Twitter asks its users one question: "What are you doing right now?" It is a simple enough concept; 'tweeters' answer this question and their response enters the real time feeds of those who follow them, but it is becoming increasingly useful for reporters and papers as the social network attracts more and more users. Essentially, journalists can use Twitter in three ways: to find stories and other information and to track events, to publicise their work, and to connect with readers.
A real time feed of breaking news and thought
Twitter is an extremely useful journalistic resource: reporters can use it to watch for breaking news, follow sources and search for information. "It's like monitoring another wire service," said Robb Montgomery, CEO of Visual Editors. It can be used to get an idea of which topics are attracting interest and what people are talking about right now. There is a list of top 'trending topics' on the Twitter home page. It is a real time search, ahead of even Google in terms of timeliness.
The useful information can sometimes be hard to find amongst multiple messages about what users had for breakfast, or what they thought about last night's TV show, but as Noam Cohen said in Global Journalist "it turns out that when a million people stare at their navels, more than a few of them will also notice that the ground is shaking, the plane is nosediving, the police are shooting." Twitter is particularly relevant during events that involve large numbers of members of the public, and a shining example of its effectiveness arose after a US Airways flight landed on the Hudson River and the first picture of the plane was posted to Twitter by an observer. Online news editor at Sky News Jon Gripton, discussing his reasons for appointing a Twitter correspondent, said "it is effectively another news feed. It helps us source eyewitnesses and photos and other people who are on the scene of an event." It is also crucial for following conferences, for example.
Applications such as Tweetdeck allow users to sort their contacts into groups and to search more and more easily for Tweets on specific topics. The custom of adopting hash-tags to make searching easier has been widely adopted: if a user is tweeting about a particular subject they can add a tag into their tweet, such as #IranElection, #Mumbai, #Gaza. The hash or pound symbol distinguishes the tag from random mentions of the same word, and is a custom developed by Twitter users.
Twitter's fame as a news source grew curing the terrorist attacks on Mumbai last November, and during the ongoing conflict in Iran following the election on June 12, Twitter has come into its own, with those inside Iran using the social network to stay in touch and communicate with the outside world while phone networks are down and many websites are blocked. News outlets turned to the service for the latest updates, as they were forced to abandon the principle of only relying on their trusted sources for information due to what the New York Times described as a "news vacuum."
Questions about the reliability of Twitter have also been highlighted by events in Iran. Clearly, it is impossible to judge the authenticity of Tweets from a non-trusted source. During 'normal' circumstances, a journalist would be able to contact the 'Tweeter' for more details and verification, but that is currently overwhelmingly difficult. Journalists who incorporate news obtained by Twitter into their reporting should always be careful to stress their uncertainty about the source.
According to a Harvard Business study, there is a small group of very active Twitter users: it found that "the top 10% of prolific Twitter users accounted for over 90% of tweets." Researchers Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski concluded that "Twitter resembles more of a one-way, one-to-many publishing service more than a two-way, peer-to-peer communication network": in other words, perfect for journalists looking to publicise their work. It is simple enough to use as a publicising tool: send a link to the story with a Twitter-friendly headline, which should generally be casual and chatty, even more so than web headlines.
It is without doubt a good way to attract extra readers. One of the advantages of Twitter to spread the word is that it is viral, users frequently "re-tweet" the links that they have enjoyed. A CNN breaking news feed, not actually started by CNN but purchased by the news outlet when it gained substantial recognition, was the second Twitter feed to reach one million followers and now has well over 2 million. The New York Times main feed has 1,238,673 followers at time of publishing, and the Guardian has 25,009 on its main feed, though far more on its Guardian Tech account: 782,662. Many news organisations now have multiple Twitter feeds for their different sections. Montgomery stressed the need to "explore" the best policy for your newsroom when deciding whether to stick to one or split them
Some feeds are generated automatically, and for many journalists and bloggers it has become second nature to 'tweet' an article immediately after publishing. Robb Montgomery believes that the "more successful Twitterers have moved beyond auto-tweeting their RSS feed" to make their tweets more personal. "You want to show that there's a real person there."
A social tool for branding
As well as using Twitter as a one-to-many publishing mechanism, journalists can also take advantage of the social element of Twitter, using it to connect with their readers and to receive feedback on articles. It is a contact point between reporter and reader, making the journalist more accessible. "You can run quick polls, get a pulse, get some ideas," said Montgomery. Twitter can be used as part of a journalist's own personal branding, to develop their own network of followers, depending on their personality as well as their reputation as a journalist. This could be particularly helpful for freelance journalists and bloggers.
Newspapers' advice to staff
Many news outlets have become concerned about the way that their employees use social networks such as Twitter. New York Times executive editor Bill Keller called for a "zone of trust" after reporters Jennifer 8. Lee, Michael Luo and Brian Stelter sent 'tweets' on what executives were saying about the how the paper might charge for online content, amongst other things during a staff strategy meeting. Shortly after, the New York Times announced the appointment of social media editor Jen Preston via Twitter. She is to concentrate "full-time on expanding the use of social media networks and publishing platforms to improve New York Times journalism and deliver it to readers," including, it seems, policing Twitter use.
The Wall Street Journal's advice on Twitter in a staff memo is that "business and pleasure should not be mixed" and although "common sense should prevail," staff meetings should not be discussed on social networks. The Washington Post's guidelines also mentions its reliance on reporters' common sense. The AP's new rules tell reporters "Don't report things or break news that we haven't published, no matter the format, and that includes retweeting unconfirmed information not fit for AP's wires."
Embracing Twitter seems to be essential for journalists and newsrooms in today's media landscape. This does not mean that all reporters should be tweeting all day long, and certainly does not mean that they should believe everything they read, but they should familiarise themselves with the site and work out how they want to use it. A newsroom policy might be necessary to encourage or warn journalists with regards to how the paper would like to see it used, and if possible, a social media expert could monitor and coordinate the paper's efforts. It is not necessary for journalists to embrace every aspect of Twitter, but most who try it find something beneficial.
On Tuesday 30 June at 15.00 London time, Robb Montgomery, CEO of Visual Editors will be speaking at a WEF webinar on "How the real time web can improve your newspaper's journalism." More details here.