Journalist Lauren Smart talks social media and teaching
Lauren Smart is a journalist and professor of practice. I met Lauren a couple years ago when she was an invited judge for Critical Mass in Shreveport, Louisiana.
We got to chatting about social media, how quickly the ‘algorithms,’ or rules of operation change. I knew she’d be a great guest for The Social Academic.
In this academic interview, Lauren and I talk about her courses and teaching practices at Southern Methodist. And we talk about her work with Storytellers Without Borders, an initiative at the Dallas Public Library that helps train future journalists.
Lauren’s favorite social media platform is Instagram because “it’s like a photo album of you know, people I love.”
Her top advice for new journalists or writers joining social media is to “Be professional and trust your instincts about when and what to post.”
And, that “like every other part of your life, you’ll experience burnout at some point…sometimes you need to turn it off. And you need to be okay with that.”
It’s all on this episode of The Social Academic.
Meet Lauren Smart
Jennifer: So today we’re chatting with Lauren Smart, a professor of practice at Southern Methodist University. Hi Lauren. How are you today?
Lauren: I’m great. How are you?
Jennifer: I’m doing so well. So just to get us started, I’d love to hear a little bit about you.
Lauren: Yeah. So I am an arts writer in my background. I write about visual art, and theater, and dance, and film. And I started teaching at Southern Methodist University full time three years ago.
And I was originally brought on to teach an arts writing class and, and that sort of transitioned into more of a general journalism professor role. But I still write for the Dallas Morning News locally. And for some other places about art and theater.
Jennifer: That’s great. I’d love to hear a little bit more about your teaching life at Southern Methodist University.
Lauren: Yeah. So we have a small journalism program here. We have about 150 students in two different majors. We have a journalism major and a fashion media major.
News reporting and digital journalism
Lauren: So yeah. And I teach primarily the news reporting classes to sort of the entry level journalism classes where we talk about, AP style and ethics and reporting.
And then I also teach our digital journalism classes, including the capstone course where we talk about the portfolios and the social media use of our students and best practices for multimedia storytelling.
So, I get to see students when they’re sophomores and then I get to see them again when they’re seniors a lot of the time.
Jennifer: So you kind of see them through their entire journey. I really like that.
Lauren: Yeah. And it’s, it’s really neat too.
I love working with the sophomores because they’re so full of ambition. And they’re excited. And the seniors are just a little nervous about the job hunt.
Jennifer: Oh, I can imagine.
Lauren: They’re in very different, very different places in their life in just two years.
Jennifer: But it’s nice that you get to see like the sophomores see kind of like the work product that they’ve created in that kind of capstone portfolio.
Lauren: Yeah. And it’s funny too for me how much, how very often the students’ interests stay exactly the same. And they are, you know, they have a huge portfolio of their sports writing.
Or what they thought they were going to do is not at all what they’re going to end up doing. And so that’s really not much in between.
Jennifer: So one or the other.
Lauren: Yeah, not much in between.
Jennifer: That’s so funny.
Dallas cut funding for journalism programs, Storytellers Without Borders was there to help
Jennifer: I’d love to hear a little bit more about your work with the Dallas Public Library initiative: Storytellers Without Borders.
Lauren: Yeah. That’s a really neat program I coordinate. But really I’m just, you know, a cog in a larger machine there. We started that, we’re in our third or fourth year, third year now.
I help organize an eight-week journalism workshop for high school students from all over the city. And they get mentored and taught by Dallas Morning News reporters and editors.
The goal at the end of the program is that they would have really produced their first work of professional level journalism. And about 50% of them turn in something that’s really impressive. And sometimes the Dallas Morning News will buy it from them and actually publish it.
Jennifer: Oh, that’s amazing. What an awesome opportunity for high school students.
Lauren: Yeah. And it’s funny timing was, um, sort of a serendipitous in and I guess a good way for our program in a bad way for Dallas. The Dallas school district cut their journalism program, across the board. Some schools still have a small ones, but the sort of citywide commitment to it was cut at exactly the same year that we started this program.
Jennifer: They really needed some, some kind of training to come in. And it sounds like Storytellers Without Borders really helped fill that gap.
Lauren: Yeah. And it’s neat too to work with the library so closely because as a civic institution, their role in the community is, you know, evolving all the time. And so it’s fun. For a lot of these high schoolers, it’s the first time they’re going to a library. Just because the internet sort of changed the way we engage with the library. So it’s pretty neat and that way too.
