2017: The Year of the Conversational, Explanatory Tweetstorm

Throughout the year, I’ve been collecting tweetstorms from journalists and news organizations explaining how they do what they do. In addition to using the platform as a reporter’s notebook or to fact-check statements, some people used tweets to really explain the journalism they were doing in a really human way.

The explanations were amazing, clear and necessary. But Twitter is the worst place for them.

Look at the way Reveal, the podcast from the Center of Investigative Reporting, went into explicit detail about how they did their reporting for a specific episode of the show. It goes into detail, it uses emojis, and it feels like it brings the reader along with the reporter.

Another example from last April, when ProPublica responded to then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer, who had calling them a “left-wing blog.” (Quick fact check: They’re an independent non-profit newsroom.) Shortly after, CJR’s David Uberti highlighted the ProPublica thread for “pushing back on PR spin, elevating its journalism, and actually treating Twitter like a publishing platform—all in a conversational voice.”

Recode’s Peter Kafka noted last January that some of the New York Times’ best reporting was taking place on Twitter, where reporters were detailing new information they dug up which wasn’t always making it to the Times.

Though the Times has since added a place for some of these tweets in print, a lot of journalism’s excellent tweeted-out work is really, really hard to find. (Try searching for 1/ — the way lots of people start Twitter threads. It’s impossible.)

Over the past year, there were a number of journalists and newsrooms that took a conversational, threaded approach detailing how they got the stories they got — and why those stories matter. I think that these threads in particular are particularly effective for a few reasons:

  1. They’re easily digestible.
  2. They’re personal and often call out interesting bits or background that I otherwise might have missed.
  3. They often tie the work back to what impact it has or an organization’s mission.
  4. They’re either previewing work or detailing how it happened.
  5. They help build a relationship between a reader and a reporter or newsroom. (In other words, it helps build trust.)

These tweetstorms are so good, in fact, that I find myself wishing that news organizations would test using the same language in membership appeals or in fundraising newsletters or somewhere on their site — because Twitter threads (especially ones with original reporting) are really hard to find after the fact. (And we completely miss readers who aren’t on Twitter or don’t use Twitter the way journalists do — that is, all the time.) But these threaded Twitter messages — which are now easier to write — give us an opportunity to talk to some of the people who made really good tweetstorms this year and learn more about what works, no matter what platform it’s eventually published on.

I reached out to Byard Duncan, the engagement reporter at Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting. He edited the Twitter chain mentioned above. I also contacted Eric Umansky and Terry Parris Jr., who are respectively the deputy managing editor and the deputy editor for engagement at ProPublica. They wrote a number of Twitter threads this past year that made ProPublica’s reporting easier to understand. I wanted to learn more about the editorial process for creating these threaded messages and what other journalists could learn from their efforts. Our conversations are below.

Byard Duncan, Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting

Byard, I’m curious about your planning process for your Twitter threads. Do you write them somewhere else, find links, and then put them into Twitter? Are they edited? Is it spontaneous? How does the process work?

Byard: It depends. Most of the time, I read through a story or listen through an episode and try to think of how I’d explain the findings to a friend. I look for eye-popping facts, great audio moments, and bits of humor. Although it’s possible to drive a lot of traffic through Twitter, I think many news organizations are (smartly) experimenting with ways to treat the platform as a place for storytelling per se — not just a conduit for pushing people to a website.

As for the tweetstorms themselves, I’d say I write them half of the time; the other half of the time I’m editing and polishing. I’ll have reporters — who can quickly call up a lot of supplemental stuff, such as videos and documents — take a first crack. Then I’ll re-arrange, add more tweets and gifs, make things voicier, etc. The tweetstorms I really like don’t just break down the story; they tell their own story, sometimes incorporating stuff that didn’t even make the main piece. The best ones are always collaborative.

Are these edited? The answer is always a resounding yes. Anyone who writes for social knows the temptation is there to slip into a more relaxed mode — that is, you feel entitled to more editorial leeway because the medium is so casual and opinionated.

When it comes to journalism, though, there’s no difference between what you say on Twitter and what you say in a blog post; you’re equally accountable in both places. So we write and edit these in Google Docs, then fire them out once they’ve cleared our usual editorial processes. No exceptions.

