Someday Twitter tips will seem as unnecessary for most journalists as notebook tips. But in the past few weeks, I have encountered several journalists who were not using Twitter yet. A couple just within the last week asked my advice, so I decided to update my tips for journalists using Twitter, originally published in July 2009.
Most of the advice here is elementary to intermediate. If you’re an experienced Twitter user, this might not be helpful to you. The tips here are intended for journalists with no Twitter experience or those who have dabbled a little, but haven’t made Twitter part of their regular journalism tool set. I cobbled pieces of this from another previous post or two, and have tried to update throughout and added some new sections.
If you aren’t familiar with the jargon of Twitter, I have a brief glossary at the end of this post and you might want to skip to the end and read that early. I think Twitter has been around long enough that most people know the terminology, even if they don’t use it, so I put that at the end rather than early.
Why use Twitter?
You need to use Twitter because it’s the most valuable tool developed for journalists in my 40-year career (possibly rivaled by the cellphone, but since you can use Twitter on your cellphone, they make each other more useful and arguing which is more useful is pointless; you should use both). If you don’t use Twitter, you’re going to find yourself continually behind if you’re competing with a journalist who uses Twitter effectively.
With news staffs shrinking and journalists facing growing demands on our time, we need tools that help us work more efficiently, and Twitter helps make you a better and more efficient journalist. I know lots of journalists who are skeptical about the value of Twitter, but they are people who seldom, if ever, use Twitter. I know hundreds of journalists who use Twitter every day and find it useful. Some of them prefer other tools (such as Facebook; more on that later), but they all recognize the value of Twitter. I don’t know any journalist who has used Twitter daily for as little as a month or so who decided to stop using it. If you use it, it will prove its worth to you quickly. (If you are, or know of, such a journalist, I would like to hear from you. I’ll do a blog post on your experience with Twitter and why you didn’t find it useful.)
One thing you need to do to understand and use Twitter effectively is get over the name. Twitter is a silly name and that invites ridicule. The silly name has spawned other silly words such as tweeps, retweets and tweetups. The New York Times (despite having several Twitter stars on its staff) can’t bring itself to recognize “tweet” as standard English. I sometimes wish Twitter had a more enticing name, something like “journo whoop-ass” or “Pulitzer secret sauce,” but it’s Twitter. Jill Geisler muses that journalists would have reacted better if it were named “teletype” or “wireservice.” But it’s Twitter. And those updates are tweets, as nouns or verbs. Deal with it. If they had called cellphones “giggles,” you would get past that and recognize that you needed to use them. 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. Two or three years ago, people would tell me frequently that Twitter would be gone in a year or two. They might be right eventually, even if they were wrong about the timeline. (And, if they are right, I will learn about the next new thing faster on Twitter than they do on whatever they read.) But right now a journalist who doesn’t use Twitter is running a huge risk of missing important news and connections. As tenuous as journalism jobs are in today’s economy and upheaval, you can’t risk missing important news and connections.
Journalists can use Twitter for a variety of purposes:
- Monitor the activities and discussions of people in your community and on your beat.
- Connect with people who will provide you helpful tips and information.
- Connect with colleagues and share ideas with them or get ideas from them.
- Crowdsource stories by asking the community for story ideas or information.
- Quickly find people who witnessed or experienced a news event.
- Break stories quickly.
- Provide live coverage of news events.
- Drive traffic to your content.
- Report a story by text message using Twitter in disaster situations when you can’t transmit data, as the New York Times’ Brian Stelter did in covering the Joplin tornado.
- 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.)
Getting started in Twitter
If you don’t already have a Twitter account, Mandy Jenkins walks you through the steps in her blog post, How to sign up and start your Twitter account. Be sure to activate Twitter on your cellphone (“mobile” is one of the options in “settings”) and to load a Twitter app onto your smartphone (if you have one).
Don’t follow lots of people immediately. When you follow someone, they get an email notice that you’re following them (unless they’ve asked not to receive notices). They might check your Twitter page to see whether to follow you back. So don’t follow anyone until you give them something to see when they check you out. Fill out your profile, identifying yourself as a journalist in your bio, including a link to your blog or site and uploading a photo (nothing screams “newbie” like the generic Twitter avatar).