Social media is something that changes for me all the time
Jennifer: Yeah, absolutely. Speaking of the internet, kind of what the gist of this whole podcast is about is talking about social media. So I’m curious, how do you use social media?
Lauren: This is something that changes for me all the time.
Lauren: I guess that makes sense just because of the way the platforms are always changing. When I was coming out of grad school, social media, especially for journalists was, you know, hounded into us.
And so, we got, we got Twitters, and we got Instagram and we got…A lot of my colleagues made Facebook pages, where people could go in and like them, you know, like basically like fan pages.
Jennifer: So you were told to go out and make these accounts in your programs.
Lauren: Yes. And, and we still do some of that training in journalism programs now. But it’s funny cause I look back and I actually recently installed Delete Tweet on my Twitter. So every, every, um, 300 tweets I think is, I don’t remember what my exact number I set was. All of my old tweets will get deleted and only the most recent tweets are there.
Lauren: So little things like that have changed just because I’m, you know, I think we’ve all become a little bit more conscious of privacy. And you know, sometimes you get, you post something online and then you’re like a year later you kind of wish that it wasn’t there anymore.
Jennifer: Oh, absolutely. I think that that happens a lot of the time.
And oftentimes we forget what we post, especially if it’s something that like for a moment was emotionally important to us or it was something that we thought we had to say. And then a couple of days later, it’s not necessarily in the front of our minds anymore.
Lauren: Yeah. Yeah. And, and that’s sort of like my personal thing is that I’m, I’ve been trying to be a little bit less on social media personally.
But I still use it. You know, when I write a piece for the Morning News, I still share it on all the platforms. And help it reach eyeballs. The things, you know the practices that we’re trained in from journalism school are still very much there.
But I’m a lot more conscious of privacy and things like that lately.
Privacy and clarity on social media
Jennifer: Yeah. You know, privacy is becoming kind of more and more talked about. Like it’s always been an issue, but I feel like people are starting to recognize practices that we can do in our own lives to help control what other people see and what access people have to the information and content we share.
Lauren: Yeah. And you just don’t have any control over how people interpret you on the internet. And I think that’s such a, like that’s frustrating to me because in the end it’s also something I’m working on too. It’s like, okay, the need for total clarity sometimes is, I don’t know, become again, increasingly important to me lately. And, maybe not something I thought about 10 years ago.
Jennifer: Oh yeah, absolutely. It’s very easy to be misunderstood I think. And there are people who kind of, we’ll take a tweet at, at face value without thinking about who saying it without thinking about the context of in which it said. So being as clear as possible is a consideration that I definitely tried to teach in my own trainings.
Lauren: Yeah. Yeah. But mostly I use social media to post pictures of my dog [laughter].
Jennifer: Which is like the best kind of content to encounter, right? Cute pets!
Lauren: Yes. What I like on the internet. So, you know, I’ve learned from how I exist as an audience member [laughter].
Social media as a classroom topic, but not assignment
Jennifer: I love it. Now, do you use or talk about social media in the classroom?
Lauren: Yeah, all the time. It’s actually interesting when I started teaching full time three years ago, I learned, I didn’t know this when I was adjuncting. And I didn’t know this as a student. I guess maybe it wasn’t a thing when I was a student, but…
We actually, part of our final assessment of our student population in the journalism school is how they exist on social media. Have they developed a personal brand? What is it? How is that communicated via their Twitter or, and I think I sort of lump LinkedIn with that also.
Jennifer: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Lauren: So thinking about being a professional online is something we talk a lot about in the classrooms. A lot of my colleagues will use like Twitter, especially as an assignment for the classes where they send them out and have them actually use it as a reporting tool in the sense that they’ll take a photo of something that’s going on and explain it or, or they’ll poll their followers to get some information about a story they might be working on.
I’m finding myself doing that less and less.
Jennifer: Oooh, why?
Lauren: Well I think tied up in my own personal interest in privacy online.
Lauren: And I, and I found, I just remember last year, the Facebook documentary came out. So the last couple of years when Facebook has sort of been going under this intense you know, investigation or whatever.
I found it harder and harder to justify forcing young people to…like assigning young people the need to post on social media. Just because I feel like it’s overstepping some kind of like boundary. And I’m still not sure how to articulate that fully. It’s something I just have been thinking a lot about when I put together assignments that I used to have you know, “now send this out on Twitter!”
Well, I think for me, I don’t think I should be forcing them to do that.
