Teaching journalism students to twitter – the good, the bad, and the ugly

This year I started my online journalism module with three things: Twitter, Del.icio.us, and RSS readers. I asked students to:

  • socially bookmark useful webpages,
  • subscribe to useful feeds through their RSS reader,
  • use social recommendation and tags to discover new sources
  • – and to twitter the whole process.

The results? Frankly, disappointing.

If you think 19- and 20-year-olds are au fait with Twitter, think again. Only one had used it before starting the class. And even afterwards, the journalism students I was teaching hardly hit the ground running.

In fact, in the ten days since my class, around half have not twittered at all.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good.

Those that have used the technology have demonstrated how well it can work as a distribution and publishing tool.

Step up Natalie Chillington, Stephanie Grant, Alice Fanning, Laura Blood, Tuuli Platner, and Anu Gamangari, who are all using it to post updates about their search for stories as they get to grips with reporting on an area completely new to them.

And Kasper Sorensen, who has been a little more creative in using it to post news updates and factoids.

Aggregation, mashup

But this is just the start.

I have aggregated their feeds – and those of the rest of the class – using the wonderful RSS mashup service xFruits.

The combined feed (see it here) is then fed to an email update (also through xFruits), delivered to my inbox so I get a daily update what my reporters are up to.

And of course, so could the readers. Because, even if Twitter doesn’t become a mass market consumption channel, it remains a very effective publishing and distribution one.

Interestingly, that mashed up feed has already had 27 views, despite no publicity – presumably through people browsing xFruits.

But there’s still a further cultural hurdle here. Despite orders to engage, to immerse, and to network, only one student is following a twitterer outside their class (another is following the BBC twitter feed but that hardly counts).

My feeling is that there is still a clear one-way – and gated – publishing mentality from journalism students. My challenge over the following eight lessons is to demonstrate that, online, journalism is not just writing a webpage or filming a video; it is commenting on a blog, or bookmarking a webpage. That there are no walls in cyberspace, only links; and that journalism lies in every act that you commit online. You just need to make it visible.


40 thoughts on “Teaching journalism students to twitter – the good, the bad, and the ugly

  1. Stef Lewandowski

    Thanks for the hint on xFruits – I’ve gone about it the long way to do something similar with Yahoo Pipes.

    From experience engaging with new technology comes about from within – you have to really want to do it to keep the momentum going.

    Perhaps some of the students don’t feel comfortable broadcasting their lives on the web?

    It’s not difficult to imagine a twitter saying “Going on holiday for the weekend with all of my housemates. Glad the nextdoor neighbours are looking after the goldfish”, combined with a Google map of where that person lives, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

    Or even worse they’ve had bad experiences with people hassling them on facebook/bebo/myspace etc.

  2. Paul Bradshaw

    Yes, I also think they are used to presenting ‘finished’ work rather than ongoing stuff. I had the same experience with using wikis in Magazine Design – some students were writing up their reports in Word and waiting until they had something ‘ready’ to publish. The value of publishing work in progress needs to be more explicitly demonstrated.

  3. Bas Timmers

    Especially the ‘work in progress’-part is interesting. Thay you can get people interested in a story though it isn’t finished yet. It would be even nicer when these people can make the work-in-progress better. I doubt though whether there are enough people on Twitter already to get such a user interaction.

  4. Christopher Dean

    I think the idea of ‘making content out of our processes’ is great for transparency and forces the reporter to make sure the highest standards of accuracy, impartiality etc are upheld, but I would question how many people are going to want to read this stuff. Does the average citizen have enough time to check up on all the background to the reports he or she reads?

  5. birminghamposteditor

    You’ll know when Twitter has caught on when smart PRs start using the technology to ‘stalk’ journos to try to influence the stories they’re working on…

  6. paulbradshaw Post author

    @Christopher: there are two issues here. Firstly – the quantity of people may not be as important as the quality of people: Twitter subscribers are likely to be more engaged, committed, and therefore able to offer tips and leads back.
    Secondly, you’re assuming they read it through Twitter: imagine a ticker showing ‘what our reporters are doing now’ fed from twitter feeds. A very effective way of marketing the expertise and activity of journalists.

