Jim Gardner reveals his tweet side

ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER 6ABC anchor Jim Gardner, a convert to social media, particularly Twitter: "I think my intellect is suited for 140 characters."
ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER 6ABC anchor Jim Gardner, a convert to social media, particularly Twitter: "I think my intellect is suited for 140 characters."
Posted: April 29, 2013

IT'S THE Phillies' Opening Day, and Jim Gardner opens up TweetDeck, his preferred client for posting to Twitter, his preferred social network.

Gardner writes: "'Breathe in the smell of beer, mustard and funnel cake. Ah, we are reborn.' Quote from anonymous Mayan philosopher.#phillies."

Gardner waits.

Nothing.

Huh? Why isn't anyone responding? C'mon! That one was funny, he thinks. Kind of, at least, right?

For those of us whose lives have become enmeshed with social media, it's a familiar scene. We peck out an insightful or LOL-inducing missive and send it off into an echo chamber that doesn't give us the echo we want.

Don't people want to hear what we have to think?

Gardner checks back an hour later and sees that his ode to Opening Day has been retweeted 34 times and favorited 14.

"Yeah, that's right," Gardner says. "I thought it was funny!"

The general reaction people had when the 64-year-old 37-years-and-counting 6ABC news anchor Gardner joined Twitter - beyond the standard, "Oh my God, you guys, Jim Gardner's on Twitter!" - was, "Oh my God, you guys, did you know Jim Gardner is funny?"

Sure, there have been sporadic on-air moments when Gardner breaks his very serious anchor persona. He lets his face relax and gets a little silly. Like during Hurricane Sandy, when viewers thought Cecily Tynan called Adam Joseph an "untoward name," as Gardner, tongue so firmly planted in cheek it was a wonder he could speak, referred to it on air.

"I really shouldn't even say this," Gardner said, with a glint of mischeviousness in his eye. "It begins with an 'M' and it ends with an 'N' and there's an 'O' and an 'R' and an 'O' in there somewhere."

But those moments are few for the senior statesman in local newsdom. Just as they should be.

So maybe that's why it is so exciting when Gardner lets his arch sensibilities out to play, tweeting things like:

"I weep for you. RT @AliGorman6ABC My heart hurts watching #thebachelor."

"Philadelphians want to see this side of Jim Gardner. They don't want to see it in TV Jim Gardner. They want [TV Jim Gardner] to tell them where the fire is, who is corrupt, where to vote," said Matthew Ray, co-founder and principal of ChatterBlast Media, a social-media marketing firm, whose clients include Philadelphia Gas Works, the Philadelphia Parking Authority and Drexel University. "But on social, they really like the little bit of a curtain that's pulled back. That's the Jim Gardner you would want to have a margarita with at El Vez."

Ray continued that 6ABC can come off as a little cold, in part because the station refuses to let its reporters become the story, discouraging media attention toward its on-air talent. Gardner has only been interviewed a few times during his career in Philadelphia. The station has suffered fewer scandals, especially of their sacred cows (see: Mendte, Larry; Bolaris, John), but it also means viewers don't get what they crave from their celebrities: To see them as real people.

"He has a great sense of humor and whimsy. He's a very modest guy, considering the legendary status he holds with so many of us," said Jake Tapper, the Philly-raised host of CNN's "The Lead," who came to know Gardner when Tapper was an ABC News correspondent. On social media, "He conveys perfectly the Jim Garnder that those who know him off-camera love, and allows viewers who adore him on-camera to know that he's not phony."

Anchormen! They're just like us!

And we eat it up.

6ABC sports reporter Jamie Apody helped Gardner when he started using Twitter, teaching him about hashtags and retweets.

"I do use social media to inform our viewers about the latest trades, signings, things I learn covering practice, et cetera," Apody said. "I get a much bigger response when I tweet about what my husband is cooking, or my son being up all night, or the fact that Rick Williams wears crazy socks to work. Jim might not go that far, but he recently tweeted a picture of himself snowmobiling in Park City, Utah. Our viewers loved it."

When I asked Gardner about the vacation pictures, he tensed up and was uncharacteristically at a loss for words.

"Yeah, I could go so much further and, of course, people would respond, but the point isn't to get people to respond but . . . yeah, I shouldn't have done that. That was just beyond . . . what I should be doing," Gardner said.

Doesn't modern celebrity mean allowing fans into your personal space?

