Why journalists should use Twitter (Nico Luchsinger)

Nico Luchsinger writes about the microblogging tool. Based on an article he wrote for the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

I recently mentioned to a colleague of mine, who also is a freelance journalist, that I’m researching an article about Twitter. “I hope you really trash this service”, was his answer. “This is nothing else than verbal diarrhoea.”

This reaction is not untypical for people having never used the service – I remember that I thought more or less the same when I first heard about Twitter. That even the most ardent users of the service (which, by now, include me) are often at pains to explain what it really is that Twitter does, is of course not helping the case.

Nonetheless, Twitter has in the past six months nearly tripled its user base, to an estimated 800’000 in January. And if you play around a little bit with Twitter, you will very quickly realise that there is a huge potential for journalists and media companies.

Breaking the news quickly (and easily)

First of all, Twitter is a great way of breaking news very quickly and easily. Twitter’s mobile notification service makes it perfect for this kind of service, and its open API guarantees that the information can be fed into the service at very low cost.

There are the “classical” examples, where a media company just distributes its news updates via Twitter. CNN’s Breaking News are already available, and San Diego’s TV station KBPS famously used Twitter to keep the population informed when its website crashed during the wildfires last October.

But Twitter also makes it possible to break the news in a different way: When Iowa held its caucuses for the US presidential elections on January 3rd, political strategist Patrick Ruffini asked people participating in the caucuses to send him the results directly via Twitter.

Ruffini in turn then aggregated the results and re-distributed them on a Twitter channel he had set up specifically for the Iowa caucuses.

The outcome, wrote Ruffini a day later on his blog, was impressive: “This exercise in citizen journalism foretold the result far more quickly than dispatching two dozen stringers to caucus locations throughout Iowa.”

More recently, however, Twitter also made the blogosphere angry when the service went down due to server overload during Steve Jobs’ keynote at Macworld.

Connecting with readers

On a more personal level, Twitter can be a great way for journalists to connect with their readers. This, of course, also helps journalists: “One day, when I was researching an article, I was looking for a specific piece of information”, says Thomas Knuewer, blogger and reporter at the German newspaper “Handelsblatt”. “So I just asked the question on Twitter – and had the answer I was looking for within minutes.”

Knuewer then began asking his Twitter followers for questions before he did an interview.

“For each interview, I got about 5 to 10 questions from people over Twitter”, he says. “That’s actually quite an impressive number if you consider that I have about 300 people following me.”

Aggregating data

Remember the days when every second newspaper article began with the phrase “When you enter the word XY on Google, you get [insert huge number here] of results” ? Twitter takes this form of data analysis one step further. The 800’000 or so Twitter users produce a gigantic information flow every day – and the Twitter API provides the tools to analyze and aggregate that data, and eventually put it to a journalistic use.

One great example is the site Politweets which searches all the tweets for the names of the US presidential candidates and then creates a ranking. Politweets was created by a company named character140, and the tech blog Mashable! asked the question: Why didn’t Twitter create this itself? But the question should rather be: Why didn’t a news company build this – and integrate it into its website?

While Politweets only aggregates data on a specific subject, the hashtags idea aims to provide data from Twitter for a much broader range of subjects. Hashtags.org collects tweets from users that include a hashtag (which is just a tag with a hash symbol, e.g. #twitter) and provides feeds for every tag.

Finally, there are several sites that allow you to directly poll the Twitter userbase, for example Twittpoll and Twittercensus.

…a final word about money

The great thing about Twitter is that it’s completely free. This and the API have allowed the service to grow very quickly over the last year or so – but it also might create problems when it comes to monetarization.

Twitter’s lack of a business plan prompted Allen Stern of CenterNetworks to ask “Is Twitter F’ed?” The possibilities for making money through advertisements, argued Stern, are limited, because most people are accessing Twitter via third-party applications.

While Twitter itself remains suspiciously quiet about the issue, other bloggers have joined the discussion. Both Dave Winer and Jason Calacanis have refuted Stern’s argument, saying that there are lots of ways for Twitter to make money. Calacanis proposes in-feed and SMS advertising as well as a subscription model for premium users. Winer imagines that Twitter will design its own mobile phone (or partner up with a carrier to do it).

Twitter has already proven that it can provide a great service – now they have to show how to make money from it. If they fail, the company might run in to trouble rather soon – which would be a pity for everyone, but especially for journalists and media companies.

Have other ideas or examples how journalists and media companies can use Twitter? Share them in the comments!

This article was written by Nico Luchsinger. His personal blog (in German) is here.

27 thoughts on “Why journalists should use Twitter (Nico Luchsinger)

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  2. Laura Oliver

    The Nashua Telegraph in the US has been using Twitter as a breaking news feed and as a way to deliver niche content to subscribers – http://www.journalism.co.uk/2/articles/530861.php

    The potential for Twitterers to break news before mainstream media, as was the case with the east London bus depot fire last October, is also pretty exciting.

    Slightly off topic – but I find myself clicking through on links submitted by the people I follow on Twitter, more than links in my RSS feeds. Element of personal recommendation goes a long way for me.

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  4. Chris Green

    Couldn’t agree more. Twitter has already established itself as one of my most important online tools. I promote content with it, ask questions of and poll contacts, I use it as a means to sound-off and I’ve even commissioned freelancers via Twitter.

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  8. Connie Reece

    Writer Craig Colgan used Twitter to track down Susan Reynolds for an interview for his Washington Post story, “How Frozen Peas Started a Movement.” He and Susan conspired to be on Twitter when the story broke online, and the ensuing conversation went around the globe in moments.

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  10. nicoluchsinger Post author

    Just saw that over at Lunch over IP, the managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote a post on how they have been using Twitter to cover the construction shutdown of a freeway. The conclusion: “Twitter has specific strengths that make it an asset in covering certain types of stories — where immediate micro-information is very relevant to the readers — while in other cases, it might not be worth taking the time to add it to your coverage arsenal.”

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  12. Danny Sanchez

    Hey Paul, we’ve been using Twitter here at the Orlando Sentinel quite a bit, and it’s been great for us, especially during big breaking news events and for things like morning traffic. We hand-write our tweets; it’s not an automated thing like the NYTimes has.

    Personally, I don’t use Twitter because I’ve got an embarrassingly old phone, and I just don’t have the time. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t recognize that a LOT of people do use it, especially that web savvy audience we’re trying to reach. I believe it to be quite worthwhile.

    Our feed is here: http://twitter.com/orlandosentinel

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  15. Ian

    A few times I have heard about breaking news reported before any news or media organisation got a word out. When the UK (where I live) had an earthquake a few weeks ago, I was talking about it with people on Twitter before it made the news ten minutes later and it was reported that it was Twitter that alerted the journalists.

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