I turn thirty tomorrow. This past week, the last week of my twenties, I’ve thought a lot about the most important elements of my life: spending time in the mountains, rock climbing and mountain biking with friends, striving for an environmentally-conscious lifestyle, encouraging college freshman to think critically about their choices and their impact, creating lesson plans that help students understand language as an agency for social change and, well, playing with my dog. This list of activities involves a wide range of discourse communities–when I explain social-epistemic rhetoric to my climbing partners, for instance, it sounds a lot different than when I discuss it over spring rolls with my colleagues. But throughout the week, floating from one discourse community to another, I find comfort in the similarities and connections between these communities. The conversations that I have with my climbing partners about environmental issues often share the same content as the conversations I have with my friends, but the genre I choose for the discourse is usually different. With my climbing partners, the genre is usually an informal, but perhaps passionate, discussion-over-beer, and with my students the genre usually takes the shape of an argumentative essay, or perhaps a prospectus and annotated bibliography.
On the eve of turning thirty, in one blog post, I am determined to salienate the connection between all the discourse communities at play in my life. In the words of the environmentalist John Muir: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” So, into this blogpost enter my mother–the woman who birthed me, potty trained me, taught me to write and, although I haven’t seen her in two years, recently posted this photo to my Facebook page.
I also talked to her on the phone this afternoon, and she told me all about the misery–and a few saving graces–of social media in her job as a journalist. To all of us teachers and instructors of writing and rhetoric: the change in my mom’s job description over the last thirty years (from the time the photo on the left was taken to today) has been monumental, and it’s all because of the role of social media in our lives. My mom’s job in the journalism industry–as writer and editor of a regional magazine for thirty years–serves as context for why incorporating social media literacy into the writing classroom is so very important. My mom now spends a majority of her day communicating via social media with businesses, nonprofits, environmental action groups, biologists, musicians, artists, the National Park Service, celebrities, wedding planners, caterers and architects–to name a few. Most of our students, of course, are going into fields unrelated to journalism. But the change in the journalism industry serves as an important example of the role of social media in most professions across the country. If you are still not following me on this: my mom, and other journalists like her, communicate daily with people in a variety of different professions, through a variety of social media outlets. Social media is used by most professions as a means of networking–and people like to network with journalists, because it means press, and sometimes free advertising.
As writing instructors, I believe we are obligated to help our students understand the role social media will play in their professional careers, and to also show them how the tools we already use in the writing classroom–rhetorical context, genre, an understanding of audience–will also help them engage professionally (and with appropriate discourse communities) through social media.
Before I dive into the Q&A with my mom, Elizabeth Edwards, here is a little background. She started writing for Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine in the 1980s. At first, she wrote primarily from home, and conducted phone interviews and wrote feature length essays with me, as a toddler, strapped to her chest with one of my father’s old ties. Around the time I was in high school she was promoted to managing editor, and by 2009–the year our economy crashed–the entire journalism industry began to flounder. Most regional magazines, and a lot of national publications, folded that year. But Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine downsized their editorial staff from five to two, and my mom and the other remaining editor were told that they needed to blog and Tweet daily if they wanted to keep their jobs. The magazine still puts out a print publication once a month, but they also maintain a website (with links to all the articles) and a blog as well. In this interview, my mom will fill in the rest of the details.
Q: It’s been six years since the journalism industry crashed and Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine almost went under. Will you describe the change in your job description that followed? And the role that social media plays in your life today?
A: Every morning, the first thing that I do when I get to the office is Tweet. Then, throughout the day, I try to put out four more Tweets with links to stories. And as much as I don’t want them to sound like Huffington Post Headlines, they often do. Jeff [my mom’s co-editor] usually Tweets like eight times a day. He’s a saint. I can’t keep up with that.
After Tweeting, I usually move onto Facebook. I update links to stories on the Magazine’s Facebook page, but there is also a lot of pressure to link stories to my personal Facebook page too. Then, I also need to make sure everyone mentioned in a story gets a link to the story on their Facebook page…that’s actually a lot of work and I now have an assistant to help me with that part.
I used to Pinterest every day too, but now someone else does that. We also Instagram, but I told Jeff I needed to survive this summer before I took on one more social media outlet. So he’s doing most of the Instagramming right now. In the end, social media seems to consume my day, but I also try to do as little of it as possible because I really hate it. I mean, it’s all I can do to boot up my phone–but even someone as un-techy as I am needs to learn to get their messages out there through social media.
Q: Can you tell me what you hate most about social media in your job?
A: Okay, I don’t really hate it. Social media is awesome because it’s so democratic. Anyone can get their message out there. But it’s not journalism. I think that’s the most important thing to remember. Social media is about getting your brand out there. It’s a hybrid between editorial and marketing. It can be fun, and it’s how I make a living these days, but it’s not journalism. And the world still needs journalists.
Q: Can you tell me more about how the bust in the journalism industry affected your job?
A: In 2009, the owner of the magazine woke up one day and realized she needed to keep up with the changes in the industry. She pretty much told Jeff and me that we needed to jump on board too, or we’d lose our jobs. So we did. The stress of all the changes lead to my divorce, and his mid-life crisis, but we changed. We did it. The magazine survived.
