Twitter, journalists and journalism students’ dissertation questions

It must be dissertation time of year again; requests for help from journalism students are winging their way to my inbox like swallows. They’re pretty varied too, ranging from considered requests for assistance, with specific questions and an explanation of the focus of the student’s work, to broad-brush “what you think the future holds for newspapers?” queries.

Now, I don’t like to be unhelpful, especially as some of these bright young things may one day end up being my boss, but it’s very time-consuming writing considered, lengthy responses each time someone asks me stuff; so I thought I might get proactive and blog about it. Because most of the questions that come to be are currently related to how journalists and newsrooms can use Twitter, I’ve done a little round-up, with some links.
I’ve also been asked about future-proofing and skills; anyone looking at that should take a trip to Glyn Mottishead’s blog where there’s an excellent survey on the subject.

So, Twitter thoughts. It’s fairly easy to find writers who dismiss social media as a flash in the pan, a collection of ‘I’m eating a bacon sandwich’ microblogs. Some think sporadic ‘I need news stories’ tweeting is about as far as they need to go, and others see it as a waste of time. Ironically, this Express article was removed from its website a few hours after being mocked by the Twittersphere for its sheer hopelessness and ignorance.

On a more positive note, a US survey has also found that more journalists are using social media to follow news than ever before although I’m more interested in how (if?) they engage with other users on these networks. Practically every newspaper has a news Twitter now but these are generally updated automatically. On a practical level, Twitter lets journalists follow in events in real-time, using hashtags (everything from #Haiti and #uksnow to #xfactor) talk to people directly involved, gauge public opinion (look how fast politicians discovered #ilovethenhs) and follow links to more information, still images, livestream footage, video, blog posts and more… it’s an incredibly rich seam once you tap into it. Consider how Tweetminster has revolutionised the way a journalist can follow politics, debate, and politicians in a short space of time. And it can be an effective shortcut for tracking other social networks too, as more users select multi-site publishing options to cross-post their content, from livestreaming on mobile phones to mobile podcasts.

Journalists who want to get the best out of Twitter know they need to treat it as a patch, just as they would would if a news editor gave them a geographical area or niche specialism. They get to know the place, the people, the tools, the language and the etiquette, and spend time learning how Twitter works. Those that don’t tend to write articles about how Twitter is a hunting ground for paedophiles.  I know some media firms have Twitter codes of conduct for their journalists – personally, I follow a ‘tweet unto others’ approach and tend to think any professional person who needs a guide telling them how to behave in public dealings with others while representing their employer should take a hard look at their own character.
I’ve said it before, as have many others (see the links below for a selection) Twitter helps journalists who use it to:

  • Build an ever-growing network (you have to think about who to follow, what you can discover from them, who they follow and why)
  • Initiate conversations
  • Engage with audiences 
  • Learn to deal with instant response – and public criticism on occasion 
  • Reach experts 
  • Be transparent 
  • Show how you reached your conclusions 
  • Promote your work and yourself 
  • Share your data (and learn to let that data to be used by others and passed on, possibly without your initial contribution getting name-checked)
  • Take raw information, apply checks, re-tweet with added information and value 
  • Curate collective tweets into an aggregated developing story
  • Be a real person to your audience

News companies in general can benefit from using Twitter (although The Guardian does seem to be unable to write a story about it without attracting buckets of comment-scorn) but there are some rules to follow I’d say, with Follow being the operative word. If your newspaper Twitter account has 4000 followers and follows 2 people, even if whoever runs it responds to @ messages, the impression is that it’s not engaging, it’s broadcasting.
At the Post and Echo we’ve had Twitter accounts for news, Liverpool FC and Everton FC for two years, later additions include football blogs @LFCBanter and @EFCBanter and blogging reporters who use their own accounts to tweet post updates.
Newspapers that engage in Twitter streams and feeds can build brand loyalty, help market their products and extend their reach in communities if their audience also believes it is being listened to, and at times of breaking news, a fast-moving Twitterfall on a big screen in the newsroom can be mesmerising. Twitter lists are great for readers – the New York Times section gives me List Envy.

Anyway, I suppose what I’m saying is that Twitter isn’t essential for journalists -  I know some who don’t use it, don’t like it, and don’t see the point of it but regularly get the front page just the same – but dismissing it as just another social network is an error. It might be noisy and require some effort, but there’s no escaping the fact that it is currently one of the most powerful online real world sharing and conversational tools goings.
In these days of editorial cutbacks, when something as vital as spending time out of the office building contacts and talking to people inevitably has to take a back seat to the demands of filling tomorrow’s news pages within a few short hours to meet earlier deadlines, it can be enormously useful.
You can have access to thousands of people in your local/specialist area, get to know what they care about, where they shop, socialise, work and what gets them riled. And they can get to know you too. All that in 140 characters or less.

Possibly useful links: 

The use of Twitter by American newspapers 
When Twitter beats local news outlets
How journalists can master Twitter
Journalists and Twitter: All talk or are you listening?
There’s a plane in the Hudson River (Twitpic)

Reporters put Twitter, Facebook to ‘Big Brother’ test … and the rebuttal -Journalists’ Social Media Sideshow Will Prove Nothing

Tweeting from court: The Casey Brooks case
The online conversational onion
Graphic: What can you accomplish in one week of Web 2.0
The rise of Twitter as a serious platform for discourse

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