I’ll be leading a webinar for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Leading your staff into the Twitterverse. This is the tip sheet I will suggest that editors read after the seminar. While this is geared for top newsroom leaders, some of the advice should be helpful to any journalists who are not experienced with Twitter. I encourage journalists using Twitter to add their tips in the comments. I also encourage you to check out two related posts, one with advice from another journalist and one with links you might find helpful.
Valid questions about Twitter use by journalists are welcome here as are critical comments by journalists about issues in the use of Twitter. For this post and the two related posts, I will not approve comments by non-journalists that simply complain about Twitter and my frequent writing about Twitter. Feel free to post them on another blog entry.
Journalists need to use Twitter. Even if you don’t understand its value or usefulness immediately and even if some of the content is frivolous, journalists can use Twitter for a variety of uses:
- You can monitor the activities and discussions of people in your community or on your beat.
- You can connect with colleagues and share ideas with them.
- You can “crowdsource” stories by asking your followers for story ideas or information.
- You can quickly find people who witnessed or experienced an event.
- You can drive traffic to your content.
- You can improve your writing as you learn to make points directly in just 140 characters. (I tell my staff that if a lead doesn’t fit in a tweet, it’s probably too long. It really helps me write better leads on my blog and columns.)
For top editors, using Twitter has added value:
- It can help change your newsroom culture.
- You communicate to your staff that you are changing and trying new things.
You can start your Twitter account in just a few minutes:
- Go to Twitter.com, click “Get Started” and choose your username.
- If you can’t use some version of your own name for your username, be sure to identify yourself in your profile by real name, position, affiliation and city.
- Add a picture to your profile, too. In addition to being transparent, this will make people more likely to follow you.
- Include your blog link in your profile, too. If you don’t blog (and you should), include a link to a column, bio or something else that gives potential followers a chance to learn more about you.
- Don’t protect your updates. Twitter works best when you are open and transparent.
- Click “devices” in your settings and follow the instructions, so you can update and/or receive direct messages on your cell phone. Check to see whether you can use Twitter in your phone’s browser (I can on my iPhone and my BlackBerry). If you can, you might have options. You should make sure you can use Twitter on your phone. Twitter was developed for sharing of text messages and if you don’t use it on a mobile device, you aren’t getting the full Twitter experience.
- Click “notices” and click that you want to see all “@replies” (which means you can see replies even if you aren’t following someone). Also select to receive emails when someone starts following you (you can decide whether to follow them back) and when you receive a direct message (you will want to respond promptly to most).
- Click the “design” tab and choose a background. You might want to design a background that includes your logo and contact information. (I need to get around to doing that myself.)
Choose some people to follow (this means their updates will show up on your Twitter home page).
- At the top of your home page, click “find people.” Click “find on other networks” and you can see whether any of your contacts on a gmail, hotmail, Yahoo!, AOL or MSN account are already on Twitter.
- Under the “Find on Twitter” tab, look for people by name.
- Check my blog for a list of newsroom leaders on Twitter.
- At Twellow.com, you can check for people to follow in your community or for other journalists to follow.
- At WeFollow.com, you can look for people who have chosen topical tags, ranked in order of their numbers of followers (at this writing, I’m #77 in journalism but #1 in Cedar Rapids).
- As you follow people in your community or colleagues in the business, take a look at their followers and see if you see anyone there you want to follow.
- When someone follows you, check the profile and the recent tweets to see if this is someone you want to follow.
- When someone you enjoy following replies to someone else with an interesting tweet or “retweets” a link to something interesting, click on the username of the third party and decide whether that’s someone you want to follow.
- Don’t follow too many people too fast. Adding about 10 followers a day for the first week is a good pace. Then add the people you find interesting to follow.
- If you’re not interested in someone’s tweets, you can stop following by clicking on the profile, clicking the arrow next to “following” and then clicking “remove.”
- My blog has a list of top editors on Twitter. Follow some that you know personally or would like to get to know better. My related post on helpful links includes lots of journalists on Twitter.