Also tweet a few times about your work before you start following people. Crowdsourcing won’t work immediately, since the crowd isn’t following you yet. Tweet a link to a story or blog post. Retweet an interesting tweet by a colleague. Reply to someone in your community. Tweet about the story you’re working on. Show a little personality or humor, if you feel like it. Give people at least a half-dozen or so tweets, offering a little variety, before you start following anyone.
A couple things journalists should keep in mind in starting and developing their accounts:
- 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.
- Don’t protect your updates. Twitter works best when you are open and transparent.
- Under the “notifications” tab, be sure to ask for emails when someone follows you. This will help you identify people in the community to follow.
- Open an account on Twitpic, Yfrog or Instagram, or sync Twitter with your Flickr account, so you can post photos to Twitter. These services are easy to use. Create an account and they will tell you how to email photos from your cellphone to post to Twitter.
Your first week on Twitter
I didn’t understand Twitter until I spent a week tweeting pretty seriously when I was at the American Press Institute. I still had a lot to learn, but just using it heavily for a week taught me enough that I knew I’d never turn back. My recommendations for understanding and getting up to speed:
- Tweet about 10 times a day when you’re getting started. That will help you learn Twitter. Then you can speed up or slow down to the pace that’s right for you. (And the right pace is probably an uneven pace, reacting to the flow of news.) A tweet doesn’t take very long, so 10 tweets a day is not a large time commitment.
- Follow about 10 new people a day (many of them will follow you back). Adding too many followers too fast can be overwhelming. But as you add followers, you will get a broader range of views and experiences from your community and your colleagues. I recommend following a mix of people in your community and colleagues around the country (and beyond). And certainly follow some colleagues in your newsroom. Again, this pace will be more irregular after that first week, but make a point of adding about 10 a day for the first week or so.
- Live-tweet an event. If you’re a reporter, you should live-tweet a meeting or other event early in your time using Twitter (ignore the 10-per-day suggestion this day). Don’t feel like you need to provide play-by-play coverage, but tweet frequently when someone says or does something interesting. Be sure to tweet when you get started what the event is and who’s speaking. Use a #hashtag.
- Click on some hashtags, at least one a day (more on hashtags later).
- Reply to some tweets and send some direct messages. Twitter is really about interacting with the tweeps, so you need to start experiencing that right away.
- Browse your Twitter stream a few times each day, clicking on some links and replying to some people. Twitter is a conversation, and if you’re always talking and never listening, people will stop listening to you.
- Search for a keyword (or several) that pops up in the news to see whether people are tweeting about it.
- Join a Twitter chat about journalism such as #wjchat (Wednesdays at #spjchat, #jrcchat or #journchat. Don’t just lurk. Participate, answering or asking a few questions and retweeting some good answers.
After you’ve completed your profile and tweeted a few times, 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 “who to follow.” Click “find friends” and you can see which of your contacts on gmail, hotmail, Yahoo!, AOL or LinkedIn are already on Twitter.
- A search box lets you look for specific 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, 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, you can look for people who have chosen topical and geographical 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 tweets 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. Twitter will feel less overwhelming if your tweeps grow gradually.
- Consider using a Twitter app such as TweetDeck or HootSuite to help organize your tweets by kind of follower: officials on your beat, people in the community, other journalists, etc. These apps make the Twitter stream less overwhelming.
- If you’re not interested in someone’s tweets, you can click on their profile and click “unfollow.” (You can still keep them on a list of local tweeps to check when news breaks.
- Check out my earlier post on building engagement on Twitter.
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. WordPress gives me a “get shortlink” button above my toolbar as I am writing my blog. Twitter will shorten the URL for you, but bit.ly gives you metrics on how much your link is used. And shortening the link yourself lets you see how many characters you have left after the link.
- Write a headline. Tell people something about the link you’re passing along. Actually, 140 characters (about 120 without the link) gives you way more space than many newspaper headlines, so this kind of tweeting is right in an editor’s sweet spot. A more conversational tone than a headline is even better.
- 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.
- 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 of things to tweet about (reject any that don’t work for you):
- As noted above, 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 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.
- Decide whether you want to use Twitter for what Jay Rosen calls “lifecasting” (tweets about what you’re doing) or “mindcasting” (tweets about what you’re reading and thinking) or both. I do both, but I enjoy some tweeps who lean each way.
