In the last two years I have taught thousands of people nationwide how to use social media in both their personal and professional lives. Social media has been central to my career in the media and higher education.
The daughter of a therapist and historian, I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. I was a slightly weird kid that liked to read the school phone directory, the original social network. I also liked to write. As a high school sophomore, I convinced the editor of our town paper to let me write a column. “Teen Talk” ran every two weeks and it was soon syndicated into 20 suburban newspapers.
My mom encouraged me to study something practical and I picked journalism. In 2006, when I was finishing up my master’s degree at the University of Illinois, I accepted a job offer at Time Magazine in Washington, D.C. I had interned at Time while in college and my editor remembered me as the outspoken girl who knew her way around the Internet.
“Write what interests you,” he said. I was 22 years old and my friends were spreading out across the country. What interested me was social media—it was now the main way we kept in touch and learned what was cool. So I wrote about social media, specifically Facebook and its then-competitor, MySpace.
My story “Finding Campaign Space on MySpace” was one of the first to predict social media’s impact on elections. Two months later, my story “Inside the Backlash Against Facebook” chronicled how a million Facebook users protested the debut of the News Feed. The last line of the piece eerily foreshadowed Facebook’s ability to mobilize revolutions. I wrote, “Regardless of its intentions, one thing is for sure. Gen Y has unexpectedly found a way to organize.”
In November 2006, Time published an abridged version of my master’s thesis as a 3-page story in the magazine. Titled “Today’s Nun Has a Veil — And A Blog,” it analyzed the surprising resurgence of young women entering convents. My story was later re-reported by The Today Show, Dateline, MTV and Oprah.
I also used social media as a tool to aid my reporting. While covering the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007, I used Facebook to find students who had escaped the gunman. It seems a commonplace tactic now, but I was among the first journalists who used social media during breaking news. At the time, my reporting methods were considered controversial and even unethical.
My experiences at Virginia Tech led to many speaking engagements about social media’s potential impact on journalism. It also led me to rethink my career as a traditional journalist. When Time offered yet another buyout package, I took it and moved home.
In the summer of 2008, I joined the staff of the Chicago Tribune’s TribLocal, which produced suburban weekly newspapers. TribLocal wasn’t your typical town paper, though. It also featured stories and photos submitted by readers, so-called citizen journalism. While at TribLocal, I came up with the idea to create a social network for Chicago. The site’s user-generated content could then be published in the Chicago Tribune and broadcast on the Tribune’s radio and TV stations.
I pitched the idea to the Tribune’s digital editor and it turned out he had a similar idea. In early 2009, we co-created ChicagoNow and I became its editorial director. The site launched in May 2009. Within one year, ChicagoNow received more than 20 million page views per month, making it one of Chicago’s largest websites.
In May 2010, Mashable and the Poynter Institute named ChicagoNow “one of five innovative websites that could reshape the news.” Today, ChicagoNow is home to more than 350 blogs and the largest blog network owned by a newspaper.
During this time, I also taught several graduate classes on social media at DePaul University’s College of Communications. Many of my students were older than me, which turned out to be good preparation for what came next.
In 2011, my editor at the Tribune realized that many advertisers didn’t “get” social media. He asked me to put together a class and run an ad in the newspaper. I called the class “Introduction to Social Media for Business” and held my breath, certain no one would show up.
15 people turned up for the first class, all but two of them men in their 40s and 50s. At the end of class, they asked when the next one would be. I offered another class and 20 people showed up. Within a month, I was teaching classes every week.
Seeing how popular my business classes were, another editor at the Tribune asked me to teach general classes for the public. I put together “Introduction to Facebook” and “Creating Your Own Blog.” Both classes sold out and would sell out every time we offered them.
I offered the classes at other newspapers owned by Tribune Company. All of those classes sold out. Soon, I was asked to present seminars to private organizations like the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Broadcasters.
Businesses hired me to improve their social media strategies. Local news stations interviewed me about Facebook’s latest changes. I totally geeked out when NYU’s Jay Rosen published an interview with me and wrote, “Journalism is going to need a lot more like her if it’s going to secure itself as a business.” People started calling me a “social media guru,” a phrase I never quite understood.
In early 2012, I accepted a position at Crain Communications as its director of social media strategy and training. Crain is a family owned-company that publishes 27 business newspapers and magazines, including Advertising Age, Auto Week, Investment News and Modern Healthcare. It’s my job to teach our staff and our advertisers the latest trends in social media marketing.
I am now working on my first book about social media, and I look forward to sharing more information about it very soon. For more details on my work and hiring me for your organization, please visit CrainsSocial.com. You can also contact me directly.