The following is a longer version of the article that appeared in Journalism.co.uk last week, with some extra tools and quotes.
It’s almost impossible to sum up Twitter in one line. To some, it is a way of delivering content to mobiles as headline text alerts. To others, it’s a social networking tool for getting contacts and leads. Some use it as a research tool for developing stories; and still others as a project management tool to gather a number of contributors together – for example, drivers posting updates on traffic.
In other words, it is what you make it and the only way to figure it out is to start using it. The following is a guide to getting started on Twitter as a journalist, and some of the things that can be done with it.
Twitter for newsgathering
Contacts are central to a journalist’s work. Twitter makes it easier to find them. But whereas, for instance, Facebook requires someone to accept you as their ‘friend’ before you get updates; you can follow people on Twitter regardless. It’s where blogging meets social networking.
The more people you follow on Twitter, the more likely you are to come across a lead or a useful contact. News of the recent UK earthquake, for example, broke first on Twitter, while last year news of a fire in East London broke there too. And even as I type this, someone I know at St Pancras station has twittered that it is being evacuated. You might also use Twitterverse or PicoBuzz to spot important phrases (e.g. events).
Here’s a simple ticklist to fill your Twitter contacts book:
- Obviously you should begin by searching Twitter for people you know, or know of, in your field. The Labour Party, Lib Dems and Conservatives all have their own Twitter accounts, for example, as do some politicians. But beware of hoaxers. This isn’t really Chuck Norris, for example. Is it?
- Then, look at who they’re following (I find entering someone’s username on Gridjit is the best way of seeing someone’s contacts and what they’re saying, or you can use Quotably to follow their conversations).
- Then try Twits Like Me to find people with similar interests (based on what you’ve twittered)
- and Twubble (based on your friends) or Who Should I Follow? (which allows you to adjust according to whether you want people nearer your location or more or less popular)
- and Tweetscan for key words (e.g. “health”, “NHS”).
- Finally Twitterlocal will help you find twitterers in your local area.
- You can also find a list of significant Twitter users in various fields at the Twitter Pack Project. However, as this is a wiki there is a risk that people have added themselves. It’s also US-focused.
The Birmingham Post, and particularly reporter Jo Geary, are leading Twitter-users among regional newspapers. She sees it as a great way of building a relationship with your contacts and target audience.
“It’s not just popping in, getting something, and popping out, but building something more. And because of that it’s also become a support network of people who help me, and vice versa. It moves into the crowdsourcing thing – if you want to do something you can put out questions and get answers.”
It’s all part of the wider move of journalism to becoming a conversation with readers. Abbie Lundberg, for instance, wrote one article by soliciting tweets on the topic from her followers. Nico Luchsinger even conducted his interview with me via Twitter (which gave me the unique experience of being interviewed while shopping in Tesco.)
Managing your Twitter feeds
Once you’ve set up all those contacts, it’s useful to create some filters to help manage the incoming information. Gridjit, again, has a clearer interface for viewing tweets. Desktop applications like Twhirl will give you an audio alert; Snitter allows you to filter your tweets – for key words or tweets containing links for instance. You can also set up pages to organise tweets from ‘crowds’ of twitterers (for example, friends, colleagues, contacts) using Crowdstatus.com.
You can – and should – set up Twitter to send updates to your mobile phone (click on ‘add device’ or look in settings). It’s free, and is particularly useful for following what’s happening while you’re on the move. But pick your sources carefully – Twitter will only send 250 updates per week, and it’s easy to hit that.
The first thing you should do once you’ve set up Twitter to send text alerts is to text Twitter the word “track” followed by your username. This means Twitter will text you whenever anyone mentions your username on Twitter – very useful for picking up messages aimed at you. You can use the same trick to track mentions of key words in your area, such as a key employer or your own organisation (More tips on mobile commands can be found here). If you prefer email alerts, MobiFeedLive.com and Tweet Scan (not to be confused with Tweetscan) provide them.
Twitter for news publishing, distribution and creation
If you want an idea of what Twitter can do for news publishing check out BreakingNewsOn. Headline alerts of breaking news that people can receive on their mobiles are the most obvious application, and used by dozens of organisations including the BBC, the Guardian and CNN (This post has a list of news organisations using Twitter). It’s a good way of alerting people to your content, as well as inviting participation, as Emap’s David Cushman recently tweeted: “Comments on my blog are going mad. Nothing has changed except I now use twitter regularly.”
Twitterfeed will save you typing updates by pushing RSS feeds from your newspaper to a Twitter account, but this means you have to write the article first and risk missing the scoop. Instead it’s better to ‘tweet’ (post to Twitter) before you write the article – ensuring you get to the top of Google quickly, as Birmingham Post editor Marc Reeves did with the arrest of Karren Brady:
“I’m only followed by 30 people or so … But these people are all … in the business of sharing information and knowledge. Consequently, a number of them followed my link to the story on the Post website, and started to talk about it on their own blogs and again through Twitter, with the effect that the Post site received an incredible number of hits as word spread.”
If you really want to track how many people are clicking on any of your links you can also use Tweetburner (or Twitt(url)y to see what they’re saying if they pass it on). Or you can use Intwition to see who’s linking to a particular domain.
Twitter is particularly useful for journalists reporting live via text message themselves. Sky reporter Julia Reid recently used it to post her “minute-by-minute” experiences at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. Robert LaHue used it “to semi-liveblog a board meeting via texting” and it’s often used at conferences and events. You can also download applications that allow you to update Twitter from your mobile – this article compares 20 of them.
Going beyond 140 characters
And if you’re frustrated by the 140 character limit try some of these tools:
- Twitzer is a Firefox extension that allows you to write tweets over 140 characters. MessageDance does much the same via email, and also allows comments on tweets.
- twi8r translates text speak into ‘English’ and vice versa, allowing you to truncate your messages
- Twittermail.com and Tweetahead allow you to pre-schedule tweets to be posted (for when you are not at a computer); the latter also lets you send and receive tweets via email
- Tweetr is a Twitter reader that allows you to send files up to 10MB through Twitter.
- TwitPic allows you to send images from your phone and not only posts links straight to your Twitter account but allows people to post comments that are then posted on their own Twitter page (with a link to the photo). Mobypicture does something similar. TwitterSoap is a mashup of Mobypicture and Twitter.
- SnapTweet posts your latest Flickr picture to Twitter; Autopostr.com does much the same.
- Twiddeo allows you to do the same with video.
- Twixxer does both photo and video sharing
- And American and Canadian users can phone in their tweets using Jott.
- Or you can use the Firefox plugin Power Twitter, which does most of the above and much, much more.
But Twitter becomes really impressive when you tap into its social, conversational nature – or combine the RSS feeds from a number of twitterers. Shawn Smith used it to create the Michigan Twitter Network, which “follows more than 1,300 Michigan twitterers. We’ve gained about 200+ followers and use this account @mlive to send breaking news alerts and also poll users.” (I’ve created something similar for Birmingham twitterers). In Spain, ADN.es used it to follow voter reactions during a televised presidential candidate debate on TV.
My recent experiment with, of all things, a live book review on Twitter demonstrated that the boundary between publishing and conversation becomes blurred when you use the technology – confusing if you’re bothered about semantics, but encouraging if you’re interested in positive relationships between the journalist and reader.
At the end of the day, Twitter is just a platform. What I’ve outlined here is just the start, and there are plenty of experiments being done – the really interesting stuff starts when you try something completely new…
Feel free to follow me, by the way, at twitter.com/paulbradshaw