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So What Do You Do, Robert Quigley, Austin American-Statesman Internet Editor?

Assigning editor and social media strategist, this newspaper leader builds his paper's brand and grows its audience via Twitter

By Rebecca L. Fox - March 11, 2009
Given print media's ongoing travails, it's difficult to get excited about newspapers these days -- particularly at the tech-heavy South by Southwest Interactive conference kicking off this Friday in Austin, Texas. However, bridging the gap between the beleaguered newspaper industry and social media innovation is print journalist-turned Internet editor Robert Quigley, who's showing the rest of the business how newspapers can embrace -- and advance their coverage using -- social media at The Austin American-Statesman. A self-proclaimed "Twitter addict," Quigley operates the Statesman's main Twitter account, and is behind the newspaper's aggressive social media effort that boasts 40+ reporters and six general feeds using the service to disseminate breaking news, cover local events, and interact with readers near and far. Half Web assignment editor at the paper, half social media strategist, Quigley will lead a SXSW talk this weekend entitled, "Old Media Finds New Voice Through Twitter." We caught up with him by phone to discuss how he's helping the Statesman acquire new, younger-skewing readers thanks to the "full-frontal assault" he leads using social media tools, the way old-media training can fuel online accuracy, how newspapers' online video can work, and where print and social media both stand relative to the dreaded m-word -- monetization.


Name: Robert Quigley
Position: Internet editor for Statesman.com and Austin360.com, sites of Austin daily newspaper The Austin American-Statesman
Resume: Started as a sports writer in Nacogdoches, Texas in 1995, came to the Statesman in 1998 as a page designer/copy editor. Was a news and sports copy editor and page designer, assistant news editor, front-page designer and letters editor before taking Internet editor job in January 2007.
Hometown: Born in Rochester, N.Y. but moved all over the country as a child. Austin is home now.
Education: Political science/journalism from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Tx.
Marital status: Married since 2001 to Emily, a copy editor at the Statesman.
First section of the Sunday paper: Opinion/insight
Favorite TV show: Curb Your Enthusiasm
Guilty pleasure: "Playing my Wii."
Last book read: Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of her Survivors

What were you doing before you became Austin American-Statesman's Internet editor?
I came to the Statesman in '98 as a page designer and a copy editor on the news desk, and worked my way being a sports copy editor, assistant news editor and Page One designer. Then I went to the editorial board as a letters editor, and also edited the editorial page. When this job opened up, I applied for it and went from that to this.

What got you excited about moving over to the Web side?
When I was assistant news editor on the copy desk, I would slog along on the news desk at night, basically, when the main editors leave. I was kind of in charge of story play and calls on things, and I really enjoyed doing that pushing and working with the whole newsroom. When I applied for this job, I was seeing it as another way to get back into working with the whole newsroom. I wasn't thinking social media at the time, to be frank. It was more like, "Online's where the excitement is now, and I want to get into that."

Describe what you do as Internet editor.
Half my job is being the social media coordinator for the Statesman, coming up with strategies and implementing them, as well. The other half of my job [is] working as an assignment editor for the Web. I work with all the different departments through the newsroom as a breaking news desk editor, coordinating coverage when there's breaking news and making sure that everybody's working together and we're getting enough on the Web quickly. I also work on special projects to make sure they're Web-friendly.

Was the 50/50 breakdown within your position in place when you entered the job?
[The job] was created in January of 2007 -- we didn't have an Internet editor at the time. We had a production editor in charge of Statesman.com, and we had a production editor in charge of Austin360.com (our two Web sites), but this job it didn't exist until my boss at the time -- Tim Lott, who's now our VP of Internet -- came up with the description. He said half the job would be social media. At the time, we didn't really have social media efforts underway, so I was supposed to figure it out and make it work.

When I started we had Pluck, an Austin company that does social media, mainly for newspapers, but also for other businesses. They do site-wide commenting and reader blogs for USA Today, Houston Chronicle and several others. We were one of their first customers several years ago -- what we did with them was host reader blogs on our site. That was our main social media component when I started. I spent a lot of my time trying to nurture those reader bloggers. We had about 15 or 20 who blogged continuously on the site, so I was trying to grow that community.

