Update: These tips are more than two years old. I recommend reading my Updated and expanded Twitter tips for journalists.
Journalists need to use Twitter. I know it has a silly name and that makes it easy to make fun of. Jay Rosen suggests we think of it as mindcasting. Jill Geisler muses that journalists would have reacted better if it were named “teletype” or “wireservice.” Too bad. Bulldog editions had a silly name, too, and we still took them seriously.
I don’t know how long Twitter will remain important and useful for journalists in the swiftly changing digital world. But right now a journalist who doesn’t use Twitter is running a huge risk of missing something important.
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 people who will provide you helpful tips and information.
- You can connect with colleagues and share ideas with them or get ideas from 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. (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.)
Some Twitter basics for journalists
I won’t bother in this handout to tell you how to get started on Twitter, because I think most who attend this workshop already have accounts. However, if you don’t have an account or haven’t done much with it, check out the “Getting started,” vocabulary or “Your first week on Twitter” sections in Leading your staff into the Twitterverse.
A few things journalists should keep in mind in starting and developing their accounts:
- 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. Any journalist who is using Twitter professionally should be explicit in identification, even if you mix personal with professional in your Twitter profile.
- 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 blog. If not, include a link to a company web site or to a site that tells more about you.
- Don’t protect your updates. Twitter works best when you are open and transparent.
- Post some updates before you start following people. You want to give them some reason to follow you back.
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.
- Ask regular sources and new sources if they are on Twitter and exchange user names if they are.
- As you encounter new sources, search for them on Twitter if you don’t have a chance to ask them.
- At Twellow.com, you can check for people to follow in your community or for other journalists to follow.
- At NearbyTweets, you can check for people who are twittering now in your community (or a community you are writing about).
- At WeFollow.com, you can look for people who have chosen topical tags, ranked in order of their numbers of followers.
- 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.
- Consider using a Twitter app to help organize your tweets by kind of follower: officials on your beat, people in the community, other journalists, etc.
- 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.”
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 something 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).
- Link to your content. When you have new content — story, blog, photo, video, multimedia — tweet a link to it, telling a little about it. If this is all you do, some followers will be annoyed. If you interact with your tweeps, some promotion of content is welcome and expected.
- Link to related content. Link to content by your colleagues or even your competitors or to content from distant media sources that may be of interest to people who share your interests.
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).
- 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.
Using Twitter in news coverage
Twitter will be useful to reporters and other journalists in a variety of ways:
- Reporters should follow the feeds of any officials on their beats using Twitter. They may break news on Twitter, using it as a format for press releases or quotes. They may Twitter from closed meetings.
- If people in the community follow you, 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. 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). Also, be aware that competitors who follow you will be able to read and react to crowdsourcing tweets.
- 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.
Using Twitter for breaking news
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.
- Use NearbyTweets to see what people near the news site are tweeting.
- Feed a hashtag or some feeds of people witnessing the news into your blog or story.
As you 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 supervisors:
- Identification. If you might ever use a profile professionally, you should identify yourself by name, position and affiliation.
- Personal vs. professional. Decide whether you should maintain separate personal and professional Twitter accounts. Some journalists 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 a leader at Gazette Communications. So I 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. Journalists should be careful with the language they use on Twitter. If you use language that you would not use in print or on the air, consider how you would justify that to your supervisor.
- Opinions. The Twitterverse can be pretty opinionated. Discuss with your supervisor whether opinions are acceptable in your 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.
Some of this content is repeated from Leading your staff into the Twitterverse, some of this will look familiar. That was geared for top newsroom leaders. This is geared for front-line journalists. I also encourage you to check out two related posts, one with advice from another journalist and one with links you might find helpful.
- 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.
Here are the slides I used with the workshop.
Here is the liveblog in which I will seek advice from Twittering journalists during today’s workshop: