“I’m not seeing the value in Twitter,” a journalist told me in a recent workshop.
I took up the challenge to show this journalist why Twitter is valuable. I have said often that Twitter is the most useful tool developed for journalists in my 41-year career, with the possible exception of the cellphone (which you can use to tweet and read tweets, so they add to each other’s value).
I don’t think the journalist was asking as a curmudgeon (though in some ways this post is a continuation of my Dear Newsroom Curmudgeon post last spring, an effort to help journalists who haven’t been changing as swiftly as the news business). It does say something about your openmindedness if in 2012 you have ignored all the news stories the last several years where Twitter was an essential source of news. But the journalist’s tone was not defiant, more the tone of someone asking for help. And I like to provide help, even if the request is overdue. The journalist admitted to writing a column a while back essentially “flipping the bird to social media.” Despite that, he’s learning Facebook now, but he just doesn’t get Twitter. He’s a busy journalist and doesn’t see why Twitter is valuable enough to squeeze into his day. He was busy enough that day that he had to leave my workshop to cover a story, so I didn’t have much time to respond in person.
My job now is to help this skeptic see the value I’ve seen for years. Most of my persuasion with this journalist will be in private correspondence (I sent him a couple emails Friday that I hope will be helpful), but I’ll start with this blog post. When he sees the value and acknowledges it to me, I will do a follow-up blog post, naming him if that’s OK with him or keeping our relationship confidential (beyond those in the conference room where I pledged to help him see the value).
Here are 10 ways that Twitter is valuable to journalists:
1. Breaking news
When public news breaks in your community, whether that news is a plane crash, terrorist attack, earthquake, flood, mass murder or snowstorm, people who have seen and experienced the news event tweet about it. A reporter’s challenge in covering such news has always been to try to find people who witnessed the event or were affected by it. By using Twitter’s advanced search feature, you can quickly find and connect with these people for interviews and/or for quoting or embedding their tweets in your stories.
Holy fucking shit I wasbjust in a plane crash!
— Mike Wilson (@2drinksbehind) December 21, 2008
entire office building creaked and swayed with the earthquake tremors. Eerie
— Poonam Sagar (@poonamsagar) September 2, 2009
I am totally serious. My Ob/Gyn was IN my vagina and an earthquake started rattling the room! — Verdell Wilson (@MissRFTC) July 29, 2008
@jessespector MOVIE DOESN’T START FOR 20 MINUTES
— Jessica Redfield (@JessicaRedfield) July 20, 2012
@zachallstar I was at that movie theater! So scary
— Juliana (@JuJubee__13) July 20, 2012
— Derrick@KonsoleKingz (@ButcherBlackKKZ) January 27, 2011
Literally shaking. Was a half a block from the shooting at empire state.In the Chaos.No one should have to see a dead body. Ever. Jesus.
— Meaghan Groom (@meaggroom) August 24, 2012
Covering breaking news today without using Twitter is journalistic malpractice.
2. Follow newsworthy people and orgs
Public figures and organizations in your community use Twitter to announce news, express views and respond to people in the community. Any of these expressions can be newsworthy. If you don’t follow the people and organizations on your beat, you are going to miss news as sure as if you ignore their news releases, press conferences and misstatements they make in their public speeches.
If you cover Iowa politics, you’d better follow the amusing and sometimes newsy tweets of Sen. Chuck Grassley. If you were covering New York politics and not following Rep. Anthony Weiner on Twitter, you were late to note the mistake that forced him to resign. If you cover sports, you need to follow athletes on Twitter, where they make news regularly.
Constituents askd why i am not outraged at PresO attack on supreme court independence. Bcause Am ppl r not stupid as this x prof of con law — ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) April 7, 2012
Especially if you have developed a substantial following of people who share your interests and if you engage them effectively in conversation, your followers can provide quick answers to your questions and help you find sources quickly for stories. Finding the right sources can be a time-consuming pursuit for an old-school reporter. For an effective Twitter user, answers can come in seconds. You may have to verify those answers, but you have to do that in old-school reporting, too.
Twitter crowdsourcing doesn’t always work, but it only takes a minute or two to craft an effective crowdsourcing tweet. If it doesn’t work, you can always fall back on old-school source development. More likely, you’ll find a few helpful sources on Twitter, saving some time, and you can concentrate your old-school efforts on finding the last few sources you’ll need.
Andy Carvin of NPR is the master of Twitter crowdsourcing. Read his accounts of how his Twitter followers helped him debunk speculation that the Israelis were arming Libyan rebels and helped debunk the report that Gay Girl in Damascus had been arrested and that she was really a straight man in Georgia.
@statesman: Did you witness the plane crash? Please call reporter Tony Plohetski at 445-3605.
