Is twitter a magic bullet that will save newspapers? Of course not. The thing is. There is no magic bullet. What the newspaper industry needs to do to adjust to the changes in the media climate are similar to what an overweight person needs to do to get sleek. It’s not one thing: It’s a whole life change, a whole different way of thinking; and it won’t be easy. (But is really anything worth doing easy?)
With that said, I do think twitter can be part of that. It’s a tool that I find, quite frankly, very fun. But it also can be useful to journalists. This post is the first in a series I plan on how journalists can use twitter. It’s based mainly on how I’ve used twitter, as I cover parenting and children at a daily newspaper. (Want to check out what I’m doing, follow me on twitter.)
Part one: How can twitter help a journalist:
- Networking tool: Journalists need people to tell them stuff, and the way humans are built, they are more likely to tell people they have some type of connection with than those they don’t. To me twitter is a way to connect with sources and readers in your community and on your beat. It’s a bit like chatting it up with the secretaries at the courthouse where you cover courts. You ask how her day was, how her daughter’s wedding went, and you develop a relationship of sorts. Then when the mayor gets indicted, you might be the person she tips off. So tweeting about what you had for lunch or that you’re heading to your daughter’s piano lessons are useful because they make the journalist a human being to those who follow him or her.
- Getting Stealing ideas: The fact is if you’re a blogger — whether a journalist or not — you need to constantly come up with interesting topics to blog about in your niche (or beat, for us journalists.) Twitter is a way to read a bunch of other blogs and Web sites in your area in the same way you’d read a bunch of newspapers to get ideas for stories. I called it “stealing,” but it’s not — it’s getting inspiration. You’re not copying what someone else said; you’re using another’s idea as a starting point for your own blog on that topic. Twitter gives you a way to find out quickly what other blogs and Web sites are writing about. I follow a lot of parenting and mommy and daddy blogs and Web sites on twitter. Regularly, they will tweet about something they have written with a link; I read it; sometimes I blog on the same topic and link back to their site. (That linking back is a great thing to do, which bloggers know but many journalists don’t quite get. I’ll explain that more in a later post.) I have found out about hot topics this way and be able to get my blog into the conversation. MomLogic, a parenting Web site, for example, twittered about a study it did that found that married women hate sex. I read the tweet, reached MomLogic’s post and blogged about it. It became one of my popular posts plus it has the benefit of possibly gaining search-engine traffic because it was a topic that was buzzing around the blogosphere that day. (Again, I’ll explain more about that in a later post.)
- Finding sources: I was working on a story about how to go back to school on a budget. I was looking for moms who are super frugal. How would I find that? Twitter helped. I had been following a woman for a while who had her own blog, Frugal Upstate. I could tell from reading months of her tweets, that she’d be perfect for the story. So I sent her a direct message on twitter and asked if I could interview her. Of course, I had to check her out like any other source, but twitter helped me find her.
- Aggregating: Certain topics will really take off on twitter, and there’s something called a hashtag (looks like # and a word that’s related to the topic you are aggregating) that can be used to get all those tweets in one place. Why does this help journalists? There’s millions of people on twitter, but hashtags can help sort through all the voices to the ones you — and your readers — really want to hear. Our newspaper offers a hashtag for all local posts, so they go to one page on our Web site if people add the hashtag (#cny or #syracuse) to their tweets. It’s a quick way to see what others in our community are tweeting about, so it makes the newspaper the place for people to go to see what’s going on. Hashtags are also useful for specific topics. When that happens, it can give journalists a sense of what topics are hot — what’s worth writing about. For example, Motrin ran an advertisement in October about how wearing your infant in an sling causes back pain that you can solve with Motrin. Advocates for babywearing went wild; mommy blogs were spouting off about it; a hashtag — #motrinmoms — was set up. A co-worker of mine who is on twitter noticed the hashtag and let me know about it, so I blogged about the issue and was able to add the hashtag to my tweet with a link to my blog. Again, I was able to jump into the conversation and hopefully boost traffic on my blog by being relevant and writing about the “motrin moms” controversy, which was what people in my niche were talking about that day.
- Breaking news: The one thing about twitter is it’s quick. You type your “news” in 140 characters or less through a Web page or cell phone text message, and, boom, you’re published. That could provide lots of uses for journalists, I think, especially as more people join twitter. Say you cover courts and you’re at the verdict of a much-followed murder trial. You could soundlessly type “Joe Smoe is guilty” into your phone’s text message system right from the courthouse, and your readers would find out the news before anyone else. Of course you’d follow up with blog posts and a newspaper story. But being first is so much apart of journalism. Now it won’t work for everything. The Rocky Mountain News drew a lot of criticism when it “twittered” a 3-year-old boy’s funeral. That certainly was a mistake, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t applications for twitter. It also was used during the recent Mumbai attacks, and certainly some of the early tweets weren’t accurate because little information was known. But that’s the nature of the medium of twitter: It’s quick and connects you immediately with a story, but journalists still need to use other tools.
Next post: I’ll talk about how journalists can get started on twitter.