Stephen Clark’s #Backchannel: Leveraging Twitter in Broadcast Journalism

by Shannon Paul on August 9, 2010


Stephen ClarkI don’t normally gush, but if you want an amazing example of a broadcast journalist who truly understands the power of online community, look no further than Stephen Clark’s participation on Twitter. Stephen is a local news anchor in Detroit for ABC affiliate, WXYZ who became very active on Twitter around the same time I was ramping up to move to Seattle in 2009.

Yes, I’m back in Detroit, but I already covered this.

These days it’s relatively easy to find journalists on Twitter, but journalists who truly participate in the community with the common folk online are still pretty rare.

Stephen doesn’t just tweet, he does the unthinkable for many in mainstream media: he actually participates in the Detroit social media community! He goes to local Tweetups and other events, he replies to people, he jokes, he shares useful information, and even he once guilted me into having cupcakes sent to him (long story). I also had the pleasure of finally meeting him in real life at a recent planning meeting for Jeff Pulver’s 140 Characters Conference that will make its way to Detroit on October 20.

Over time many who follow him on Twitter started using the #backchannel hashtag to discuss what was being covered during his 11 p.m. broadcast. The other night, WXYZ aired a story about a wheelchair ramp that was stolen and sold for scrap. According to Steven, before the story was over backchannelers were volunteering to get together and build a new ramp, and the inspiration for #Backchannel v2 was born.

Community-Driven Broadcast News

What started out as a bit of fun has grown into something incredibly meaningful to the community members who participate.

“I want you to stop complaining that all you see on TV is bad news and give me some good news,” Stephen dared. Yeah, we see more than our fair share of bad news in Detroit, and bad news about Detroit. Don’t get me started on this…

How to Pitch the #Backchannel Community

Notice, Stephen is still in control of what he shares with his community — this isn’t a bad thing. However, he is willing to give the real power to the community by allowing them to vote on what stories will be compelling enough for a mainstream local news audience. From Stephen’s announcement on his blog:

Starting immediately I want you to find the stories that I will cover on Channel 7. I want you to find the good people doing good things in your community. I want you to tell me about the interesting characters and fascinating sights that make your communities special. I want you to stop complaining that all you see on TV is bad news and give me some good news.

There is just one catch, of course:

I don’t want you just to tell me about it. I want you so show me… It doesn’t have to be perfect and polished. Just take your flip camera or iPhone and shoot some video. Show us the pictures of why it is a compelling story… Post the video on YouTube or Vimeo or wherever and hashtag a synopsis to the #backchannel…

Once content is pitched to the #backchannel community, Stephen will post the content on his blog — if the community agrees that the WXYZ (channel 7) audience would find the content compelling, he will “grab my “junior correspondent’s” camera gear and shoot the story for broadcast.” If the content passes muster, he may just try to push the #backchannel story as-is to the “suits” for approval to post on the station’s website or incorporate the #backchannel footage into his official story for broadcast. Full details on Stephen Clark’s blog.

New Media: New Possibilities and Players

Is it just me, or does the penetration of the spirit of collaboration into broadcast channels make you incredibly excited for the possibilities to come? Who are the gems in your local area showing up to participate in your online communities — the ones who don’t just ask you to click on their links, but the ones who truly have some skin in the game? If you’re a journalist, how are you urging your audience to help you create?

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

August 9, 2010 Matt Dibble

Yes Shannon!
As I commented on Steve’s blog, I am a life long complainer of the negativity in the media… and I hate complaining… so one day (about 6 years ago) I just turned it off. I never watch news anymore. I really love what he’s doing here and I hope it catches on. I really appreciate that he’s saying “hopefully we get to a point where we just can’t show the negative stuff b/c we don’t have time for it.” (paraphrase).

I like that the Real Detroit Weekly is getting involved in what’s going on around the tech community in Detroit… I’ve seen a couple of the girls (namely Ashley Woods or @Ash_Detroit) around at events and chatting us up on Twitter and FB… I love to see those weekly publications getting involved and I think they’ll benefit big from it.


September 8, 2010 Ashley

Proof is in the pudding, Matt … here I am!

I think Stephen and Mark Smith are both journalists/social media drivers I look up to. It’s easy for me to go to an event and Tweet, or blow something up on Facebook … but integrating that media into your life on a daily basis — and letting “the people” per se, push the content that they want to say. In a way, they’re giving up the journalist’s traditional role as gatekeeper. It’s much more democratic, true … but should our news be defined by the masses? Are the Twitter masses on #backchannel different from the regular masses? It opens up a lot of questions.


