Journalists and news organizations are all atwitter these days, but they are seeing different returns on investment from their uses of Twitter.

Conventional wisdom says that to be good at using social media sites like Twitter, one must be social. For high-energy New York Times tech columnist David Pogue this strategy has worked. He has about 850,000 followers on Twitter, in no small part because he is entertaining and personal, while also interacting with fans.

But most journalists aren't rock stars like Pogue, and most news organizations don't have someone like him. What works for The New York Times may not work for other journalists and news organizations.

For every Pogue with hundreds of thousands of followers, there are plenty of journalists with few followers. The success of Twitter for individual journalists, however, isn't just about followers and sending traffic back to news organizations' Web sites. Journalists can find success on Twitter by crowdsourcing story ideas and stories, connecting with sources, doing research and more.

Being interactive on social media requires a lot of time and resources, though, which will directly impact return on investment.

Automation and headlines

Many people have decried news organizations' use of automated RSS feeds into Twitter. These Twitter accounts grab headlines from an RSS feed and usually offer no human input. They are anything but social and are a poor-man's version of an RSS feed.

So why offer them? Steve Buttry, C3 innovation coach of Gazette Communications in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said in a phone interview that while he personally prefers accounts that feature interactivity, he acknowledges that some users enjoy having headlines pop up in their Twitter feeds. KCRG, a TV station owned by Gazette Communications, uses Twitterfeed to automate its Twitter account. Buttry said it's hard to argue with the 2,300+ followers of the KCRG account.

"I frankly don't use it much because I like the interaction," Buttry said of the KCRG Twitter account, "but people have different tastes."

The New York Times' main Twitter account, @NyTimes, features mostly headlines and no interaction. It's not a model for being social, but it is the 18th most popular account on Twitter with more than 1.6 million followers.

"There is a market for interactive and non-interactive accounts," Times Social Media Editor Jennifer Preston said. "Like most media organizations, we recognize that Twitter is about conversations, not broadcasting. That said, some people do like their headlines."

The @NyTimes account has been making strides, however, into a more Twitter-friendly stream. The account went from an automated account to a curated account earlier this summer and will have more interactive changes coming later this year.

"These are baby steps, though," Preston said. "And we will not make any major changes without listening closely to what our users have to say."

Gazette, which has print, online and TV news outlets, has a multi-faceted strategy. Some accounts are RSS feeds, while others feature a very interactive, human touch. Other accounts are a mix of headlines and interaction.

There are people who just use Twitter as an RSS reader. Buttry said his wife has two accounts, one for interacting and one she uses as a news feed. Some people find a bunch of Twitter feeds that they want to follow and they read through the news and links from them. Others, like Buttry, have combined their Twitter and RSS reading habits into one. Buttry said he no longer uses Google Reader, and instead views headlines and news while he is using Twitter.

There are problems, however, with taking an RSS feed and feeding it into Twitter. Not everything fit for RSS reader consumption makes sense on Twitter. Headlines that are too long are truncated on Twitter, and other headlines that rely on accompanying summaries make little sense by themselves. Both leave users with a poor experience and may offer little value for a news organization.

The Washington Post runs ads in its RSS feeds, and due to a mix-up, ads from its Post Politics RSS feed have been showing up on its Post Politics Twitter account. The ads, however, are visual and don't work on a text-based medium like Twitter. Instead of displaying a rich banner ad, the ads simply say "Featured Advertiser" with a link to the advertiser's Web site.

The Post, which doesn't currently have plans to advertise on Twitter, says the mistake will be fixed promptly. The Post usually uses RSS feeds without ads when it links up with Twitter. News organizations have to grab the right feed or make sure they have a feed without ads if they want to provide users with a consistent quality experience. The problem isn't the ads, but rather that since some RSS ads won't display properly on Twitter, it gives users a confusing and uneven experience.

Washington Post Interactivity Editor Hal Straus said he prefers Post Twitter accounts not be completely feed driven or just composed of headlines. He said there is nothing wrong with putting an automated feed into Twitter, but that it would be better to mix that with interaction.

"We don't think that's the way to go," he said about just using RSS feeds in Twitter. "We don't think that's what the audience ultimately wants."

Straus pointed to Chris Cillizza's The Fix as a good way to use Twitter; it includes headlines, but also includes other content that suits Twitter particularly well. The Fix, which is also a popular political blog for washingtonpost.com, features on Twitter a mix of Post headlines, links to other interesting content from around the Web, little tidbits of information and interactivity with users. Cillizza also shows his personal side on his Twitter account and doesn't take himself too seriously.

Curation

Colonel Tribune, the Chicago Tribune character run by staffers, was one of the first to show news organizations the value of curation. The Colonel's Twitter account links to interesting Tribune content, content from around the Web and spurs discussions. The Colonel doesn't just grab headlines, but rather finds interesting parts of stories and points them out to users.

The Tribune has found a lot of success with the Colonel (more than 400,000 Twitter followers). The Colonel curates interesting content focused on the Chicago area, while also mixing in a healthy amount of interaction with users. The Colonel has paid off for the Tribune, despite the work it requires, because the Colonel has a lot of followers and sends a lot of traffic to chicagotribune.com.


The Tribune's main Twitter account, @ChicagoTribune, is automated with Twitterfeed and has less than 18,000 followers. The Colonel has more than 22 times that many followers. The curation strategy has paid off with @ColonelTribune, but a similar curation strategy may not pay off for another news organization. And it's worth pointing out that some people prefer the straight headline approach of the Tribune's main feed over what @ColonelTribune has to offer.

The Post's main Twitter account used to be an automated RSS feed. Straus said the Post switched over to a curated approach about two months ago and has found better success with this approach. The Post has gained followers with its curated mix of hard news and feature stories.

One of the main advantages of curation over automation is that headlines designed for a news Web site (or even originally print) may not make sense on Twitter, may be cut off mid-headline or may be too dull to stand out in a sea of tweets. Curation allows journalists and news organizations the ability to re-write headlines to make them more Twitter friendly.

"I prefer thinking [about] what works best for Twitter and not just a headline," Buttry said.

He said he often highlights interesting quotes or statistics in a story instead of just the headline. Buttry believes this approach helps tweets stand out more.

The big downside of curation is the time it takes. Curation often leads to a better product than automation, but it requires considerably more time, and that has a significant impact on return on investment. If a curated approach like @ColonelTribune was not yielding better results than an automated approach, an automated approach might make more sense for certain news organizations.

Buttry said that news organizations and journalists ultimately have to be flexible and serve users needs.

"We need to be flexible for the multiple ways that people are consuming media," he said. "If we think today that we have it figured out, we're going to have to be changing tomorrow because the world is changing tomorrow."