Post, spends a lot of her time on Snapchat, reporting from behind the scenes of national news stories for a young and highly engaged audience. For her, the platform is an opportunity to be playful. “Personality is important,” Epstein said. “This is where Snapchat differs from traditional journalism.”

In December, she traveled to Alabama to cover the results of the special election contest between Roy Moore and Doug Jones. After Moore’s campaign denied press credentials to Post reporters, Epstein decided to cover his election night party from the sidewalk outside. She zoomed in through large glass windows to show her followers the party, and explained to them how the Post had been denied access. “You have to think,  ‘What am I seeing that TV viewers and news readers aren’t seeing?’” Epstein said. “With Snapchat, we were able to bring people physically into this experience.”

Since the Snapchat stories disappeared within 24 hours, Epstein also uploaded the video to Facebook.

While Stories seem to have a foothold in newsrooms right now, Epstein, Jakola, and MacDonald acknowledged the unpredictable nature of today’s technology platforms. “When you’re working in social media, you have to be always ready to adapt,” Epstein said. “The platforms could change at any moment.”