However, I do continue to you know, think through how you should brand yourself professionally on these sites. I just don’t do as much as signing of the actual posts, if that makes sense. No, that does make sense.
Jennifer: No, that does make sense. You know, I ran a, a series of workshops for professional writing undergraduate students last spring.
And I was surprised by how many of these undergrads just never used social media in their lives. And the ones that did used it sporadically in some occasions and didn’t understand the platforms.
There were a lot of things that I was surprised about and knowing that these privacy issues exist…Knowing that there’s also like a lack of education about the privacy issues, definitely would play into my own assigning of those kinds of things as well.
Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube: where the young people are
Lauren: Yeah. What platforms do you find are the most popular when you teach things like that?
Jennifer: Um, everyone who’s young pretty much is on Instagram, Snapchat. TikTok is becoming really popular right now, which was a kind of newer, short video type platform.
Lauren: Yeah. Yup.
Jennifer: And of course everyone loves YouTube.
Whether or not they post on YouTube. Everyone is like looking at YouTube for content.
Lauren: Yeah. I think it’s so interesting. I mean just in our classes we still are still ideas of how journalists need to be on Twitter and all this. And I think that’s probably true, but you know, it’s not where the young audiences are.
And so much of the work we’re doing in our department is thinking about how do you capture an audience. So it is interesting to start to think about those questions for me about that…Okay, so if the audiences are on these new platforms, is there a way to use them journalistically?
Jennifer: How do we get that attention?
Instagram is like a photo album of people I love
Jennifer: Absolutely. What is your favorite social media platform?
Lauren: I’m probably the most partial to Instagram at this point.
Jennifer: Cause of the cute dog photos?
Lauren: Because of my dog. Yeah.
No, but it seems like that’s the one. So one of the things, one of the values that I find from social media is connecting and staying connected with people I don’t see all of the time.
And I get so bogged down on Facebook and Twitter with everybody having to share their latest take on the latest news cycle.
So for me, Instagram is nice because it’s just pictures of what people are doing, or their dogs, or their babies. So I like that. It’s like a photo album of you know, people I love.
Jennifer: I really like that: a photo album of people that you love. One of the things that I really like about Instagram is that it’s really good for kind of telling stories. Like people are more likely to tell the story behind the photo when I see it on Instagram.
Versus like Facebook, it’s more of an announcement. And Twitter, it’s just like a passing phrase. Never quite sure what’s going on sometimes when it’s personal news or personal announcements. So I love Instagram for that.
Lauren: Yeah. And I think the Instagram is also got that addicting quality of, you know the way that you scroll through it.
And I’ve gotten more, I don’t know if this is something you encounter in your own use of it, but I got, I’ve gotten more conscious of who I follow. Because again, it’s like I don’t, when I’m like, “oh, who is this person?” I’ll do this, go in and unfollow them out. It just don’t follow people I don’t know know very well anymore. I used to just follow everybody.
Jennifer: Yeah. So like changing your practices on Instagram to figure out what works the best for you. And it sounds like what you’re interested in is connecting with people you actually know.
Lauren: Yeah. Yeah.
Jennifer: I think that’s smart. I think that that’s something that changes a lot for people. Like people don’t necessarily know what they like on social media, so they try something and then they realize they don’t like that and it’s okay. Like it’s totally okay to change how you’re using a social media platform.
Lauren: Yeah. And I hope to instill some of that in our students. I think that they all have to use Twitter if their job requires it. But mostly these are such personal experiences that I, I hope that it doesn’t ever feel like people are forcing them to you know, beyond Instagram if they don’t want to be.
Jennifer: Yeah, definitely.
So you said that you connect mostly with your personal audience on social media. How do you most like to engage with them? Like how do you most like to interact with those people?
Lauren: And I think that’s a question I probably have not thought about in a way that I maybe should. It depends on who it is. If it’s someone who’s following me primarily because they know me as a journalist or as a professor, they’re looking for some kind of specific thing from me, they’re probably following me on Twitter. At which point I can, I try on Twitter to either have something pithy to say about the arts, or Dallas or, you know, journalism.
So I’m either trying to put out some kind of thoughtful or like, you know, sometimes funny commentary about those topics on Twitter. Mixed with mixed in with articles that I’ve written. And And then also trying to go back and give, like give feedback to people. I feel like that’s the thing that I’ve learned about social media is that you kind of do get back from it what you put into it.
So if you’re just using it as a one way communication, people really don’t engage with your content. If you’re just kind of like, “here’s what I’m doing” and you don’t actually pay attention to anyone else.