— Shellee O’Brien (@stepwinder) February 18, 2010
4. Search for sources
If you don’t have many followers, or if your followers don’t know the answers you’re looking for, Twitter can still help you find sources. Use the advanced search function to search for people in your community using keywords that might indicate interest or expertise in the topic you’re reporting on. Or check a hashtag related to the topic you’re working on and see if some of the people tweeting on the topic might be helpful sources. Or you can search for names or keywords in the bios of Twitter users, looking for people who work for the company you’re writing about or for a specific person you might not be able to reach by phone but who’s tweeting about the topic you’re covering.
5. Gather community quotes
The man-in-the-street story is a journalism cliché (and a sexist one at that). If you’re stuck with this assignment, it’s best to do it quickly and move on to something that’s a better way to spend your time. Whether you’re actually in the street or at a shopping mall or a community event, you often stop several people who don’t want to talk to you, more who don’t know anything about the issue you’re asking about and still more who don’t have anything interesting to say. Getting one useful response from five attempts is good results, one in 10 not unusual.
Ask your question on Twitter (if you’ve built a substantial, engaged community) and you get quick responses, all from people who have something to say on the issue (some still won’t be that interesting). You may want to use a mix of Twitter, Facebook and old-fashioned person-in-the-street interviews.
One caveat: If you use this technique repeatedly, you need to guard against using the same people who may respond every time you ask a question. But too many journalists “round up the usual suspects” on their beats as well, so that’s not a unique issue to Twitter.
Reaction stories are another journalism staple. Whether you’re seeking reaction to something such as Todd Akin’s remark about “legitimate rape” or to a movie opening or a new product or a sporting event, an effective way of quickly rounding up lots of reaction is to use keyword searches (by location if you’re looking for local reaction) to find people who are tweeting about the issue or event.
How many sex ed classes are teaching women to activate their rape pregnancy shutdown switch?
— David Dayen (@ddayen) August 19, 2012
— Sarah Felts (@sarahfelts) August 19, 2012
As with the person-on-the-street story, you might want to use Twitter in combination with Facebook and other tools such as telephone or in-person interviews in doing a reaction story.
6. Story ideas
You can get story ideas from Twitter at least two different ways:
- Listen to the community conversation. As you check your tweets, a single tweet might present a good story idea. Or multiple tweets on the same topic might give you a heads-up that something is becoming a hot topic you should cover.
- Crowdsource story ideas. When I was editor of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, Molly Rossiter was our religion reporter. She developed a strong Twitter relationship with lots of people in the community involved in various religious organizations. When a holiday or big event was coming up, Molly would ask her tweeps for story ideas relating to Advent or Lent or Passover, and often got helpful responses.
7. Save time
I’m not going to pretend that Twitter can’t be a time suck. You can certainly while away hours reading tweets, responding and following links if you’re not disciplined in your use of Twitter. (I’ll soon update my 2010 Twitter time management tips as part of this series.) But you should also know that smart use of Twitter can save you time.
Note in the points above in the blog post the ways I have discussed for Twitter to save you time in pursuing breaking stories, finding sources, getting answers to your questions and coming up with story ideas. I’m not a beat reporter, but I write a lot about digital journalism and the news business, so I am much like a beat reporter in that sense. Twitter helps me find the news and commentary I need to read about my beat faster than the other sources I have used to stay informed.
I understand why people who don’t use Twitter think they are too busy and don’t have time for Twitter. But I understand Twitter better than they do. I’m too busy and don’t have time not to use Twitter.
8. Distribute content
This is the first way that many journalists and news organizations recognize value from Twitter. When you post a story or blog post, share it with an engaged Twitter community and you’ll notice an immediate bump in traffic. Virtually every day when I post something new on my blog, Twitter is the leading source of traffic to my blog. That doesn’t mean that Twitter is the best source. Many newsrooms get better results with Facebook. But you want to use them both.
If your followers link to your content from their blogs, that further builds your audience. Sometimes I’ll get a notable bump in traffic from Jim Romenesko, Poynter or Nieman Lab. But I’m pretty sure some, if not all, of those people usually see my posts because they follow me on Twitter, so I really should add the traffic from their blogs to my traffic from Twitter.
When your followers retweet your links, that brings more traffic. If someone with lots of followers, such as Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis or Andy Carvin, retweets a link to my blog, I notice an almost immediate spike in traffic. (Jay, Jeff, Andy, Jim, if you’d like to help me demonstrate today …)
9. Continue the conversation
After you post a link to your latest story, video, photo gallery or blog post, invite your followers in a tweet (or a few tweets) to discuss the issue or event. Pose some questions and respond to their answers. They may give you some follow-up ideas. Their tweets might make an update to add to the story or post. They might give you some helpful feedback. They will appreciate the conversation.
10. Respond to criticism and questions
Journalists who engage on Twitter invariably read some criticism of and questions about their work (or about stories they have missed or chosen not to pursue). Some of it will be helpful, some of it nonsense.
The helpful criticism makes you a better journalist (and your thankful response builds a valuable connection, not just with the critic but with others who notice and appreciate).