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 tweet from closed meetings (probably not a lot, but if they do, you won’t know unless you follow).
- As you build a following of people in your community, 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).
- 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.
- Curate tweets (yours and/or the community’s) on a topic you’re covering, using Storify or Storyful.
- 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’s Advanced 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. You can save searches for a keyword or a hashtag as a column in TweetDeck or HootSuite or as a saved search in your Twitter account (searches are a column on the Twitter home page).
- If you jump on a breaking story quickly, try to promote a hashtag that others will pick up. If the hashtag catches on, you will see tweets from people you aren’t following. NewsOK.com promotes #okstorm during bad weather.
- As you find tweets indicating that people have first-hand experience with the story you are covering, reply to them (or direct-message them, if you follow them), asking them to call you directly for an interview.
- Search also for photos posted on services such as Twitpic or Instagram. Ask people for permission to publish their photos
- Use NearbyTweets or advanced Twitter search 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, using CoverItLive, ScribbleLive or a Twitter widget that feeds them in automatically or using Storify to curate the best tweets or to group tweets by topic or weave them into a story.
- Embed individual tweets or a group of tweets into a story using QuoteURL or Blackbird Pie.
I have blogged frequently about Twitter’s use in covering breaking news, including a detailed case study on a particular story: @statesman: A case study in using Twitter on breaking news
Checking your tweets
Don’t feel as though you need to read every tweet by the people you follow. You can check your “mentions” quickly and respond to people who are tweeting to or about you. You can use TweetDeck or HootSuite to organize tweets by type of source or by searches that you have saved.
Just as you can’t and don’t read every interesting story or blog post on the web, it’s OK to catch a smattering of tweets now and then, and not feel obligated to read every tweet since the last time you looked.
Think of Twitter as a lovely, refreshing mountain stream. You can visit occasionally to enjoy the scenery, wade in the water or fish for trout. But you don’t have to drink every drop or catch every fish.
Twitter and Facebook
Some journalists tell me they like Facebook better than Twitter. That’s fine. This is not an either/or thing. A good journalist is going to use both and understand that they are different tools, each useful in different ways. Some differences:
- More people use Facebook than Twitter, so you have the possibility of reaching a larger audience on Facebook.
- Active Twitter users tend to tweet more times per day than Facebook users tend to update.
- While Facebook has good mobile apps, Twitter tends to get more instant use for breaking news. If an active Twitter user and an active Facebook user both witness the same thing, the Twitter user is more likely to post about it immediately with multiple posts.
You can use Facebook and Twitter simultaneously. Services such as TweetDeck or HootSuite let you update both services at once. You also can sync your Twitter and Facebook accounts. (I do this, but I don’t recommend it. I tweet more than most people update on Facebook, so some friends have hidden my updates.)
Competition on Twitter
You should follow competing journalists on Twitter. But you shouldn’t worry too much about whether they are following your tweets. Maybe you don’t want to tweet that you’re heading off to an exclusive interview with a particular source. But don’t be bashful about breaking news on Twitter. People in the news business used to fret a lot about “scooping ourselves” online. If you had the news on Twitter, you didn’t scoop yourself. You scooped everyone.
Twitter is a conversational platform. Reply to tweeps who address you. Retweet things you find interesting. Pass on links you enjoyed or found useful. Thank tweeps who help you. Use a conversational tone. Don’t be a bore. Correct your errors quickly and humbly. Be yourself. Be fun to follow.
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 my tweets reflect on me as a journalist as well as on my news organization. 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.
- 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. Remember a reporter’s most important question: “How do you know that?” Check the context – earlier tweets, location (if the person has enabled location), link to the person’s blog or website. Google the name listed to see if you can validate that your tweep is who he or she claims to be. NPR’s Andy Carvin is showing how effectively you can validate (or debunk) information swiftly using Twitter. (With his 50,000-plus followers, that will work better for him than it will work for you, at least at first.) Mandy Jenkins, my former TBD colleague, says to think of Twitter as a tip service.
- 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. Some journalists are advocating greater transparency about opinions, and you might want to reassess your own thinking about this or to encourage a discussion about whether your organization should reconsider its own rules or guidance on this issue.
