On a trip to Ottawa, I led three workshops on Twitter for journalists for Carleton University, the Ottawa Citizen and Canwest News Service. I knew I needed to update the Twitter tips for journalists that I posted in July. Six months ago is a long time in the Twitterverse. So I crowdsourced this project.
I noticed that my examples of Twitter use by journalists didn’t include any Canadians, so first I asked for some examples of use by Canadian journalists. As I blogged last week, Bill Doskoch provided a fun example and someone else pointed me to trial coverage by Kate Dubinski.
In addition, Mathew Ingram (then of the Globe and Mail but now blogging for GigaOm) said Stephanie Nolen, foreign correspondent for the Globe, calls Twitter the “best reporting tool I’ve ever come across.” She needed to connect with a photojournalist in a particular region of India and the Globe’s photo desk had spent a week trying unsuccessfully to find one. She asked on Twitter. Mathew and others retweeted her request and she had the photojournalist she needed in a couple of hours.
I also emailed a couple of active Twitter users at the Citizen, asking their advice, which I’ll use at the end of this post. I also tried a technique I’ve used with some success in previous workshops and classes: Posing the question on Twitter during the session, so people can see the immediate response. Last Monday, it worked like a charm.
Gazette faith and values reporter Molly Rossiter provided several tips:
Establish a relationship with followers for better responses in search for ideas/sources.
Be respectful of your followers, engage in conversation, don’t be afraid to be yourself.
Tweet often, even if you don’t have anything to say. Make yourself a presence on the “twitterboard.”
I was going to seek clarification on the first part of that last tweet (though I thought I knew what she meant), but Ryan Thornburg, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina beat me to it, tweeting first that he disagreed, then tweeting:
Journalists should use Twitter to 1. answer questions & 2. ask questions. Twitter is not a one-2-many distribution tool.
My point exactly. With Twitter we talk TO and WITH others, no longer talking AT them.
Ryan agreed, noting that their exchange illustrated the point they were discussing:
Xellent point re: Twitter, relationships & sources/readers. Also good Xample of how conversation can build clarity & understanding.
Leslie-Jean Thornton of Arizona State University responded with a couple of tweets:
Put something of value, no matter how small, in each tweet.
Unless you’re livetweeting an event or deliberately tweeting a series, avoid strings of tweets in close succession.
Hmmm, I wonder if that was directed at me. I can get on a roll, possibly annoying followers at times.
And Glen McGregor of the Ottawa Citizen (from whom you’ll hear more later) noted in a Wednesday tweet that even during an event, you might want to avoid deluging regular followers with tweets on a single topic:
If Tw’ing a lot from a live event, consider a separate account (eg @czapnikfuneral), spares your regular followers.
However, we noticed in Wednesday’s workshop that that feed only had seven followers (might have had more during the trial). Another McGregor event feed, covering a trial, still has 496 followers, though the trial concluded Aug. 5. I know that Wichita Eagle courts reporter Ron Sylvester tweets trial coverage from his regular feed and does it frequently (now covering the trial of Scott Roeder in the assassination of abortion doctor George Tiller), so it’s probably a reason that people follow him. I don’t think either approach is absolutely the right one. Consider your own followers and your own circumstances and give it a try if that seems the right approach for you.
I got lots of other good suggestions from the tweeps:
Peter James of Canwest News Service (who participated in this week’s workshops):
Don’t be afraid to be part of the conversation. It helps build connections and generate story ideas.
Adam B. Sullivan of the Daily Iowan:
The litmus test for any tweet: “Are you contributing to the discussion?”
Toronto journalist Saleem Khan:
The usual journalistic standards apply to using Twitter, too. Especially accuracy in quoting.
Roving visual journalist Jonah Kessel (now in China):
I always have a live search somewhere on my screen real-estate with key words for my current city.
Ian Hill of the Stockton Record:
Don’t just provide info. Interact with the Twitter community; pose/answer questions, and at times relax and be informal, real.
British journalist Sarah Booker:
Interact with followers/followees. Be human. Follow people who are useful to you. Monitor your patch/subject.
Some of the tweeps passed along helpful links. London journalist Soraya Kishtwari suggested a post about how Twitter and Facebook were used effectively to spread the word about fund-raising efforts to help victims of the Haiti earthquake. Though it was about fundraising, I could see value in the post for journalists. Marcus Bösch shared a great post by Craig Kanalley on how to verify tweets (one of the most important challenges facing journalists who use Twitter). Adam B. Sullivan of the Daily Iowan passed along a link to his Twitter tips for journalists.
I tried the same thing Tuesday (narrowing the question a bit to focus on breaking news) and learned a lesson myself: Don’t bother the tweeps with repetition. I got few responses Tuesday. Clearly I was wrong to go back to that well the very next day. The people inclined to share advice felt like they already had done so (or they didn’t have advice relating to breaking news). So I didn’t even try opening the Wednesday workshop with a question on Twitter.
