Maybe the best piece of advice I can give for using Twitter to cover breaking news is to study how @statesman covered last week’s terrorist attack in Austin, Texas.
I almost didn’t blog about this. The attack occurred last Thursday as I was winding down work at Gazette Communications and preparing to move out to Arlington, Va., to start my new job. I took quick note on Twitter and might have let it pass. But it was a great example of community engagement and that’s my new job, so I decided I had to take the time to analyze the performance of @statesman Social Media Editor Robert Quigley in engaging his community through that breaking story. I’m writing about this several days after the fact because this is the best example I have seen of a media organization showing how Twitter can be a powerful tool for coverage of a breaking story.
My previous posts on the value of Twitter in breaking news have shown how citizens using Twitter provided a much better, faster account of breaking stories than professional media organizations did. I am pleased to show such an excellent, if belated, example of a professional news organization showing the potential for engaging through Twitter in a breaking story. (I should note that University of Texas student Douglas Luippold beat me to this.)
After I read through Quigley’s coverage, I emailed him some questions. I’ll intersperse his answers with my observations, presented as a strategy for a news organization using Twitter to cover breaking news:
Engage the community routinely
The strong performance in covering the breaking story grows from daily engagement on slow news days and smaller breaking stories. @statesman has nearly 19,000 followers (that number grew by 350 last Thursday, more than 10 times the normal daily growth) and Quigley doesn’t just plug stories at Statesman.com. He’s in constant conversation with Austin tweeps:
I enjoy interacting with Twitter followers, and I do it every day on the @statesman account. I think our followers expect that interaction, and it’s not jarring to them when we really need their help. Twitter would be boring without the interaction. …
My best advice is to use these tools right every day (turn off the RSS-fed Twitter accounts and hand-manage these things, respond to readers, etc.). When breaking news happens, you don’t want to be parachuting in.
Breaking news demands Twitter use
You can hardly have a bigger breaking story than a terrorist attack in your own community. Quigley’s region has had two tragic terrorist attacks in the last few months: Thursday’s attack on the Internal Revenue Service and last fall’s attack at Fort Hood. He’s used Twitter aggressively in both, but also on weather stories, such as Hurricane Ike, ice storms and snow storms, “which are rare and exciting in Austin.” Use Twitter aggressively on breaking stories week after week and when the big national story breaks in your community, you will already know what to do.
Today, for instance, Quigley’s colleagues (he appears to be off; @statesman tweeted that someone was subbing for him) are tweeting about the snow on @statesman and @AustinWeather.
Develop a breaking news Twitter strategy
I asked Quigley about his strategy:
It’s an unwritten strategy, but I’ve been doing this for quite a while (I’ve been tweeting as the @statesman since June 2008). My goal: Get the news out quickly and accurately, respond to the public and gather news. In a breaking news situation, rumors run rampant on Twitter. I use my background as an editor and a journalist to carefully but quickly get facts out there as we verify them. I also am not afraid to ask for help from the community. I sent a tweet early in the day asking witnesses to call one of our reporters. He received several great calls that ended up running in blogs and in print. I also sent out a tweet asking for Twitpics. Again, we got a great response. We put them in a gallery, I tweeted the link to the gallery and thanked those who contributed. I always try to thank people when they go out of the way to help us.
Tweet early and often
@statesman tweeted more than 100 times last Thursday (Quigley’s personal account had only nine tweets after the crash). The stream included (by my count) 39 links to Statesman.com coverage and to twitpics from the crash, nine retweets of information and links from the public or other media, 58 replies to people in the community and four crowdsourcing requests.
Report what you’re checking on, give credit
In the early moments of a breaking story, you want to get in the game, but you don’t want to harm your credibility. So the first tweet from @statesman just said, “We’re checking on this,” and retweeted @keyetv, a local TV station, which posted a heavily hedged initial tweet:
We’re getting reports of an explosion, possibly a plane hitting a building, near 9630 Research Boulevard.
At this point, no one knew anything for sure, so they’re checking and getting reports of something “possibly” happening near an address. When you have verified information, report it. But in the confusing early moments of a breaking story, you have to be careful. But let people know right away that they can turn to you for information. And don’t be reluctant to credit or retweet other news outlets.
As already noted, Quiqley’s stream last Thursday, included four requests for information or pictures from the public. Minutes after the crash, he asked:
Anyone up in the 183 area who has seen anything? If you have a twitpic, let me know.
A few minutes later, he asked people to call an Austin American-Statesman reporter:
Did you witness the plane crash? Please call reporter Tony Plohetski at 445-3605.