Using Twitter will take some time, particularly when you’re learning. But it’s worth the investment of your time. It will save you time in breaking news stories and in crowdsourcing. I blogged some Twitter time management tips that might be helpful if you find yourself spending too much time with Twitter (or not enough because you are using the time excuse). ASNE was way off-base in its social media “best practices,” referring to social media as a “gigantic time suck.” Email can be a time suck, too, but we learn how to use it. Effective use of Twitter helps you use your time efficiently.
I compiled a list of Twitter resources for journalists last year. It could stand updating, but still provides helpful links. My beat reporting course at News University has been updated to provide lots of social media tips for reporters. I also recommend the social media resources developed by my former TBD colleague Mandy Jenkins. John Robinson provided a “quick-start” guide to Twitter (and a list of journalists to follow) for ASNE. Twitter also provides some newsroom resources (though I was disappointed in them when they first came out; I hope Twitter has added more helpful advice but haven’t checked lately).
Basic Twitter vocabulary
These are just some basic terms that are used widely in Twitter. For more Twitter terminology, check the glossary links in a separate post on Twitter resources and blogs.
- @ is how you identify a tweep you are addressing or tweeting about. Put @ in front of the user name (@stevebuttry) and people will know you are addressing or writing about that person. In addition, Twitter will automatically turn the username into a hyperlink to his or her profile.
- Applications. Lots of applications such as TweetDeck and HootSuite help you use Twitter more effectively on your computer or phone. You can enjoy Twitter without using any of the applications, though.
- Direct message or DM is a tweet sent directly to another tweep. This should not appear in either person’s public Twitter stream. (But just as some people accidentally reply to a list-serv with a message intended to be private, some people tweet publicly when intending to DM, so DM prudently.) You can only DM someone who follows you.
- Favorite. If you really like a particular tweet, you can designate it as a favorite by clicking the star on the mobile app or “favorite” under the tweet on Twitter.com. This is a way of “bookmarking” tweets and links you like. Favorites are a tab on your profile where you can check the ones you’ve marked.
- #Hashtags are a tag to help group tweets about a particular event or topic. The tag is designated by #sign in front of a word (sometimes a couple words without spaces). For instance, #wjchat, as I mentioned before. When looking for information on a topic, you might want to try multiple hashtags because they occur spontaneously. For instance, in checking tweets about flooding in Fargo, N.D., in 2009, I found lots of messages using #flood09, #redriver and #fargoflood.
- Reply means to respond to a particular tweet. You can reply by starting a tweet with @username. It’s better, though, if you click the arrow on the Twitter app or click “reply” beneath the tweet. This lets people looking at the tweet see the full conversation thread. This helps other tweeps (and sometimes the person you’re replying to) understand context. You can read your replies (and any mentions of you) in the “mentions” tab on the Twitter home page or the “a” tab on the mobile app. Most clients such as TweetDeck have a default column of mentions. This is helpful when you don’t want to catch up on all the tweets you’ve missed on several hours away from Twitter, but don’t want to miss something about or directed at you. If you reply by starting a tweet with @ and a username, only people who follow both you and that person will see that tweet in their Twitter streams (they will see it if they go to your page). So if you want the tweet to be more public, start with a period in front, like this: .@stevebuttry.
- Retweet means to pass along something you read from one of your tweeps. You start a retweet with “RT @tweep’sname.” You don’t have to retweet verbatim, though you may if you have room (if the original tweet was the full 140 characters, you will need to condense a little). If you edit the original tweet heavily, use “MT” (modified tweet). Links are a great thing to retweet. Don’t feel the need to repeat your tweep’s comment about the link. Retweet the link with your own comment. If you’re just passing along a link you saw from someone else’s tweet, but making your own comment rather than retweeting the original comment, nod to the tweep who called it to your attention with “via” or “h/t” (heard through): “via @stevebuttry” or “h/t @stevebuttry.” You also can retweet automatically, using the “retweet” option at Twitter.com (it’s an icon with two arrows arranged in a square in the mobile app).
- Tweeps are the people who follow you and those you follow.
- Tweet, when you post something to Twitter, that’s a tweet. Noun or verb, and it’s in wide use, regardless of what the New York Times says. Tweets are limited to 140 characters, including spaces.
- Tweetup means some tweeps are gathering physically, often at a restaurant or bar. Join a tweetup in your community sometime.