But when a participant asked whether anyone showed trending topics by location, I could not immediately think of such a service, so I threw the question open to my tweeps. Almost immediately, Jeff Mignon and Guy Lucas provided three choices (I was familiar with two but had not visited them recently, so did not know about their trending features): Nearby Tweets, TwitterLocal and Trendsmap. Just a day after my Tuesday error and disappointment, my faith in Twitter crowdsourcing was restored.
Now for the longer responses from two journalists at the Ottawa Citizen. First David Reevely, answering some of the questions I posed last week:
* What’s been your best experience using Twitter to connect with sources on a breaking news story?
My beat as an editor is mostly local institutions, like city hall and the school boards, the hospitals and the courts. City hall is probably the broadest. Twitter can be useful in getting reports from the field when some major service is disrupted. We had a two-month transit strike a year ago, and Twitter was useful for getting a feel for how traffic was moving in the early days, and then how things were going during the staged return to work.
It was similarly useful last fall as we contended with epic lineups for H1N1 vaccines. There were lines six, even eight hours long, and people standing around with nothing to do started fooling around with their BlackBerrys and iPhones and told us a lot about what was going on.
We only turned a few people into traditional “sources,” quoted in formal news stories, but these tweeps were a real force multiplier that gave us clues where to send our reporters to find the most important goings-on, and what questions to ask the Powers That Be.
* What’s been your best experience crowdsourcing a story using Twitter?
I don’t really do this, except in the way I described above. Sometimes we’ll get a news tip that sounds interesting — the city’s rolling out a new compost-collection program, for instance, and some people say their new green bins are fragile — and I can throw the question out to find out whether whatever it is had happened to more than this one guy.
* What’s the best story idea or tip you got from Twitter?
Word that a piano that was in a public space at a downtown grocery store had been taken away and replaced with shelves of potted plants for sale. People loved that piano and there’s been a minor firestorm since it was removed. It’s a real slice-of-downtown-life kind of a story, and something I wouldn’t have known about without one angry person’s tweet.
* How has Twitter helped you monitor events, sources and issues on your beat?
As above for monitoring events. Sources aren’t so hot — those regular sources of mine who use Twitter tend to be very cautious and stuff, and I might as well just look at the RSS feeds of their press releases. Twitter can be pretty useful for coverage of ongoing stories: we write something on something happening at city hall, it gets retweeted and kicked around, and often there’s a follo or two in the Twitter-based discussion afterward.
* What’s been your best experience live-tweeting an event?
I’ve only done it once, and technically it wasn’t live-tweeting, it was liveblogging, but the blog entries were probably all under 140 characters so it’s the same idea. I covered a multi-day city council debate on a major downtown redevelopment project involving Ottawa’s central sports stadium. Most of it was carried live on community cable, but my blogging was as much as 30 seconds ahead of the feed and I was able to insert some commentary and context as we went. Lots of people were interested in the subject and have live Internet on their desktop computers but no easy access to TV when they’re at work. That coverage seemed to go over really well. (Buttry note: You’ll see in Glen McGregor’s comments below that he questions the value of livetweeting when TV is providing live coverage, so this might not be a case where one approach fits all cases.)
* What’s been your best experience feeding tweets from the public into a blog, liveblog or web site?
Our experience has actually been so negative that I don’t think we should do it anymore. We did this when Barack Obama came for his first official visit to Canada after the inauguration, and the trouble was that anybody who used our hashtag could slip stuff into our website — banal, abusive, advertising, whatever. For my liveblogging days on the redevelopment debate, we decided to have reader comments submitted through the chat software we were using, so we could moderate them.
After all, if people want unfiltered tweeting from the masses, they can use whatever Twitter software they want — they don’t need our website to find that. If we’re just feeding back out whatever comes in with the right hashtag, we’re not adding any value at all, except to people who don’t know how to use Twitter. I guess we might as well do it, since it’s so easy to set up the feed and then it runs itself, but big whoop.
* Have you used Twitter successfully (or unsuccessfully) for interviewing?
I haven’t, except in the very broad sense of asking people whether such-and-such a thing has happened to them. I think Twitter interviews are either gimmicky, meant more to show off that you’re using Twitter for something than to get meaningful answers to questions. I’d rather speak to somebody face-to-face, or on the phone. If I have to communicate by sending text back and forth, I’d rather use e-mail, so we’re not forced into a 140-character limit.
* How have you used Twitter to build traffic for your site or blog?
I use Twitterfeed to publicize new posts to my city-issues blog for the Citizen, with an #ottawa hashtag automatically included. And my Twitter page includes a link to the blog, so if you find my tweets useful, you’ll know where you can get more stuff I’ve written. I tweet links to particularly important city news that’s gone up on the general Ottawa Citizen website, but I don’t try to be a one-stop shop for anything anybody might want to know.