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  8. tish grier

    Hi Paul–thanks for busting the myth that univeristy students are all hep to Twitter and all knowledgeable about journalism’s shift from print to online. Many in the press (and in the tech world) seem to have bought the “everybody’s doing it” hype to the point where they’ve lost touch with what real people are NOT doing with all these little gizmos. As I also discovered conducting a class last fall, most students really think they’re going into old-style print journalism (maybe they’ve been watching too many movies made in the ’70’s….)

    And the reality/irony is that it’s the teachers and old folks who are going to have to introduce them to this stuff….

    Personally, I’m not totally sold that Twitter’s going to be *the* thing for insta-reporting, but there may end up being something like it that young folks may have to use at some point in their careers. And teaching them to use RSS mashup tools like xFruits (which I *love*) is another important thing. RSS certainly will become more important as the web goes on.

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  12. Tuuli

    I was one of the students who had at least heard of Twitter, but I’ve never used it before – in fact, I only heard about it recently in a blog post on ‘ten websites that will change your life’ and when visiting the twitter site couldn’t really grasp why it was all that important!? The only thing I could liken it to was the facebook status – which is something university students *have* caught onto, and demonstrates that we don’t really mind having our entire lives broadcast to the world (!!) so it’s not so much a hesitation to expose our ‘private’ lives so much as just something that hasn’t become a fad yet in university circles.

  13. Aaron

    I’m sorry Paul, I just don’t get it.

    Having graduated j-school last year, I can relate with Tuuli. Facebook and MySpace are fine, but we younguns really don’t care that much about being linked to the world at large.

    So why is everyone telling us we’re supposed to??

    I’ve tried honestly. But I think Twitter, LinkedIn, del.icio.us, etc., aren’t that big of a deal for most people. I tried inviting my non journalism friends, who are intelligent, and they don’t get it either.

    Your students using twitter are sharing links. del.icio.us does that. Occasionally they say something about what they’re doing. We have texting for that already. And we have e-mail. And by the way we can use our cell phones to actually talk. And all digital life is a lonely one. Twittering seems like a hassle, anyway.

  14. paulbradshaw Post author

    @Aaron: Again, as I said in the post, it’s important to make a distinction between Twitter as a consumption technology (for users) and as a publishing and distribution strategy (journalists).
    Twitter combines the functions of the other tools you mention, and enables publishers to distribute content to mobile phones very easily, or to aggregate for tickers or email updates. (i.e. consumers are not necessarily using Twitter to read your updates)
    And it also connects you with the more engaged members of your community who *are* twittering.
    For the small amount of effort it needs (to simply type what you’re working on every day, or something you’ve found) the benefits are worth it.

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  16. Craig McGill

    Something else: a lot of journalism involves the reporter keeping a low-profile or being not known/undercover. Being all multi-media friendly and highprofile online kind of flies in the face of that.

    Also, Twitter – which I can see the uses for – is defeated by the very professionals who use it. I really don’t need to know that someone is havin a coffee in Starbucks or is staying in because the weather is bad. Perhaps people should have a Twitter Pro and a Twitter Personal setup instead of just one account doing it all?

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  22. robb Montgomery

    Yes, good move to involve students in a new distribution and sourcing channel.

    Last november I taught two classes of Medill Journalism students a seminar on writing for the Web and was shocked when I polled them during the lecture. None of hem knew what Twitter was.
    All of them were on Facebook though. Only about three had ever heard of RSS.

    So, I proceeded to demonstrate in their 50 minute class how to use twitter, utterz, flickr and a few others to gather facts, interview people and publish and distribute them in real time. Before the class ended we published photos, reports, polling graphics and a podcast.

    If you are going to be successful as a journalist entering the workforce, you have to have experience in mastering the new tools and a deep understanding of how the wired present will extend into the future. As a professional journalist you go where your audience is and where the stories are. The core journalism doesn’t change.

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