140 characters is the new black

March 10, 2010

CBC reporter Brendan Elliott was late for an interview with the Souris mayor.

Desperate for the mayor’s contact info, Elliott sent out a plea on Twitter.

“Literally within five minutes, I had a direct message back with the new mayor’s home number,” Elliott said. “The message came from one of my followers who lives in Charlottetown, but is from Souris.”

Elliott uses Twitter for three things.

“It’s a way to find out what’s going on in my community, a way to let people know breaking news as soon as it happens and a Rolodex of contacts that I can reach out to when a story breaks.”

Twitter has provided Elliott with several story ideas. A recent example was when word broke about Google Maps Street View being available in P.E.I.

“Word spread quickly on Twitter that various spots on P.E.I. could be found.”

Elliott pitched the idea the next morning.

“We were the first media organization reporting on the Street View story.”

He reached out to real estate agent Joel Ives, who was discussing the topic on Twitter and invited him to do an interview on Island Morning.

“All of this was possible because I am active on Twitter.”

Twitter also allows Elliott to let his “followers” know breaking news when it happens.

“I live-tweet from the legislature as well as various city or town council meetings around the province,” he said.

Many of his followers are political junkies who crave news from various arenas. Twitter allows them to get these tidbits almost instantly from Elliott when he’s out in the field, he said.

“I also have my Twitter feed linked through GPS so people can tell where I’m tweeting from when I tweet.”

Some small-town newsrooms are hesitant to start using new media and social networking. Being connected to the community is essential for local media outlets, Elliott said.

“I really feel like I have a sense of community with the people I follow and who follow me.”

Still, Elliott is one of the only CBC reporters who uses Twitter on a regular basis.

“I see it as an advantage over other journalists in the building,” he said. “Essentially, it’s a bit of an exclusive network for me to gather story ideas and to also share stories I have written.”

But developing a personality on Twitter can take some effort, Elliott said. You get out of it what you put into it.

“The more I tweet, the more comments I receive from my followers and the more incentive I have to write more,” he said. “The more I can be relied upon to provide breaking news, the more people will want to follow me. So, it really is only as useful as the person wants it to be.”

According to social media blog Mashable.com, Twitter exploded in popularity in 2008 and 2009, rivaling website giant Facebook. While Facebook is ruled by teens and twenty-somethings, Twitter has attracted the attention of professional adults.

Journalists are just one of the many groups to find a community on Twitter. And North American reporters aren’t the only ones taking advantage of this online explosion.

As reported in the British newspaper The Guardian, Peter Horrocks – BBC’s new director of Global News – instructed his reporters in early 2010 to use Twitter and other social media outlets as a primary source of information.

“If you don’t like it, if you think that level of change or that different way of working isn’t right for me, then go and do something else because it’s going to happen,” Horrocks told The Guardian. “You’re not going to be able to stop it.”

Both small and large media outlets have hopped on the Twitter bandwagon.

Nora Young, an avid user of Twitter, hosts CBC’s technology blog, podcast and national radio show Spark. Young said her show has an active community of fans on Twitter.

“This is part of the advantage of doing a show with a particular beat.”

Young, a long-time fan of technology, said she uses Twitter to interact with those fans and come up with ideas for future episodes.

“Sometimes, if I have a broad-ranging interview with someone, I’ll ask if anyone has a question they would like me to include – with attribution, of course.”

It’s not about Twitter itself, she added.

“It’s about using the basket of tools at your disposal to open up the process of doing journalism.”

And Twitter is a great search tool, particularly for journalists.

“If you use the advanced search function, you can find people in your geographic area who are tweeting about a particular topic,” Young said. “This is great for people with local beats.”

The important thing is that you can’t be lazy with it, she said.

“You don’t want to just use it as a way to pull stories from the same small pool of people. Used judiciously, it can be very helpful though.”

Unfortunately, Twitter does have a major flaw, Young added. Many of the people who use Twitter only use it to promote what they’re doing on other media platforms.

Journalists should be using it as an extension of their project of communicating useful information to their relevant community, she said.

“It’s about opening up the process and being in real, human, authentic communication with people who are most interested in what you have to say,” she said.

“If you’re just linking to your articles and pushing out canned messages, you’re not a journalist,” she said. “You’re a spammer.”

South of the border, Staci Baird taught Digital News Gathering last fall at San Francisco State University, as part of the journalism program.

“This was the first semester for SFSU to offer the class and I definitely believe it’s going to continue to evolve.”

Not many of Baird’s students were on Twitter, but it’s essential for young journalists, she said.

“I think schools should consider offering a class on social media. There’s so much to cover. It would take at least a semester.”

Beat reporters particularly find Twitter helpful, she said.

“A journalist could setup an RSS feed or email alert based on certain keywords and follow ‘hot topics’ around their particular beat or interest.”

Baird gets a lot of her news from Twitter and said journalists should make it a part of their daily routine.

“I roll over first thing in the morning and grab my iPhone to check Twitter. No joke,” she said. “Twitter can also be good way to find sources for your stories.”

If you’re a journalist today, it’s important to establish your own personal brand, she said.

“Part of that is using Twitter to connect to your readers.”

Following users who share your beat and exchanging messages with them is also important, Baird said.

“Having conversations with these people will help you connect with the right sources.”

Some journalists use Twitter more efficiently than others. Robert Scoble is a technology blogger from Half Moon Bay, California who uses it with the right intentions, Baird said.

“He has a conversation with his followers. He doesn’t just push his content,” she said. “He is also very opinionated, which I happen to appreciate. I know where he’s coming from and that helps me analyze his commentary.”

There are some very exciting things happening on Twitter, she added. New conversations and connections are happening everyday.

“As journalists, we need to appreciate the power of this tool to connect us with our communities and not be afraid to open ourselves up,” she said. “We should use social media not only to share our knowledge but also to listen to the people who talk to us.”

Ron Nurwisah, an online editor for the National Post, suggests journalists think of Twitter as an important tool, like a notebook or recorder.

“You should learn how to use it, but don’t think that it’s going to be the answers to all of your problems.”

Reporters can also use Twitter as a personalized news wire.

“Most of the online editors here are on Twitter and we follow possibly dozens of sites, news sources and interesting people,” he said. “At its best, Twitter is like a giant, continuous story meeting.”

If you’re a young or unemployed journalist, getting your work out there is key and Twitter can be a huge help with that.

“The second-best thing that can happen to your story is for it to get shared, talked about and generally passed around,” Nurwisah said. “The first best thing, of course, is to get paid for it.”

Back in Charlottetown, Elliott said one of the reasons he got into radio journalism – the speed with which news can be released to the public.

“Twitter makes that job even easier and faster.”

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3 Responses to “140 characters is the new black”

  1. carolzuegner said

    Great summary of the ways Twitter can be used by journalists. I’m teaching a social media class and, though hesitant at first, the students have embraced Twitter now. I get alerts when they’re running late to class!

  2. […] Jillianne Hamilton, a journalism student at Holland College, wrote a nice blog post, “140 Characters is the New Black,” on how journalists are using Twitter as a reporting tool. Our own Staci Baird, who teaches […]

  3. Tod Wedge said

    Just landed on this place via Google lookup. I love it. This situation change my percept and I am taking the RSS feeds. Cheers.

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