What does the social media coordinator half entail?
I started out trying to get that reader blog community going. I did that for about a year, pushing hard for that. Then, last year around this time, we upgraded to get site-wide commenting, and I was the project leader for that. I spent 80 to 90 percent of my time that first couple of years doing the assignments editor half. It wasn't 50/50 -- that's what it was supposed to be, but it wasn't. But I was in charge of the project of upgrading our software, figuring out how to migrate all our bloggers into the new software, things like that. As time has gone on, I've come up with strategies for Twitter. Now I probably spend more time [on the] social media side, less on the assignment editor side. Part of that is due to the newsroom evolving and the culture changing. It doesn't take as much prodding as it used to, to get things online.

That was going to be my next question, about the newsroom's attitude toward the Web --
In the newsroom, we had buy-in relatively early here for the Web in general, but I still had to push quite a bit when I first started, so I put a lot of effort into that. I think that people have gotten it now -- now, at the 10 a.m. budget meetings, I'm not asking for things. People are just telling me what they're going to have for me, so that's changed a lot.

So at the Statesman, those who previously thought of themselves as print-only journalists now consider themselves journalists for the Web, as well?
Oh, no question -- we've made a huge shift here. For the past four years or so, we've had a giant shift, but even in the past year I've seen a sea change in the way our reporters and editors have to do their jobs—and photographers and everybody else, too. We don't have a separate online staff for reporting. For the most part, everybody has to do both jobs: They have to get print stories done and they have to get them online. We've been saying for years that we're an online-first publication -- our editor made that proclamation four or five years ago, but [now] it's really happening. People are thinking about the Web first. I wouldn't say [that about] every single person, but we have really good buy-in here.

How would you describe the connection between that buy-in and Austin itself? It seems social media and new digital technologies get accepted faster there than in other parts of the country.
[Austin] is a very high-tech, looking for the next thing town. Social media is big here. I would say perhaps there's nowhere else in the country where it's bigger, based on population. This is a place where when you come here to work, generally you stay because [Austin's] a great city -- great climate, cool people, everything. That culture is in the newsroom, too. Everybody who has friends outside of the newsroom is friends with people who are doing a startup, or have done three startups, so it's contagious. I think we have been pushing the envelope for quite a while here online, and it's paying off for us.

"Twitter is not going to save a newspaper by itself, but I think it's part of a strategy of being in touch with the community that can, in the long term, save [newspapers]."

Does the Web-savvy culture and community in Austin create pressure at the paper to stay in front of new technologies and adopt them for your stories and coverage?
Not really. With social media, one of the great things is that when you're doing it well and you're really involved in the communities out there, people care about you. I think it's a plus that this community is so forward-thinking, because I can lean on them for advice and to give me good feedback on what we're doing. I haven't felt pressure because of the community. I've felt more support, really.

You mentioned Twitter strategy -- when did you first become aware of Twitter and what were your initial thoughts?
The history of the Statesman.com's Twitter feed is that one of our tech guys during the 2007 South by Southwest set up an account for us, thinking that we'd probably use it at some point. In February of 2008 -- almost exactly a year ago -- I set up an account for myself after being pestered a little bit by a colleague of mine, Christian McDonald, one of the early Web producers. He kept saying, "You need to get on Twitter, you'll really enjoy it." Every time he would try to explain it, it sounded kind of dumb to me, like "What do I care your friends are eating a sandwich?" You know -- the same thing everybody says when they first try Twitter. Then I got on there and became addicted. I was having a lot of fun with it, found lots of new people [to whom] I could pose questions to and get their responses.

So I did that for a couple months, and then in June of 2008, I thought, "I'm posting news tidbits already, just naturally -- why not have the Statesman post news tidbits [to Twitter] officially?" [Initially] I'd thought it was my idea -- I went and looked, and of course there were dozens of newspapers already on Twitter. Most of them didn't have any followers, except for one account out there, which was @ColonelTribune. [At the time] he had 600 followers, and everybody else had two dozen, or something like that. So I went and checked him out. It's by The Chicago Tribune, and it's an avatar they created to give out news. [The Tribune had] created a little character -- a persona and everything -- and they were sending out Tweets linking to things on their site, except in a conversational, fun way, like, "Did you see this cool story," instead of just RSS feeds like all the other newspapers seemed to be doing at the time.

