Alumni Q&A with Renée Ernst, Producer of Social Publishing at CNN

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Photo courtesy of CNN

Renée Ernst is a Producer of Social Publishing at CNN. Ernst graduated from Rowan University in 2008 with her B.A. in Journalism. Previously, she managed social media at the Huffington Post and The Record. Follow her on Twitter at @renee_ernst

Can you describe your role at CNN and what you do?

I am part of a large dynamic team that focuses on pulling key moments from CNN on TV, finding viral content that is being shared on every social media platform, running the accounts of the show pages (like AC360) and publishing the content to CNN’s main social media accounts. We also plan social strategy and look for new platforms to use. I help oversee what gets published to the main CNN social accounts.

I understand you took a break from journalism for a few years. What did you do? And what made you want to come back?

I begrudgingly left the media in the first place. Journalism has been running through my veins since I was in high school, so the decision to leave was not made lightly. I was young. I learned a hard life lesson at the first newspaper where I worked full-time as a breaking news reporter. The resulting takeaway was not to give up, especially when someone senior to you says you can’t hack it. During my two-year hiatus, I worked on my master’s degree and worked for the government, but I found myself missing journalism more and more every day. When the opportunity to return presented itself, I did not hesitate to come back.

Can you talk about the process of building the social media presence at The Record?

It was daunting at first. When you work at a company whose priority (at the time) was print then digital, it can be quite a mountain to climb. The Record was just starting to acknowledge how important the web site was when I took over the paltry social accounts that existed. So, I was not even on the radar of those running the newspaper at the time. I had an incredible boss, who believed in me and supported my campaign to make social media matter in the newsroom. I got reporters involved, and then we had the biggest story of the year: Governor Christie’s staff orchestrating traffic jams on the George Washington Bridge.

The story did so well on our social media accounts that its presence could no longer be ignored by those who made the big decisions. Growing the account from there was an amazing experience. The reporters were so receptive to any advice I gave. They were not only cooperative, but sought out different ways they could get involved through social media.

Can you talk about your transition from local news to national news?

After nearly three years at The Record, I joined the social team at Huffington Post. It was quite the transition going from a print publication to a publication that was solely online. The social presence at Huff Post was a huge priority for the company – which made sense. Suddenly, I didn’t have to fight for my thoughts and ideas to be heard. The social team was present at every major meeting surrounding a big breaking story. Reporters and editors were scrambling to get my team’s attention. It came as a bit of a shock, but obviously a good one. I loved my time at Huff Post and it prepared me for my future at CNN.

I view CNN’s social prioritization as a hybrid of The Record and Huff Post. Digital is slowly become more and more important, but TV is still the priority. The same goes for the social media presence. It’s becoming more prioritized, but it isn’t quite as important to CNN as it was to Huff Post… yet.

So as far as adjusting, the best thing I did for myself was to go with the flow, observe different work flows, adapt and learn to say ‘yes’ more often than ‘no.’

What are some of the coolest things that you have done as part of your job?

Being on the social media side of journalism has shown me a whole new aspect of audience participation. As a social media producer, I am in tune with our audience using analytics and combing through comments. We also rely on user-generated content, which was rare before social media came along. My team is constantly looking for new platforms to relay information and innovative ideas on how to convey a story.

One of the coolest parts of my job is to watch how my team disseminates a breaking news story. In the year and a half I’ve been at CNN, there has been no shortage of big breaking stories. Watching how we work as a well-oiled machine, grabbing the right stories from all angles, getting the right assets (whether that be TV moments, UGC video, story write-ups or all of the above) and making sure all of those things are rolled out onto our social platforms, has got to be the coolest part of my job. Another thing? Facebook Live. It’s a serious adrenaline rush to take a live shot.

How did your time at Rowan University help prepare you for where you are today?

I loved the intimacy of Rowan’s journalism program. I actually knew my professors. They were very active in supporting students. When I was a student there, Online Journalism was optional, and I had the foresight to take it. It was very helpful.

The required internship was a major turning point for my career, too. I had to learn how to interview for a job, show up on time, and take criticism. I can’t stress enough how much that helped me prepare for life after college.

Any insights on the future of news?

There are a lot of theories floating around about the end of Facebook or Snapchat or Twitter. Some of those theories might be true. However, I don’t think social media will ever disappear. The brands may come and go, but now that the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s impossible for it to ever go back in.

Strong interviewing skills, strong writing skills, and the ability to find and cover important stories will always be valued. Exactly what conduit will be used to get the message to the people will change. Before TV, there was radio. Before radio, there were newspapers. This is not a time to panic, but denial will sink you no matter what the industry.

What advice would you give to young journalists who are trying to get into the field today?

Don’t expect this industry to be like anything you’ve imagined. Do not rely on Hollywood’s depiction of it, but also don’t limit yourself to what you think it should be. The worst thing you could do is turn down the opportunity to be a breaking news reporter or even a web producer for a media company because it “wasn’t what you had in mind.” When I was in college, social media editors/managers/producers didn’t even exist.

This is a tough industry and you need to develop a thick skin. Take criticism constructively and don’t be shy. Stay competitive. Surround yourself with smart people. Get a mentor in and out of the field and keep them up to date with your latest goals or any major decisions you make.

Remember that failure is a success if you learned a lesson from it. When new, experimental opportunities arise, take advantage of them whether you think it’d be a good fit or not. I did not like social media when it first came onto the scene, but I didn’t deny its existence, and here I am.

Although you probably hear this enough, I can’t emphasize how cautious you should be about what you share on social platforms. Nothing is private.

If you stick with it, journalism can be one of the most rewarding jobs in the world.

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