Basic Twitter vocabulary
These are just some basic terms that are used widely in Twitter. For more Twitter terminology, check the glossary links in a separate post on Twitter resources and blogs.
- @ is how you identify a tweep you are addressing or tweeting about. Put @ in front of the user name (@stevebuttry) and people will know you are addressing or writing about that person. In addition, Twitter will automatically turn the username into a hyperlink to his or her profile.
- Applications. Lots of applications such as TweetDeck, Twhirl and Tweetie help you use Twitter more effectively on your computer or phone. You can enjoy Twitter without using any of the applications, though, so I don’t explain them here. Start simple and as you read tweets singing the praises of a particular app that works with your phone or meets a need of yours, give it a try. I do recommend using the Twitter app in Facebook. This way your tweets become your Facebook status updates. While I did receive one complaint from a Facebook friend when I was twittercasting an event and kind of dominated his Facebook page briefly, I get lots of responses from Facebook friends. This way I can stay active in Facebook and Twitter without actually spending much time in Facebook.
- Direct message or DM is a tweet sent directly to another tweet. This should not appear in either person’s public Twitter stream. (But just as some people accidentally reply to a list-serv with a message intended to be private, some people tweet publicly when intending to DM, so DM prudently.)
- Fail whale is the graphic you see (featuring a whale) when Twitter is over capacity. This was a frequent frustration in early 2008 when Twitter was growing faster than its servers could handle the traffic but is less of a problem now.
- Favorite. If you really like a particular tweet, you can designate it as a favorite by clicking on the star at the right, which will become visible when your cursor is over the tweet. You can see all your favorites through a link on the right of your home page. (I don’t favorite often.) Twitfave lets you see which of your tweets people have favorited.
- #Hashtags are a tag to help group tweets about a particular event or topic. The tag is designated by #sign in front of a word (sometimes a couple words without spaces). For instance, I am using #asne for this webinar. So when you go to search.twitter.com and search for #asne, you should see tweets offering advice for Twittering editors (or perhaps commenting on the advice others have offered). When looking for information on a topic, you might want to try multiple hashtags because they occur spontaneously. For instance, on the flooding in Fargo, I found lots of messages using #flood09, #redriver and #fargoflood.
- Reply means to respond to a particular tweet. You can reply by starting a tweet with @username. Or if you click the arrow to the right of the tweet (your cursor must be over the tweet for the arrow to appear), Twitter will fill in the @username start in the window and also link to that tweet (in the “in reply to” type below a tweet), which helps other tweeps (and sometimes the person you’re replying to) understand context. You can read your replies (and any mentions of you) in the @username link in your right rail (helpful when you don’t want to catch up on all the tweets you’ve missed on several hours away from Twitter, but don’t want to miss something about or directed at you).
- Retweet means to pass along something you read from one of your tweeps. You start a retweet with “RT @tweep’sname.” You don’t have to retweet verbatim, though you may if you have room (if the original tweet was the full 140 characters, you will need to condense a little). For instance: “RT @stevebuttry is about to start ASNE Twitter webinar.” Links are a great thing to retweet. Don’t feel the need to repeat your tweep’s comment about the link. Retweet the link with your own comment.
- Tweeps are the people who follow you.
- Tweet, when you post something to Twitter, this is formally called an update, but is better known as a tweet. Can also be used as a verb. Tweets are limited to 140 characters, including spaces.
- Tweetup means some tweeps are gathering physically, often at a restaurant or bar. Join a tweetup in your community sometime.
One of Twitter’s best uses is to share links to interesting blogs and other web content with people who share your interests. (This blows away the argument that Twitter’s 140-character limit leads to shallowness. Your tweet may be little more than “read this,” but if the link takes someone to journalism of quality and depth, you share way beyond the 140 characters.)
- Compress links. Don’t waste your precious character limit on huge URLs. Cut and paste the URL you want to share into one of the web sites that compress URLs for you: tinyurl.com, is.gd, bit.ly or snurl.