I went in the next morning to my boss and said, "I'm addicted to Twitter, and I think it might be a good way to deliver news. Could I try it out for the Statesman account?" And he [said], "Yeah, go ahead." I went back to my desk and just kind of did it without going through any red tape at all. I started posting news stories there that morning, in a very personal way -- the way that ColonelTribune did, but without the persona. I just did it as me, but with the Statesman logo there. I wanted to treat Twitter [for Statesman.com] the way that I was treating Twitter with my personal account: I was trying to be very personable, and just point out things that I thought were interesting on our Web site that day. We had 18 followers when I started on that morning in June, and by the next day we had 80. Without doing any advertising, marketing or anything, we were building 15 or 20 followers a day pretty early on.

We just went over 4,000 followers [the week this interview was conducted]. Now, we're adding somewhere around 29 followers a day. Most of them are still local, which shows the growth of Twitter. We had one reporter and one editor who were using Twitter when I started. The reporter was mostly using it for personal kind of fun, but also mentioning news once in a while, and that's our tech culture writer, Omar Gallaga. He has our top number of followers for an individual reporter. We have more than 40 [reporters on Twitter now], writing about their beats, conversing with people. And we have five or six official news feeds [on Twitter]. We're getting good traffic out of it, but we're also building our brand, and getting good feedback from people.

The most exciting part to me right now is that reporters are understanding [Twitter], picking it up and using it to converse with readers and build little communities, basically. During Hurricane Ike [in September 2008], we had four reporters Tweeting to one account from Houston. At one point, our reporter was Twittering minute-by-minute as they crossed the causeway into Galveston. During that weekend, we received 300,000 page views directly from Twitter onto Statesman.com. I think that was the event that vaulted our social media efforts. Suddenly, Twitter wasn't something to giggle at -- it was a serious journalism tool.

You're giving a Core Conversation at South by Southwest, "Old Media Finds New Voice Through Twitter." What will you tell people in that talk?
I invited ColonelTribune to give the speech with me -- the guy behind it, Daniel Honigman. We're going to talk together about Twitter, mainly: How using social media, you can connect with your readers in a way you never have before. Three years ago when I was letters editor, those letters [from readers] I put together for the paper -- 10 of them [per issue] -- that was all the feedback that we allowed as a newspaper. Now, people can sit there and converse with our sports columnist. They can ask a question about why are there fire trucks around a certain building downtown, and I'll get a reporter to find an answer and get it for them. [Twitter] is giving people a new way of looking at our product. The feedback is so overwhelmingly positive. It's amazing because as a newspaper, we're not used to hearing positive feedback at all. Usually, the only time [readers] contact you is when they want to complain. And here we are getting a lot of people saying, "You guys get it," or, "This is the future; you understand it." Twitter is not going to save a newspaper by itself, but I think it's part of a strategy of being in touch with the community that can, in the long term, save [newspapers].

The current state of the newspaper industry: What's your assessment?
It's rough. The economy's bad all the way around, but newspapers have a bit of a business model problem. And nobody's really figured that out yet. The Statesman is weathering the storm better than most -- I think that's partly because of where we are, and the fact that Austin's probably weathering the storm better than most cities. But it's also [that] we have been very aggressive with our Web coverage, putting a lot of effort into it. We realized early on we had to, and we pushed ahead. But it's not a good time for newspapers. We have to find ways to reinvent ourselves. We have to think of new ways to make people care about our product. Social media is a way for people to see that -- at the very least, [for users/readers] to see that you get what they are about. Facebook, and Twitter, and StumbleUpon -- that's where people are right now. That's where they converse with each other, that's where they spend their time, and it's getting more [prevalent] as time goes on. If a newspaper's not there -- if a newspaper decides that's below them or not interesting to them -- they really can become irrelevant.

A difficult word for a lot of newspapers, as well as social media tools, is monetization. There's almost a parallel problem -- Twitter itself is trying to hit upon a business strategy that will enable it to keep growing, and the newspaper industry needs a new business model to survive. What's your take on how to monetize social media, and media in general?
Social media's probably the tougher one, I would guess. You can't say that social media is going to bring in a ton of money for your organization at this point. What I would argue is that the effort is more about marketing our brand, than direct dollar to dollar payback. You'll find that a good portion of people on Twitter are in the marketing field, and that's because you can market a brand really well there. There's good return on investment as far as seeing people say that they bought a product because of what you said on Twitter, or say that they feel better about your product because of what they've seen [you do on Twitter]. That's as true for [newspapers] as it is for Dell or anybody else. If [newspapers] don't do this, we risk becoming irrelevant. We are in the communications business, and [social media], at an increasing rate, is how people are communicating. If [newspapers] decide they don't want to be there, they're missing the boat.

