As I was making plans to lead a webinar on Twitter for the American Society of Newspaper Editors, I asked for advice from other journalists. Andria Krewson of The Charlotte Observer sent the most helpful response. An edited version of her answers to my questions follows:
Here are some thoughts to your questions about using Twitter for journalists. I’m working on a similar topic for a project for a graduate-level online class through the University of North Carolina’s journalism school, and I’ve been using Twitter as an individual and as a journalist at The Charlotte Observer unofficially for awhile.
I’m a design team leader, lower management. Our newsroom use of Twitter has been generally unofficial, from the bottom up. We have one upper-level editor, Steve Gunn, who is working on strategies for using Twitter, Facebook and other tools. And our top editor, Rick Thames, has tweeted as @rthames.
While our use has been mostly unofficial, I do think I can add some thoughts to your research. I’d love to hear more about what you find, and perhaps it will help me in my class work. Thinking and writing up notes for you has helped me in that work as well, so I appreciate your good, thoughtful questions.
How have you used Twitter to get suggestions for story ideas?
Looked for local people to follow, listened for their events and breaking news, such as planning for a local Charlotte Wordcamp (which we ended up providing space for), Pecha Kucha nights (which Observer photographer @garyobrien covered with a slideshow) or art gallery crawls.
How have you used Twitter to gather information for breaking news coverage?
Keep the web application for Twitter up while at work. Generally use my @underoak account because of a larger base to listen, but broadcast work-related items on the smaller professional account, @akrewson.
How, if at all, have you verified information you gathered using Twitter?
Go to real sources or respected websites. Especially if information is from @breakingnews, find local newspaper or TV websites to verify information. Use ScanAmerica to verify reports of plane “crashes” or other local emergencies. We did this on a Saturday night in Charlotte after a plane slid off a runway and caused minor injuries; at first, @breakingnews tweets called the incident a “crash,” which put the people working in the newsroom that night into high alert; luckily, this one turned out to be not so serious, and we found local websites and ScanAmerica to help verify that.
How have you used Twitter to connect with sources?
Sought out local people on Twitter. Listened to their tweets. In Charlotte, by simply establishing a presence and being open in the profile and in tweets about where I work, I gathered a large number of real-estate agents and public relations and marketing followers. In this town, real-estate agents clearly seem to be seeking new ways to connect with the media and with potential customers.
How, if at all, have you verified identification of sources you found on Twitter?
In-person meetings or the checking of other online sources. Traditional reporting techniques are in order.
How have you used Twitter feeds on your blog or web site?
I have not used Twitter feeds on my personal blogs. My newspaper has used a simple Twitter feed during the Southeastern U.S. gas crisis. We used a feed of posts with the hashtag #cltgas, borrowing the idea from Atlanta’s Twitter community, which used #atlgas. We encouraged readers to tweet when they found gasoline at available stations and to use the hashtag, then displayed the results on our website. Some local tweeters, of course, tried to game the system to leave “graffiti” on our website, and you can search the tag even now to find tweets that satirize Charlotte’s crisis response during the gas shortage. Please note: The tag developed organically outside the newspaper’s urging, before its use at the newspaper was envisioned, as a way for individuals to help others find gas. A news organization needs to join the tweeting that’s going online, not try to direct the use of hashtags too strongly. And beware the “graffiti;” some individuals get a feeling of power by gaming the use of hashtags to get their tweets on to a main-stream media site; the results can be ugly, obscene or perhaps libelous. (Some newspapers have used the same technique, but labeled the feature as coming from an outside source outside of their control. This seems wise.) The use of the hashtag and reuse on a commercial website should clearly be for the good of the community and not just for commercial purposes, in order to get tweeters to avoid that kind of graffiti.
How have you used Twitter to attract audiences for content you have produced or edited?
Several staffers regularly send out links to good content aimed at their Twitter followers from charlotteobserver.com. See users @akrewson, @eyecharlotte (tweeting personally as @crystaldempsey), @garyobrien, @entereseCLT, (tweeting personally as @romustgo) @rthames and @sgunn. Because tinyurls are not easily accessible within our firewall, the learning curve on using shortened urls seems to be steeper than at most places. Some posters simply send readers to our main website, http://www.charlotteobserver.com/, but others prefer to use deep linking to specific stories to ease clicking for readers.
How else have you used Twitter?
Gathering contacts and resources locally and meeting them in person at tweetups. Listening to journalism discussions among professionals and students. Keeping in touch with news in Chapel Hill, where my daughter goes to college.
What problems or challenges have you encountered using Twitter as a journalist?
Corporate media distrusts new systems where messages cannot be totally controlled. In addition, it seems that many people in power in traditional media are still looking for broadcasting methods that will drive huge numbers. Twitter offers tools for listening to what people are saying, gathering information, and targeting specific stories to specific, smaller audiences than mass media has attracted in the past. In that respect, its value is underestimated by those with traditional media thinking.
What ethical issues concern you as you use Twitter and how have you addressed those issues?
Deciding on the “persona” to use. If one is using Twitter for business as a journalist, it seems the persona needs to have a strict, professional unbiased profile, but that takes much of the fun out of connecting with friends on Twitter. Solution: Two Twitter accounts, one personal and one professional. In addition, this separation allows users to “own” their personal accounts; when an account is used primarily for business, it can be problematic if a separation occurs between an individual “brand” and a company “brand,” something that is quite common in these turbulent times. Some of the thinking about “personal branding” came from Twitter users that I followed; the public relations and marketing people helped clarify my thinking with links to branding and marketing stories and blog posts. In addition, some journalism students these days are also using the split- personality “branding” on Facebook; several have chosen to create professional Facebook accounts separate from their personal accounts. This splitting of audiences seems to be a valid answer to social media these days.
A caution: By being labeled a “journalist” on Twitter, you immediately become a target for marketing and PR people. Marketers use the list of journalists just as they once used hard-copy contact lists for editors at newspapers and magazines, to pitch stories and ideas. Many reporters and editors are leery of Twitter and its openness, perhaps because of the workload issues that such openness can thus bring. They are already handling large quantities of email in many cases. Perhaps the solution is like an ombudsman, or publisher, or reader representative, like Chicago’s @coloneltribune, one persona who can be the conduit for that kind of openness and pitching that will happen whenever a journalist puts themselves out in the open. Reporters who want to “lie low” on Twitter and just gather information should be respected for their choices in how they spend their time. Twitter shouldn’t become a requirement for them; however, its usefulness as an information-gathering tool for searching (which does not even require an account) should be encouraged and taught widely among reporters, as simply another reporting tool.