August 9, 2010 Brandon Chesnutt

Great stuff, Shannon

I definitely give Stephen a ton of credit. He has built quite the following for the #backchannel and for WXYZ Detroit. He is one of many local journalists here in Detroit that are doing great things with new media.

Mark Smith (@markdubya) from the Free Press has been active online for some time and routinely attends tweetups and events. I’ve also seen him tweet out questions and ideas that have turned into stories for his column.

Mark Hinojosa (@detnews) is also a regular around town and has really helped to push events like 140 Conference Detroit and Ignite Detroit up the chain at the Detroit News.

These guys are definitely blazing a trail. I’m very interested to see where things head from here.



August 9, 2010 Matt Dibble

Good call, Brandon. Those guys are both all over it.


August 10, 2010 Ari Herzog

One question sticks out: Does Stephen attribute/acknowledge his news sources before or after each report? Or, are they nameless people who themselves know they were the impetus for the report?


August 10, 2010 Brandon Chesnutt


That’s a great question.

I’ve sent Stephen a few stories via Twitter and have been fortunate enough to be a part of the piece. For example, after pitching him a story about the Chevy SXSW road trip to Austin, he interviewed me and my team via Skype. He also interviewed Chris Barger from GM:

Another example: Stephen recently ran a story on Blood, Sweat and Gear, a great local program with a lot of online support. To get the visual for the story, he went on site to interview organizer Terry Bean (@terrybean) and others involved in the program:

However, just like any good story, the angle and the visual probably dictates the direction.

Stephen – anything to add?



August 10, 2010 Stephen Clark


I virtually always attribute my sources (unless they’ve asked me not to) both on air and on Twitter.

There is a temptation on Twitter or Facebook to just post information as fact. I generally only retweet reports from people I already trust– or check the link that I am retweeting to make sure I trust THAT source.
Even then I will often look for multiple verifications of some stories.
I want to be quick–but I don’t want to be wrong. Your trust is still my currency.


August 11, 2010 Rufus Dogg

I love that Stephen makes contributors “work” a bit more for the story. Anyone can do a drive-by tip and RT, but if you are going to photograph or video, that takes a bit more commitment. Most people won’t go the extra step and that is ok.

I do a lot of trade shows and other vendors pitch me all the time about how I should feature/promote their product to my audience. “Write me a blog post as a guest and then we’ll talk,” I tell them. To date, only three vendors in as many years has ever submitted a post. And that is ok; at least I know how much effort they would contribute to a “partnership.”

PS See you at #140conf!


August 11, 2010 Shannon Paul

You betcha – I’ll be there!


August 11, 2010 Shannon Paul

FYI – the first #backchannel story is already alive and kicking


August 11, 2010 Stephen Clark

Rufus… you really nailed it.
For years I’ve gotten people telling me they hate all the negative news–”why don’t you cover ‘positive’ stories”.
I tell them to give me the positive stories and I’ll be there. Until now I’ve gotten vague suggestions that there must be something good going on out there.
With #Backchannel 2.0… I’m forcing people to put their flip-cams where their mouth is. If you’re passionate about something–go show me the pictures, introduce me to the the fascinating people doing good things.
I can’t tell you how ecstatic I am to get our first “taker’…and it is a tremendous offering.
I hope to get flooded with similar “pitches”.



August 23, 2010 Kathy

Hello again Steven!

Please don’t think I’m stalking you! (Little pun there)

My finance Gary and I where at this years Woodward Dream
cruise and had a “fantastic” time. We’ve both going through
an extremely difficult time right now and that cruise really lifted
our spirits. What truely added to that was when you had waived
to us seconds before you went on the air. I had the bright pink
had on and Gary gave you a “thumbs up.” (We had both met you
last year, so it really was “special.”

We both think you are one of the “best” journalists at Channel 7-
kotos -spell right? to you.

Maybe we’ll see you again next year? Have a great year!