"But I've always had a problem with - and people who know me well enough know this - the whole celebrity thing. I have not worn that shoe comfortably and that's a good thing," Gardner said.

"The negative side of that is I've never felt comfortable with the television celebrity-hood. I feel awkward. Some people think I'm rude . . . but I think I've learned to be cordial. It took me 30 years to do it."

Using Twitter to share his personal life "doesn't correlate to my personality. It was atypical. I've done it a few times and I'm not sure exactly why."

Because you're using social media like everybody else, Jim. Look, I'm doing something cool! Look how much fun this picture is.

"But why me?" Gardner asked.

But why anybody else?

"But I don't want to do it like everybody else."

Gardner's right, he isn't like everybody else on Twitter. He has about 27,000 followers, while the anchors from the other local stations' followers number in the low thousands.

Gardner first tweeted during the 2008 Democratic National Convention at the behest of his then-news director Carla Carpenter, but he pretty much stopped after that until the station encouraged him to start using social media regularly.

Now Gardner sees himself as a microcosmic aggregator of the great aggregation tool that is Twitter. He tweets and retweets what's relevant to him and his audience - about the Phillies, the Eagles, local happenings, world events, musical theater. His interests are the rare glimpse into the personal for Gardner, who has four kids and lives with his wife, Amy, in Bryn Mawr.

But what Gardner is really good at is creating community. He doesn't use Twitter like a megaphone, spouting his opinions, but like a telephone, interacting with viewers constantly, retweeting their opinions and responding to what they have to say. He excels when he can moderate a large number of opinionated voices, like when video of Rutgers' basketball coach Mike Rice abusing his players came to light, or during the Boston Marathon bombings.

"When celebrities are the most successful on social media is when they have conversations on social media. There's a million people in the city of Philadelphia who the closest they're going to be to a celebrity is getting a retweet from Jim Gardner," Ray said. "It's exactly the example of what media should be following."

Gardner's not so adept with Facebook. He has fewer Facebook "Likes" (about 21,200) than he does Twitter followers - the opposite of many people in his position, especially considering the social networks' comparative user bases. (Facebook has about five times the active users that Twitter has.)

"We have Facebook fan pages that I pay scant little attention to. . . . I think my intellect is suited for 140 characters," Gardner said. He does use Facebook for longer pieces of writing, but he posts sporadically, usually during national news events.

And there's no conversation there. No engagement. And that's clearly what fuels Gardner.

Gardner's watershed Twitter moment happened after the Penn State sex-abuse scandal broke in 2011. Gardner feels a great connection to Penn State; his son and father-in-law are alumni. He was clearly affected by what was going on in Happy Valley.

He started to share information, soliciting opinions, highlighting a range of viewpoints - all while refusing to discuss his personal feelings. It was like watching a virtual therapy session for the entire Delaware Valley.

This is the future of news gathering to Gardner. His focus will always be on the station, but he understands how social media is changing the very fabric of the job he's held since he started to anchor the 6 and 11 p.m. broadcasts in 1977.

Before the Internet, there was a strictly defined line between the news provider and the news consumer. That's all jumbled now, Gardner said, pointing to social media's impact two years ago during the Arab Spring and the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan.

"There are major events where the audience has been the primary contributors to the event itself. What role that means we'll play in the future, I'm not sure," said the news anchor. "But clearly the whole concept of providing and consuming news is, at least, at the brink of changing dramatically."

An example: During the Penn State sex scandal, there was a vigil that 6ABC covered after Gardner saw the massive interest it sparked on Twitter.

"I asked if people at the service would like to express themselves and what they saw, what they're feeling and what people were saying. All of a sudden, I get bombarded with all of this response. . . . It was a community experiencing something that was very intense for them. And for me," Gardner said. "It was really an interesting newscast for me."

Gardner got college students, a demographic not known as loyal viewers of local newscasts, to enter into a conversation larger than their campus, to take an active role in what they were seeing and experiencing via a bastion of Old Media.

These were kids who grew up watching Gardner, and now they were able to interact directly with him. Gardner was serving the same purpose he did pre-Internet - except this time, his viewers could talk back. And Gardner was able to do a better newscast because of it.

"I felt good that an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old would deign to talk to me to begin with," Gardner said. He laughed. "It makes me feel a little young."


On Twitter: @mollyeichel

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