Some of the questions or criticism may provide story ideas or follow-up angles. You may be able to answer others from your notebook, something you left out of the story because you mistakenly thought readers wouldn’t care (or because you felt limited by print space or broadcast time restrictions).
I even encourage engaging readers whose criticism is hostile or disrespectful. Some of them may think you’re not listening, and you change their view by answering respectfully. On more than one occasion, I have responded helpfully to a snarky tweet that had a valid issue at its root, and I turned that snarky tweet into a friendly conversation that ended with an apology or a tweet of thanks.
That’s no guarantee. In Twitter as elsewhere, you will encounter trolls. If a respectful response seems to encourage the troll, I wouldn’t engage long. I’ll respond courteously to a snarky tweet or two. But if the tone continues or worsens, I’ll end my participation pretty quickly after the third or fourth tweet, saying something like I guess we’ll just have to disagree on this. (By the way, I can’t recall the last time I had such an exchange.)
Fun and value
At the top of this post, I likened Twitter’s value to that of the cellphone. While many journalists question the value of Twitter, I can’t imagine a journalist who would seriously contend that the cellphone isn’t an important and valuable tool for journalists.
That doesn’t mean that the cellphone is helpful on every story or that it’s not sometimes a pain. You sometimes wish you could disconnect for a while. You get some spam texts and emails. You get disapproving looks when you forget to silence your phone during a meeting (or maybe a rebuke from the judge if you didn’t silence it during a trial). When you drop it on the bathroom floor and crack the screen or get it wiped out by a wave at the beach (I’ve done both), you have a hassle replacing it and might lose some data.
Twitter is the same way. All this value I have described comes in a sometimes-confusing stream that can feel overwhelming (an earlier post in this #twutorial series gave tips for organizing the chaos of Twitter). As I just mentioned, the tone can sometimes be snarky (I can be guilty of that). Twitter can be distracting. You can read links and join discussions that are interesting but not actually valuable, and you can end up deciding that you just wasted some time running down a rabbit hole. I think you can learn to minimize the distractions of Twitter. And I know that, as with the cellphone, the value far outweighs the annoyances.
A bonus 11th way that Twitter is valuable for journalists is that it can be fun. And I think journalism should be fun. Lighthearted banter on Twitter with colleagues or community members can bring some enjoyment to a demanding day. Humorous tweets in your timeline can bring a smile just when you need it. Journos (some of them not identified by name) that I appreciate for their ability to make me laugh are @geneweingarten, @fakeAPstylebook, @storyofman, @TheOnion and @OHnewsroom. And lots of other usually serious tweeps occasionally show that they have good senses of humor.
Have you ever noticed that all corporals in the Marines are named Lance?
— geneweingarten (@geneweingarten) August 22, 2012
What’s the cutest thing about Brits:”favourite” or la-BORE-a-tree? — geneweingarten (@geneweingarten) August 23, 2012
Guerrilla soldiers use unorthodox tactics. Gorilla soldiers are awesome.
— Fake AP Stylebook (@FakeAPStylebook) July 24, 2012
Man attacked with toilet plunger: bit.ly/OVp8k3
— Story of Man (@storyofman) August 16, 2012
Nation Celebrates Full Week Without Deadly Mass Shooting | UPDATE: Never Mind onion.com/TXLchk
— The Onion (@TheOnion) August 24, 2012
“Four stories due today and was just assigned a fifth. I wish it was a fifth of liquor, but no, it’s a fifth story.”
— Overheard Newsroom (@OHnewsroom) August 23, 2012
The humor can be part of the distraction. But most journalists I know appreciate a fun diversion here and there. We’d always told jokes in the newsroom and laughed about embarrassing corrections (as long as we weren’t the corrected parties) and funny juxtapositions of photos and headlines. Twitter is part of that fun and that adds to the value for me.
My last point isn’t really a 12th point (but go ahead and liken my list of 10 here to the Big 10 if you want), but is really the sum of the first 10: Mastering Twitter will help you grow as a journalist, and growth makes your job and your career more fulfilling. When your bosses are considering you for a possible promotion or when you are pursuing another job, a mastery of Twitter adds greatly to your value as a journalist. Beyond the value I’ve described here, mastery of Twitter adds to your value to your employer and your community. Since I started working to master Twitter, my salary has grown by more than 80 percent, inflation adjusted. And I’m having more fun at work. To me, that’s value.
Help me, tweeps: I’ve told you why I think Twitter is valuable. I’d like to include some reasons why others think Twitter has been valuable to them. Some of the your reasons might be the same reasons I’ve cited, but you will give a different perspective. If you can tweet links to specific tweets that illustrate your point, that would help.
If I just get a few tweets in response, I will add them here. If I get enough responses, I will curate the responses for my next #twutorial post.
— Jake Batsell (@jbatsell) August 27, 2012