So I try to go in and I’m like tweets that I think are funny, or smart, or thoughtful. And then retweet things that are relevant to people that maybe follow me.
You know, and then mix in with a picture of my dog every once in a while.
Jennifer: Oh hey, pictures of your dog definitely help people feel more connected to you. I always love when I see people posting pictures of their pets because I’m like, yeah, I love my pet too. Now we are both pet lovers and we can be friends.
Lauren: Correct. And I take, I take my dog to class with me a lot of the times.
Jennifer: Oh, do you?
Lauren: Yeah. So she’s like a pretty regular part of my life on campus.
Jennifer: Oh, I love that. I bet your students really enjoy that.
Trust your instincts on social media and be professional
Jennifer: All right. So my last question is what advice would you give to new journalists or writers who are joining social media?
Lauren: I think, I think the advice I would give right now, and it probably would be different in a year depending on what happens.
But the advice that I would give right now is like, trust your instincts about what you think, you know…Be professional and trust your instincts about when and what to post.
But also I think the thing that it took me too long to learn is that just like every other part of your life, you’ll experience burnout at some point. And so it, I think it’s important to practice self care online and on social media.
Which is to say sometimes you need to turn it off. And you need to be okay with that. It doesn’t need to be a 24/7 thing.
Jennifer: Absolutely. I think, I think kind of the longer that social media is around too, the more time people are spending on it. Like the amount of time isn’t going down, it’s just going up. So that’s becoming even more important of a message for us to remember.
Self care is important to social media and it is okay to take a break.
Lauren: Yeah. And I set a timer recently on my apps on my phone. So that’s just specifically for social media apps. And so when I’ve been on collectively the social media apps for an hour, my phone will issue me a warning.
Jennifer: Oh, that’s smart.
Lauren: It’s sometimes pretty alarming how quickly an hour will show up in my day.
Jennifer: It catches up quickly, especially if you like hop on for a few minutes at a time. You just don’t necessarily realize how much it adds up to.
Lauren: Yeah, absolutely.
Jennifer: I have like a timer set in Instagram to let me know how long I’ve spent on it and it tells, says like, “you’ve spent 30 minutes today.”
Lauren: Um, you’re like it’s 9am.
Jennifer: Yeah, I know! [Laughs.] There’s also a little graph that says like how your time on Instagram has changed over time. And so you can like try to curb down your social media use.
But I was reading an article the other day that said that a lot of people are spending two or more hours on social media per day. That’s a lot of time.
Lauren: It’s a lot of time. And you do that and then you know, you can do the math and you start to add up work that is over the course of a week or a year. And it’s really kind of alarming when you’re putting it into the idea of days or weeks.
Lauren: So I do think it’s, I think social media is a really wonderful thing, the way it’s connected, all of us. And and I think it’s done a lot of good.
I also think it’s something to be just aware of as you’re entering your adult life. You know, how much time you dedicate to it. Just like everything else, moderation.
Jennifer: Moderation in social media is key. I love that.
Thank you so much for chatting with me today. Is there anything else that you’d like to add or you’d like to share?
Lauren: No, I, I love the project that you’re doing. I think that’s a really, I think it’s useful to have these conversations and to think about these things, so keep doing it.
Jennifer: Great. Thanks so much, Lauren. I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with me today.
Lauren: Totally my pleasure. Thanks Jennifer.
New interviews this December
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Lauren Smart is a professor of practice at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She is a journalist and critic. Her work has appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Arts + Culture Texas, CultureMap Dallas, Cowboys & Indians, and American Theatre magazine, among others. Smart worked as the arts and culture editor until 2016 for the Dallas Observer newspaper.
She oversaw the development and implementation of Storytellers Without Borders, a Dallas Public Library initiative that transforms high school students into community journalists using 21st century library resources.
She holds a master’s in arts journalism from Syracuse University and bachelor’s degrees in journalism and English from Southern Methodist University.
Jennifer van Alstyne is a Peruvian-American poet and public relations consultant. She founded The Academic Designer, LLC to help academics, researchers, and writers control their online presence and share their work with the world.
She holds a B.A. from Monmouth University in English, and an M.F.A. from Naropa University in Writing & Poetics where she was the Jack Kerouac Fellow. Jennifer also holds an M.A. from University of Louisiana at Lafayette in Literature and Cultural Studies where she was one of four master’s fellows and a finalist for the Outstanding Master’s Graduate Award.