Part of the problem is there’s a delay between our clicking “Post” on new online news stories and having those stories propagate through our servers and be made available. It can be as much as 10 minutes. If it’s a fast-moving story, I have other things to do than clicking Refresh over and over again until I see that the story is up and I’ve got a link I can tweet. So typically I’ll just tweet the basic news and then follow up quite some time later with a link to the full story.
My own tweets, I think, humanize me to followers, so there’s an element of personal brand-building that’s useful for building an audience, and a connection to the audience members, but that probably doesn’t translate directly to increased traffic.
* What kinds of people do you follow and why? How did you find them?
I try mostly to follow Ottawa people, and the more “ordinary” they are, the better. They’re a pool of sanity-checkers, a Greek chorus of wisdom on the events of the day. I always keep in mind that they’re a very small and select group within the city, but having them to listen to is better than not having them.
I ignore flacks and so-called social-media experts (it wouldn’t surprise me if half of Twitter’s users are consultants trying to sell Twitter expertise to each other, following everybody in sight), and I haven’t found very many public figures who have tweets worth paying any attention to.
Many of the people I follow are people who followed me first. Once every couple of weeks, I scour the followers and followeds of the new followers I’ve picked up recently, to see who they’re connected to to whom I should be paying attention. And when I think of it, I go and do the same with more longstanding followers who are consistently interesting or journalistically useful.
* What problems have you encountered using Twitter as a journalist?
There’s a challenge in trying to be a real human being and at the same time self-edit everything so as not to open myself to allegations of bias, since I’m officially a news editor (in my city-issues blog, I try to be analytical, and I go so far as to point out when public figure say things that are verifiably untrue, but I try not to pick a horse I’m going to back, whether it’s a politician or a cause). The need to self-edit holds me back a great deal, and the extra effort involved means I’m not a constant tweeter of whatever I happen to find interesting in the world.
I also struggle with having an extra responsibility to tweet only things I know are true, or to couch things that I haven’t verified but that would be so important IF true that I should get word out there. That’s a challenging balance to strike. We’re in the early run-up to a municipal election in the fall and there are a LOT of rumours about who’s running for what, for instance, but I’m conscious that if I wouldn’t make it a story in the paper, I probably shouldn’t throw it out in tweet form, either. It’s the connection to the traditional newspaper that holds me back — if I were an independent blogger, I’d be tossing this stuff out there like crazy.
I don’t know that this caution is the right thing. I mean, I think so … but I’m not sure.
* How do you verify information you gather or sources you encounter using Twitter?
Unless it’s a tweet from somebody I’ve personally met or at least spoken to on the phone, and I know something about them and how trustworthy they are, I treat anything I read on Twitter as gossip, or (to be more charitable) tips. It’s more a source of questions to ask than it is a source of answers.
I also got a helpful response from Glen McGregor:
The great potential in Twitter, from my experience, is as a new platform for reporting breaking news.
For the first time in a generation, print reporters can get news out as fast as broadcast media — faster, actually, because we’re better typists. I find this really exciting.
Also, it gives us a substantial advantage over “citizen” journalists and bloggers because our reporters are often there at the scene of news, and can afford the time to stay and tweet, while amateurs cannot.
My most ambitious foray into Twittering live news was at the criminal trial of our mayor this summer (@obrientrial). I know lots of U.S. papers cover court by Twitter but this was new ground for us and we got tremendous feedback from followers. On the day the judge read the O’Brien trial verdict, we had local radio stations reading our Tweets on the air — kind of like the old ticker tape days, I imagine. (Buttry note: The Gazette’s Diane Heldt had the same experience last year covering a verdict in Iowa City.)
But the event that really opened my eyes to the potential of Twitter was a serious mini-van versus bike crash in Ottawa this summer that drew a lot of public attention (Ottawa is a big cycling city). I was working a weekend shift and got sent to the scene of the accident on my way in to the newsroom that morning. Our photog and I were first journalists on the scene. We had no idea what was going on. The cops weren’t talking. So I pulled out my BlackBerry and started Tweeting what I saw. A weekend editor back at the newsroom used the Tweets to pull together a web story within minutes. (Buttry note: I used some PowerPoint slides Glen sent me on this incident in my presentation.)
Since then, I’ve been using Twitter to report on live events wherever possible. A few things I’ve live Tweeted:
- Greenpeace protesters scaling the Parliament Buildings to hang climate change banners and the police attempts to pull them down. (Often Pythonesque)
- Swearing-in of new Senate appointees.
- A visit to Parliament Hill by KISS bassist Gene Simmons and his former Playmate wife, Shannon Tweed, who is from Ottawa. I picked up a lot of new followers from KISS Nation.
- Obama’s visit to Ottawa. (This was a failure because it was televised throughout and live Tweeting was largely pointless)
- *The funeral this month of an Ottawa police constable killed in the line of duty (same problem with TV coverage).
I also like to tweet things on my politics beat that isn’t really worth a story but interesting to my followers — I’ll tweet when I spot a cabinet minister out on the town, for instance, or find some interesting documents on the web that give some detail or context to a story.