As Quigley noted above, eyewitnesses did call, helping Plohetski in his story. Sometimes when I discuss crowdsourcing with journalists, they worry about either passing along rumors or tipping off competition. In a breaking story, you don’t worry about the competition on Twitter. Everyone is working this story and you want to provide so much reliable information that people think of you as the best source. A general request for information doesn’t spread rumors and doesn’t tip competition to anything they don’t already know. And, as Quigley noted, it paid off huge for the Statesman staff:
I think the biggest success was gathering Twitpics and witness reports. Because of my track record of working with the public, this was nothing new. It just worked well in this instance. I even got a DM from someone who gave us the tip that the suicide note was out there. I believe we were the first media site to have the note posted online because of that.
A later crowdsourcing tweet from Quigley asked if anyone had saved the original source code for the page before it was removed from the web (someone had). Note his reference to using direct messages, too. Twitter can be the start of private communication, such as a DM or the phone calls to the reporter. You don’t have to conduct the full conversation publicly.
Crowdsourcing isn’t just for serious stuff. Today, @AustinWeather asked tweeps to give the snowstorm a fun name.
Tweet frequent news updates
Quigley tweeted lots of links to new developments at Statesman.com. As the story is unfolding, update tweeps on the new developments, linking to your news blog, liveblog or new posts or photos. You’re not just promoting your content (although obviously that is a result). You are giving your tweeps the information they want and need. You’re telling people where to go for more information.
Address rumors and misinformation
Quigley addressed rumors effectively, responding that the Statesman staff was checking out the early reports. When rumors were wrong (that the FBI offices were in the building), @statesman quickly dispelled them. When a rumor was correct (that the IRS offices were in the building), @statesman confirmed quickly.
Journalists have a place in this new world, but to be useful, we have to be accurate. Anyone can pass along a rumor, but journalists are valuable when they can “nail down” the facts. Our reputation for accuracy and fairness is more important than speed (though speed is important). I am very careful about what I tweet out (and what I retweet). For more on my philosophy, and a good example of this from the past, read this column I wrote a while back.
Converse with the community
Despite what must have been a hectic day, Quigley kept a running conversation going with tweeps. Sometimes he repeated earlier information, obviously answering someone who asked a question the Statesman staff had already answered. Sometimes he just thanked someone for a twitpic. Sometimes he asked someone for permission to use a twitpic in print. It takes just seconds to thank or answer someone, but Quigley’s commitment to engagement and conversation clearly delivered valuable information for the Statesman.
Converse with the newsroom
Clearly, from the requests and the information Quigley was tweeting, he was sharing information steadily with colleagues:
I work closely with a handful of editors to be sure we’re doing all we’re supposed to be doing. We have a great working relationship, and we’re in constant communication via IM (and yelling across the newsroom)
This would be the only suggestion I would make to improve @statesman’s coverage of the plane crash. I did not see a hashtag at all in the Feb. 18 tweets by @statesman, so I asked Quigley why.
I have used hashtags during breaking news in the past (#FTHood and #FortHood, for example). There was no identifiable hashtag in this story early on, and by the time one was being used (#ATXPlaneCrash), it was late in the day.
Yes, if a hashtag spontaneously gets wide use, the news organization should use it. But I would suggest that with more than 18,000 followers, @statesman had the clout to launch a hashtag and make the swift initiation of a hashtag part of its strategy for dominating Twitter conversation about the event. NewsOK.com, for instance, routinely uses #OKstorm in severe weather coverage.
As Quigley noted, “People were finding our Tweets,” so this was not a big problem (a tribute to his earlier successful engagement efforts). But if you launch a hashtag that gains widespread use, you will find helpful tweets beyond your direct engagement circle, as big as it is. It’s a minor criticism in the context of excellent overall Twitter use, but I think that quick launching of a hashtag, or routine use of reusable hashtags such as #OKstorm, is a valuable tactic in using Twitter for breaking news. The Des Moines Register launched #iagaymarriage shortly after the Iowa Supreme Court overturned the state’s ban on same-sex marriages, and the hashtag helped organize a tremendous stream of tweets that day and the following days.
With its large following, @statesman could lead the way in hashtag use in its community. A hashtag also gives you something to feed into a liveblog using CoverItLive. (That approach is not without risk, as you could be aggregating the ugly comments that an attack such as this might generate and/or opening your liveblog to spammers or advertisers who might notice and use the hashtag. The approach might work better on a weather story.)
I should add that the Statesman staff is making good use of #atxsnowname in seeking a name for today’s Austin snowstorm.
Thanks to @robquig
I deliberately didn’t give traffic its own heading here, because I was focusing on journalism, not promotion. But traffic and promotion are important. Statesman.com got 4 million page views last Thursday, the kind of traffic surge that accompanies a huge story. Quigley reports more than 50,000 clicks on his bit.ly links, which he uses for compressed links on Twitter.
I appreciate both Quiqley’s leadership in showing journalists the possibilities with Twitter and his willingness to share his experience by answering my questions. He signed off at 11:15 p.m. last Thursday, more than 13 hours after the plane crash, tweeting on his personal feed:
Must peel away from the computer monitor. G’night everyone.
A great day’s work and a well-deserved rest.