August 31, 2010 Keith Burtis

Shannon, Im in Buffalo and we face a lot of the same economic and fiscal challenges tat often times lead to bad news as you say above. It sounds to me like Stephen has his heart in the right place but I honestly have to question whether something like this could work. It seems to me tat the reason news runs bad news is because it gets better ratings. It also seems like tat if news organizations wanted to run better, more uplifting and community centric stories that they would seek them out with the same intensity they do the bad.
Shannon, you know me and you know I’m always a big thumbs up when folks are using these channels for something bigger tan themselves. That’s really the beauty of social. However, the lines about how he is asking the consumer of news to start creating the news seems like a bit of a copout. I mean this with no ill intent but if Nike asked me what I wanted in a sneaker and ten responded to me by saying, “We want you to draw it, spec it, and send us your work” I might just tell them to take a leap.
I totally understand tat as a community no matter where you live that having a voice and a channel to speak from is a huge gift. However, the news is a product right? If people really want more of the “Good Stuff”, why not just give it to them? Much like Matt in the comments I never watch news. too damn depressing.


August 31, 2010 Keith Burtis

Sorry about the typos in the previous comment. I’m doing this from the iPad. Guess it didn’t like the letter “h”


August 31, 2010 stephen clark

I like your Nike analogy– but take it a step further. What if I asked you to draw the shoe and spec it out…then I actually made it for you. It’s not an empty promise, I want people to videotape the people and things in their community that inspire them for two reasons–one, I’ll post their story as-is… no reporter bias…so others can see their passion. And two: so viewers can understand how hard it is to “visualize” a story. It explains why fires and shootings make it on TV every time. They’re visual…and easy to shoot. If people can figure out how to make “good news” as easy to cover and as compelling as “bad news”… my bosses will start assigning reporters to cover it. (for the record, I shoot many of my own stories…so I have to figure it out for myself almost every day… its not for MY benefit I ask the #backchannel to do this. I believe that if our viewers convince the editorial powers that they want good news, and they prove that it can be compelling we will see a shift back towards more “relevant” news. I’d like to think I can change the direction of TV by myself… but I’m going to need a lot of help and this I believe is the place to start.


September 8, 2010 Keith Burtis

Stephen, I think we are actually talking about two separate issues here. #1 being citizen journalism. The fact that you are embracing and enabling that is awesome. You get two huge thumbs up from me.
However, I personally don’t want to design my own shoes (as per the example above) and that is where I seem to have the issue here. You were sort of saying that the news delivers a lot of ‘bad news’. Which is 100% true… just a few minutes ago I was getting my son ready for daycare and a news preview came on. Their feature stories were three murders. YUK.
So I was getting the feeling that you were saying that if I “the consumer” wanted to see something different, more upbeat, happy and encouraging that I would need to seek that out myself and tell you about it. My issue is that if the news really wants to deliver ‘good news’ it should seek that out and feature it. That is after all your profession.
Realize, that I totally understand that this is all new and I think mainstream organizations recognizing the fact that there are tons of talented people out there passionate about one topic or another is a HUGE step forward. I guess I wish the news and mainstream organizations would change so that instead of putting people to bed at night and waking them in the morning with doom and gloom that they would do it with something uplifting and encouraging. I think the world would be a better place for it.
Shannon, thanks for opening up this dialogue.
-Keith (@KeithBurtis)


November 15, 2010 dreambox 800

I totally understand tat as a community, no matter where you live to have a voice and a channel to talk is a wonderful gift.


February 4, 2011 Jessica Martha

I was very happy for you, because i like to see people like who are up to something that can help future as well that can make ends meets. I like very in other ways round as a Journalist. I will like you to be my very good friend as well my adviser as father.


February 10, 2011 Sabina Bauer

Hi Mr. Clark,

My grandson Kevin Bauer went to Walled high school with your daughter, I believe her name is Heather. Thought I’d let you know he is one of the students at NMU that met PRESIDENT OBAMA today. I was hoping something could be said about our local students who met the president on the news ….

His gradma is really proud of him …. he has an eye on politics … who knows.
This may be additional incentive for him.

Thank you for anything you can do to make this possible.


February 10, 2011 Stephen

Sabina…. you left me no contact information.


February 11, 2011 Shannon Paul

Hi Stephen, I’ll get you the contact information for Sabina. :)


May 30, 2011 secured credit cards to rebuild credit

You actually bring up quite a few questions in my attention; you wrote a wonderful report


October 14, 2012 donandre clark

What’s up to all, the contents existing at this web page are in fact awesome for people experience, well, keep up the nice work fellows.


{ 2 trackbacks }

  • Fans get together to livetweet in support of Detroit 1-8-7 | If This Couch Could Talk October 29, 2010
  • On The Backchannel | jacoBLOG December 19, 2012

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