Saturday, March 6, 2010

Spencer Soper: "You've got to connect with an audience"

At this year’s Write Stuff conference, Morning Call “On the Cheap” columnist Spencer Soper, pictured here after a recent makeover, will talk to us about the all-important notion of developing a niche. Lisa Tomarelli recently interviewed Spencer about his own niche as a journalist, and how its development has helped him connect with a readership.

Lisa Tomarelli: In what ways has your newspaper experience helped you in today’s online world of publishing?

Spencer Soper: My first daily newspaper job was with a PM paper in San Diego. We got in at around 6 or 7 a.m. and had to jam to get all copy in by 9 a.m. I left that place to work at some morning dailies. But that PM paper training came in handy when newspapers shifted to posting news on the web and a 24-hour news cycle. I knew how to file stories quickly.

L: What is your favorite and least favorite aspect of today’s publishing environment?

S: Least favorite would be the instability. No one is sure where the revenue will come from or the best ways to collect it, which has created a lot of turmoil. Favorite, which kind of ties in with the least favorite, is the industry is willing to take risks to find its footing. That part is exciting. Being able to try new things that would have been dismissed in a healthier climate when publishers were more conservative.

L: Your “On the Cheap” pieces are such fun; can you describe the evolution of this niche for the Morning Call?

S: Gee. Thanks. I pitched the column in the summer of 2008. Newspapers have been hurting for a while, and they were looking for new ways to engage readers. I have some PA Dutch heritage myself and became more exposed to the frugal nature of many folks in the Lehigh Valley after moving here. I thought it was something that people would enjoy. We started with one column, which basically asked for tips, and it took off from there. We added videos to enhance it as a web product, and social media came next to get the stuff in front of eyeballs in cyberspace and beyond the Morning Call's print circulation reach.

L: What steps did you take to fine-tune your own niche with such a broad range of reporting experience?

S: My background is largely municipal and political reporting, mostly in California. I switched to business a few years back to specialize in an area that I thought was healthier. But I've always been able to find stories, no matter the beat. A good story is a good story, whether it's about housing prices or a good political dust-up.

L: Are you still finding your niche today?

S: I think so. The big thing now, at least I think, is marketing. Reporters can't just file stories and hope people read them. They have to cultivate their own audiences and engage with them. There is a lot more interaction now than there used to be. And I think that's a good thing. It's easy to get detached from the public if you're too close to a beat and the same old sources.

L: Have you ever successfully re-sold published material to a different market?

S: No. Did freelance work when I was first getting started, about 15 years ago. But that was just to get a foot in the door to some places and see if something permanent opened up. One paper paid me by the inch. The editor would whip out a ruler and measure the copy in the paper before cutting me a check, and I watched him to make sure he didn't skimp.

L: As writers, we are aware that we need to build a platform using the social media tools, but there are so many options: Facebook, Twitter, blogs, websites. We need to take the time to simply work on our projects, too. How have you effectively used social media tools to build your platform?

S: So far, I've had the most luck with Facebook. It's highly interactive and has tools you can use to find a targeted audience, folks who are interested in what you are writing about. Twitter has been a dud for me. Lots of folks swear by it. I have 1,000 followers, but it's mostly get-rich-quick scammers and web cam girls. If I tweet a link to an On The Cheap video, I might get a handful of hits. So it's like direct mail in cyberspace. I have a much better capture rate with Facebook. I also like good old-fashioned e-mail. That's still the best. If people give you their e-mail, they are interested in what you are doing.

L: What is the best use of our writing time combined with the time using the social media tools?

S: I can't give some magic proportion, but you have to do both. And you can't only use social media to promote yourself. You have to interact with people and be involved. It's a give-and-take. It's also a great way to figure out if there is any interest in what you are doing. If you're not engaging an audience, it's time to change things up.

Write Stuff registration will remain open until March 12. Days until the conference begins: 20!


  1. Great piece, Spencer! Love the line about "good old-fashioned email."

  2. Thanks, Bart. Hope to see you there.

  3. Enjoyed this post and always enjoy "On the Cheap" - amazing what people can do when needed.
    Me? I have no niche - maybe that's my niche - nichless.

  4. P.S. Damn fine-looking picture, too.

  5. Thanks, Mitzi. Hope to see you at the conference. Maybe your niche is jack of all trades.