- Write a headline. Tell people what you thought about the link you’re passing along. Actually, 140 characters (maybe 120 without the link) gives you way more space than many headlines, so this kind of tweeting is right in a good editor’s sweet spot.
- Share links liberally. If you read a good blog or see something online that’s thought-provoking or funny, tweet a quick link to it. You will find that this sharing of links among colleagues is one of the best uses of Twitter.
- Consider Publish2. If you’re not already using Publish2, I recommend trying it to improve your link journalism. If you use Publish2, you can enter your Twitter information and with one application, save links to Publish2, Twitter and Delicious (and Facebook if you’re using the Twitter app there).
Your first week on Twitter
I didn’t understand Twitter until I spent a week Twittering pretty seriously when I was at the American Press Institute. I wrote about that week in a couple of blog posts before and after the week. My recommendations for understanding and getting up to speed:
- Tweet about 10 times a day when you’re getting started. That will help you learn Twitter. Then you can speed up or slow down to the pace that’s right for you. (And the right pace is probably an uneven pace – slow when you’re involved in boring meetings, lots of tweets when you’re twittercasting an interesting conference or news story.) A tweet doesn’t take very long, so 10 tweets a day is not a large time commitment.
- Follow about 10 new people a day (many of them will follow you back). Adding too many followers too fast can be overwhelming. But as you add followers, you will get a broader range of views and experiences from your community and your colleagues. I recommend following a mix of people in your community and colleagues around the country (and beyond). And certainly follow your staff members who Twitter.
- Twittercast an event. Whether it’s your daily news huddle, a journalism conference, a seminar or a community event, you should twittercast an event early in your time using Twitter. Don’t feel like you need to do a play-by-play, but tweet frequently when someone says something interesting. Be sure to tell people when you get started what the event is and who’s speaking.
- Reply to some tweets and send some direct messages. Twitter is really about interacting with the tweeps, so you need to start having that experience right away.
What should you tweet about?
As with any other writing format, each tweep develops a personal style. Find the right style for you. Some suggestions (reject any that don’t work for you):
- Don’t really answer the question. Twitter’s basic question “What are you doing?” isn’t really answered in most tweets. No one really cares that you’re eating breakfast, unless something funny happened or you read an interesting story at breakfast or found a great new place for breakfast. Mathew Ingram suggests not answering “What are you doing?” but rather “What am I thinking?” Or, I would add, “What do I want to know?”
- Tweet links to new posts on your blog (and then check to see how many page views come from Twitter – and Facebook if you’re using the Twitter app there).
- Tweet links to your staff’s best work of the day.
- Retweet links when someone in the community tweets a link to something interesting or when a colleague tweets a link to a blog you found interesting.
- Reply to some people in your community, especially (but not only) when they are commenting on something in your paper or on your site.
- When you have something funny or insightful to say, tweet.
- Don’t tweet when you really don’t have anything to say.
- Don’t be too serious in your tweets. Twitter is a bright and breezy communication tool and you’re not going to fully understand it if you don’t experience it the way your tweeps do.
Encourage staff to use Twitter
News staff members can use Twitter in a lot of ways. As a newsroom leader, you should know who is using Twitter and how they are using it. Praise staff members who use Twitter effectively to improve your content and build your audience. Identify the staff members who are reluctant to use this new tool. Chances are they are dragging their heels on using other important tools such as other social media, spreadsheets and databases. Tell them you expect them to use the full range of tools of modern journalism and they need to learn this one. Twitter will be useful to your news staff in a variety of ways:
- Reporters should follow the feeds of people on their beats. In Cedar Rapids, a couple of county supervisors Twitter regularly, as well as a local state legislator, the county auditor, the art museum director, a local festival director and the director of the downtown business district. Several local institutions, including the city, and business people have Twitter feeds, too. On virtually any beat, some people are Twittering and reporters or bloggers covering those beats should be following them and interacting with them.