Print is still down, but it’s becoming retro and cool to buy the magazine in print, so there is hope that that will eventually go up again. MyNorthMedia became the umbrella for the print magazine and everything else in 2009.
It’s kind of amazing that we’ve made it. But also beyond stressful. When the economy crashed in 2009 it was worse in Michigan than anywhere else in the country, and along with the crash paper cost also skyrocketed. We knew we needed to have a website, but websites don’t make any money. And we still can’t really monetize it. That’s why we’ve all been stretched so thin. But I still get to write some cool pieces, and we are slowly building our editorial staff back up.
Q: How does the magazine make money these days? If social media doesn’t bring in much revenue, and neither does print, what does?
A: Well, the owner of the magazine is really smart, and a few years ago she started something similar to TicketMaster called MyNorthTickets. So we are now also the venue to buy tickets for shows all over northern Michigan. And through social media, I help sell the tickets. For instance, when ticket sales for this months Beer Festival were down, the ticket office came to Jeff and me, and we immediately Tweeted about buying Beer Fest Tickets.
We also rely heavily on native advertising. A company buys a package of advertisements from us and then we write an editorial on them. Soy Oil, a pretty cool family owned company, bought one of these packages this month, so I wrote an editorial on them and put an add and a link to their website at the bottom.
This isn’t journalism, but it’s how the magazine is making money. Politics, policy and the environment, that’s what makes real journalism. What we do now is mostly content and lifestyle pieces. Journalism is really important, and I get to do a little of it with my job now, but mostly I do this other stuff. I write about beautiful kitchens in northern Michigan and then I Tweet about it. At least I’m good at it.
Q: Thanks Mom! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A: Social Media is the dream of advertising, and I think we need to continue thinking about the separation of church and state, of sales and magazine content. It’s really fun to have the sales people come back to our office and give us ideas for content. But we have be careful. I think as long as their are some real journalists out there, the journalism industry will be okay.
My mother’s experience with social media is perhaps an extreme example. Our students, unlike my mother, will most likely be well versed on what social media is, and how it works, when they choose a career path. But I’m not convinced that without our help to use socially media effectively, and to read it critically, they will use it successfully. We need to help them understand that just because something goes viral–or spreads quickly–on social media, it isn’t necessarily credible. My mom explained that one of her concerns with social media is that people are beginning to view it as journalism, which is to say that the general public is beginning to think of social media as fact. As teachers of critical thinking and analysis, our civic duty is also to ensure that our students leave our classrooms capable of judging the credibility of social media outlets, and also able to recognize what the purpose is behind the social media they are bombarded with.
Barbra Fagan-Smith, an expert on social media strategy, says: “The fundamentals of communication have not changed, but the pace of our jobs is faster than ever.” In other words, in order to prepare our students for the fast-paced workforce that lies ahead of them, we need to give them the tools to use social media intelligently and efficiently. The awesome thing for us–the mentors in these tools–is that the basic communication skills that we already teach apply to social media. As teachers, we might consider having students put together a rhetorical analysis of a Facebook page, or identify the purpose of a Tweet. Or, why not incorporate an element of visual literacy and have students Pin something to Pinterest–and then identify the rhetorical appeals at work in each others’ Pinterests.
The more practice students have with social media the more they will be able to understand and use it in a professional manner. Another expert in social media strategy, Helen Solomone, explains that:
“One of the main reasons to participate in social media is to listen to what others are saying. These tools offer insight on stories and trends before traditional outlets cover them, providing you with the perfect opportunity to see how your messages fit in. Listening before engaging will also help you to identify who the current influences are online, enabling you to identify the unique angle you should take.”
In the same way that we helps students identify the purpose of a text, and understand the rhetorical context of any message in the writing classroom, we can also help them analyze social media. In return, this will help them identify “unique angles” in their future uses of social media in professional settings.
While identifying angles that will make them–or their product or brand–stand out in social media, students will also need to learn to identify which social media outlet is going to work the best based on their content and purpose. This is where an understanding of genre and discourse communities comes into play. According to Christopher Swan, a pioneer in digital communication resources, “one size doesn’t fit all” with social media. In the writing classroom, we already give students tools for identifying audience and purpose. All we need to do is help them apply this to the use of social media.
My mom was already in her 40s when social media took over her life in the workplace. Tomorrow I enter my thirties, and I hope that my students leave my classroom with the skills to communicate effectively and efficiently with social media. Most importantly, I hope they venture out into the real world, beyond the ivory towers of academia, with the ability to think critically about the social media messages bombarding them on a daily basis. By the time they are my age now, technology and the use of social media will have changed and expanded in many ways, but if we can offer our students tools in basic analysis and communication that will help them keep up with those changes, then we will have succeeded in our roles as teachers of writing and rhetoric.
Thanks for reading! I’ll be climbing with my friends and celebrating my birthday tomorrow, and I will probably try to explain this blog post to them in the language of the climbing discourse community. I might use a climbing blog as an example of genre, or perhaps the climbing gym’s Facebook page. When I ask them how they know if a person writing a climbing blog is credible, they will probably say, “because of all the hard shit he’s climbed, duh,” and because I am not their English 105 instructor, I’ll try to refrain from asking them to be more specific.