[Social media] can be used for good customer service. It allows us to respond to complaints and people who need help quickly. I've used [Twitter] several times to help people who said they weren't getting their paper delivered. I'm an editor in the newsroom; I've helped out there [using Twitter]. I've helped people who say they can't find a story, or they had their picture taken at an event and are wondering where it is. [Twitter's] good for that --it's good for seeing what people are saying about you, and responding to them.

It's not about making money right now, necessarily, but in the long run it could be, and probably will be. Just from being on Twitter every day and paying attention, I would say the demographic skews relatively young, and it skews to tech-savvy people -- it's a crowd that we don't get with our print edition; even with Statesman.com, our online edition. We skew older, we skew with a different demographic quite a bit. But [Twitter] brings in new, unique users -- that is the holy grail for us. As the Web site ramped up in the past decade, we were seeing phenomenal growth, as were all newspaper Web sites -- and TV broadcast Web sites, for that matter -- mainly because of penetration. More people were getting online more often, and then, more people were getting broadband, which made them more avid Web surfers. So we naturally saw an increase, but as an industry, [newspapers are] getting to a point where we're reaching that plateau, that saturation point. Now the game is finding new, unique users out there, and Twitter brings them in.

I did a survey on Twitter a month ago, and I asked my followers a couple of questions: I asked them how often did they read the newspaper in print, before they started following our [Twitter] account. I asked them how often did they visit our Web site before they started following the account, and then I asked them how much do they do it now. It's a big change. It's made them loyal readers of our Web site: Before they followed us on Twitter, 58 percent [said they] either never visited us or came a few times a month. Now that they're following us on Twitter, 90 percent [said they] either visit a few times a week or every day. That's probably my best argument when I'm talking to money people -- we're bringing in a new audience.

"As editors at a newspaper, we should be thinking the same way about online video as we do with stories -- why have a bunch of wasted space when you can get right to it?"

It's easy for rumors and unverified information to travel quickly via Twitter -- how do you handle that at the paper?
The way I handle it for the [Statesman.com] account is if I see something out there, I hustle -- I run and find a reporter who can make a call for me and verify. The moment I can get verification is when I re-Tweet or post our own information. I do not do it before that. I will not re-Tweet that the Capitol's on fire unless I can verify the Capitol's on fire. And by verify, I mean the old standard way of getting somebody to either see it or get a call from the fire department saying it's on fire. That works for us, just that one step -- double-check, make sure we know what we're talking about, take a deep breath and then post. I haven't run into a problem with that yet.

Reporters are posting, as well, and we have yet to run into that with them either. We're all so ingrained with our training in the way we did things in print for years and years that none of us are going to throw out a wild rumor. We have the capability, but ever since we've had blogging we've had that capability. We just don't do it.

What's your take on the extent to which verification takes place within the blogosphere?
I think that bloggers who do due diligence, who make phone calls or meet with respected sources and can name them, or at least back up their information with facts, do better. I think people will trust bloggers more -- whether they work for a newspaper, or they're independent -- if they are more accurate. The way to be more accurate is to verify. I don't think that you have to work at a newspaper to be a good journalist. Bloggers out there who verify their facts, who use good sources, do just as well as anybody else, and I think they rise to the top.

What social media tools are you most fired up about these days, aside from Twitter?
I'm very interested in link journalism, and using Publish2 as the tool for it. We're using it already on our state political coverage index page: (check it out under "recommended reading"). I am going to look to unroll it on our Longhorns sports page and in other spots, as well. Ideally, as our reporters read interesting things about their beats, they would be submitting links for the aggregation page.

We have dozens of reporters blogging, and some of them do it very well. I want to make a new push to sharpen their blogging skills, including how they can use social media tools. I also want them to work on building relationships for link exchanges with other (non-mainstream) bloggers, and to continue to focus their blogs on the best content possible.

[I want] to start using StumbleUpon more, figuring out how to leverage Digg better. I'm also interested in things like 12seconds.tv, building community on Qik and YouStream. I think the future is just trying to move out there [online] and find out where people are talking about [the Statesman] -- where people are talking about local news, even if they're not talking about us, and make sure we're participating.