- If people in the community follow a journalist on Twitter, they are a quick resource when you’re seeking sources, examples for a story, questions to ask in your reporting or even story ideas. A quick question to your tweeps will frequently bring a response that helps for a story. I have heard lots of examples from my own staff and other tweeps about how this works. Keep in mind that you are crowdsourcing to a small segment of the population, so don’t use this as your only crowdsourcing tool. Take the steps to seek diversity in your sources. But Twitter is a good place to start (and Twitter may help diversify your sources, because the tweeps may be younger than your average news-story source and less likely to interact with the print edition).
- Twitter is valuable for story ideas, either to ask people about a good angle to take on one of those routine or annual stories or simply to follow the community chatter on Twitter and be alert for tips and ideas as they pop up.
- Tweet live coverage of an event, either on Twitter alone or as a feed into CoverItLive.
- When you post to a blog or post a video, story, photo, slideshow, multimedia project or database online, tweet a link and, if you’ve been active enough to develop a lot of followers, you’ll see a bump in traffic coming directly from Twitter.
Breaking news is probably where Twitter shows its greatest value again and again. When news breaks in your community, you can connect with sources and gather information in a variety of ways:
- If you’re following lots of people in your community, you may see tweets from some eyewitnesses or some people feeling the impact.
- You can use Twitter Search to search for keywords that might be likely to pop up in tweets about the breaking story, such as “flood,” “tornado” or “crash.”
- You can use Twitter Search to find hashtag discussions already forming around the event, again trying different keywords.
- Search also for photos posted on Twitpic.
The array of Twitter tools available is too vast to keep up with and I won’t cover them all here. But some basics:
- Twitter Search, by which you can search for the most recent tweets of any terms and also see links to the hottest discussions on Twitter (with an advanced search function to help narrow the search).
- Twitpic, which lets you post photos from your computer or cell phone and tweet links to them.
- Tweetbeep and Tweetscan, which let you search for terms and send you email alerts when someone tweets about you or a topic you care about.
As you and your staff start using Twitter (and other social networks), keep journalism ethics in mind. The principles of journalism ethics – seek the truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; be accountable – don’t change, but social networks present unfamiliar circumstances for making ethical decisions. Some matters to consider and discuss with your staff:
- Identification. Discuss with your staff how they identify themselves on Twitter. My view is that if journalists might ever use a profile professionally, they should identify themselves by name, position and affiliation.
- Personal vs. professional. Decide whether you should maintain separate personal and professional Twitter accounts. Some editors do and I respect their decisions. I don’t keep separate accounts. My view is that we need to learn how to use social media tools the way the world uses them and lots of people mix the personal and professional when using social media. So I use my Twitter account for personal and professional communications, but I do so knowing that people are always viewing me as the leader of the content operation of Gazette Communications. So I always conduct myself professionally on Twitter, even if it’s a more casual, personal and fun version of professional conduct than I’m used to. Personal communication helps build the connections that make Twitter a strong form of community connection. I don’t think I ever got more responses from tweeps than when I tweeted about my nephew’s leukemia treatment.
- Verification. Reporters should be as careful and skeptical about facts they learn and contacts they make through Twitter as they would be about facts or contacts encountered elsewhere.
- Language. The language of Twitter can get pretty casual and foul, with abbreviations such as WTF and BS thrown around casually. Discuss with your staff how they should conduct themselves on Twitter.
- Opinions. The Twitterverse can be pretty opinionated. Discuss with staff whether opinions are acceptable in their tweets and whether any particular topics might be off-limits for opinionated tweets.
The American Press Institute has a grant for a series of seminars on social networks and other ethical challenges of the digital age. Contact me if you are interested in bringing an Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards seminar to your newsroom (or to cosponsor a seminar hosted by a press association or university). Most of the costs of the seminar are subsidized by the grant.
I posted the handout, Journalism ethics in social networks, developed for the seminar, on this blog.
As noted above, I have two supplemental posts:
- Andria Krewson of the Charlotte Observer answered some questions I posed about using Twitter for journalism and I posted her advice separately.
- I also posted links you might find helpful as you are learning Twitter.