Is there significant enough appetite for Web video to keep it an active part of online media?
To be frank, I think that we still have to figure that all out. I think video can work online. I think that video, when it does the right thing, and is done the right way, does work very well online for newspapers. But we haven't figured out the perfect formula yet, and that's part of what I want to do: I want to look into those communities -- look into YouStream and look into Qik, and YouTube even -- and find out what works and what doesn't, what we're doing wrong and what we're doing right. I think there's room for video to work. I am particularly interested in 12seconds.tv because I think part of the reason why there's not huge growth in online video views at newspapers is because most people are reading our stuff and looking at our videos while sitting at work. It's hard to watch a two-minute video when you're worried your boss is going to walk behind you, or you're going to annoy the person in the cubicle next to you. So, 12 seconds of a breaking news event… We had a fire on 6th Street down here [in Austin] this morning that burned down a couple of dance clubs. If we could have gotten 12 seconds of the flames and put that up, I think that's all you need. And maybe there's some happy medium -- maybe 12 is too short, and we need to figure out how to do 30-second videos. But we need to figure out the formula. I don't think [the media industry has] really figured it out yet.

What types of video do you most enjoy watching online?
I tend to push towards really short breaking news, cut right to the chase-type videos. If there's a canoeist going over a dam in a flood or something like that, I don't want to see the 45 seconds that lead up to it, where he talks about how he's going to do it -- I want to see it happen. I think that's true of anybody. If you get a YouTube video that sounds promising and it's four minutes long, you tend to slide that little slider up and see where you get to the meat of the action. As editors at a newspaper, we should be thinking the same way about online video as we do with stories -- why have a bunch of wasted space when you can get right to it?

We've improved on that a lot in the past year or two, where we're not only editing tighter, but our [video shooters] are thinking that way. We've given out several cameras to reporters in the newsroom, and we've been working with them to try to find ways to get to the most interesting parts of videos. There's a future for video if we push for that -- well-edited, good content.

What do you and your colleagues do to distinguish your SXSW coverage from that of everyone else who descends upon Austin to cover it?
We're going to run a full-frontal assault with Twitter. For the first time during the Austin City Limits Music Festival, we scraped together Tweets from not only our staff members, but also people following our account and posted them on our Web site through this application that our developers built. We're going to do a similar thing for South by Southwest. The reporters can direct message our main account, and it re-Tweets it out -- it'll say "via Robert Quigley," with my Twitter account, and then it'll say "dispatched from South by Southwest." Somebody can follow just that main account and get all reports from all of our reporters. We'll also scrape what everybody's saying who's following that account. When they mention certain keywords, it will post on the [Statesman.com] Web site, as well.

Another thing we're excited about [is] having social media awards for the first time ever [during SXSW]. I came up with the idea of awarding 25 people in Texas -- they've got to be Texas residents -- whom we feel are good at social media. We're going to name an overall winner as well, and we're going to have a big party during South by Southwest at a venue downtown to honor the winners, and give out awards. That's a big part of our [SXSW] marketing push, just to have our name out there as we're doing those awards. We had 125 nominees for that, and [named] the 25 winners on February 18, and we'll name the overall winner at the event itself.

What are the criteria for judging?
Omar Gallaga is one of the judges, I'm a judge, and Addie Broyles -- our food writer who's really into social media (is really good with Facebook and Twitter, and she also does Tweet-ups for foodies) -- the three of us are going to be judges. I asked for links from people who nominated [others], whether it's because they're really good at building a community among commenters on their blogs, or whether they're really big into the YouTube community, or Twitter, or Facebook, or StumbleUpon. It's not like there are any harsh guidelines to social media, as far as doing it the right way or the wrong way, just what we think is best as a panel of judges.

What do you think are going to be hot topics this year at the festival?
I think that we're hitting on it right now: Where's social media going? Here we are, at a spot when the economy is down, when everybody's cutting back on what is seen as frivolous spending. You heard me do my little dance about how to monetize [social media]: There really is no good answer. So, social media is one of the things that is getting cut at a lot of places, or at least is losing some prominence. So, the question is: How do we pull out of that, how do we make sure we're still moving forward?


Rebecca L. Fox is mediabistro.com's managing editor. If you're going to SXSW, join her to discuss, "Why Is Professional Blogging Bloodsport For Women?", on Sunday, March 15 at 11:30 a.m.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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