I find that the messaging on Twitter is always really clear, because you’re forced to be short. Do you use the same language from Twitter elsewhere — like a newsletter — to promote content?

Not really. I’m a firm believer that each platform needs its own considerations and touch. And each platform serves a different purpose. Twitter, for example, is a place for conversations and commentary. Our newsletter, The Weekly Reveal, delivers a tightened version of the best investigative work — from our newsroom and others — from the previous week. Facebook drives traffic to our stories. Etc.  

How do you use what you learn from these Twitter experiments elsewhere in your organization?

Creating a successful thread is a great feeling. At its best, Twitter makes people care about your work while simultaneously making them feel like they’re being invited in for a chat. It should be a conversation starter, though of course many people use it for the opposite purpose.

As for our newsroom, I think reporters see how these threads fire up conversations around their stories. It’s exciting for them, and they want to be a part of it the next time around. Producer Laura Starecheski, for example, wrote our threads about Pizzagate (the one you pinged me about, as well as this one about Jack Posobiec). I edited them and added in assets like audio cards. They ended up a lot like her radio storytelling: curious and quirky, but also rock-solid and dead-serious.

How effective have you found these Twitter threads? Are they more popular than other forms of promotion?

As far as performance compared with other standalone tweets, they are generally more successful. I’d chalk that up to the simple fact that they capitalize people’s attention. In someone’s feed, a bunch of threaded tweets is much more visible than just one.

I liken reading on Twitter to watching fish pass by a submarine window. You’re more likely to see a whole school of them, right?

That said, I think there’s always a triangulation going on with regard to what’s “succeeding” across social. The three points of that triangle, in my opinion, are:

  • Currency: Is it in the news cycle? Is it an issue people are talking about?
  • Virality: Will this story prompt people to act (or react) — whether it’s a retweet, like, or a comment later at dinner?
  • Platform: Is this the best possible way to present the story, given your platform?

The more you can dial up all three of these things, the higher your chance of success.

This philosophy is also an editorial approach, of course. But I deal in social — and see all the analytics in real time.

Here are some of our most successful threads, btw:

What advice would you give to someone else who wanted to write in this way?

I would encourage people to strike a balance between casual and serious — just like in their normal writing, I suppose. Reading on Twitter is a totally different experience than reading a book, or even a text story online. People want pithiness and wit, but they also want to be informed efficiently. There’s less of an inherent commitment when you’re consuming content on Twitter; you’re there to browse or react. If you’re reading a story online or in a newspaper, you’ve already taken an additional step that denotes buy-in: You’ve already clicked on a link or opened the paper.

Where do you look for inspiration?

It seems counter-intuitive, but I think good, longform magazine writing is probably my biggest inspiration for these — the voicier the better. Also: I’ve noticed some websites that are working to smash boundaries around your traditional “news story” look. The Outline is one of these — particularly a recent, beautiful thing they did on group chats. They’re doing stuff like this all the time, and each thing isn’t some huge event where they roll out the red carpet and pat themselves on the back. It’s just how they approach storytelling.

I love the way you use Twitter — it’s voice-driven and seems like you really embrace the medium. I’m wondering what other social platforms you are experimenting on, and how?

One example would be a recent, mini graphic novel we did on Instagram around our rehab work camp reporting. I had been looking for a way to make IG’s carousel feature work for investigative storytelling, and I had the idea to break off one character’s story and go into more detail than we did in the written piece. The goal: Make someone understand this guy’s plight, and what’s at stake in the story, without asking them to leave Instagram. Again, it gets back to treating the platform as its own venue for storytelling — and delivering content there that’s not just a re-hash of stuff that appears elsewhere.

Also, in 2016, we put together a serialized investigation that appeared exclusively on Instagram.

We’re also hoping to beef up our newsletter presence in 2018. We already do the Weekly Reveal and The Hate Report, which is an excellent roundup of hate-based incidents each week, written by reporters Aaron Sankin and Will Carless. I’d love to see us with a couple more verticals.   

Finally, we got a pretty nice-looking studio setup for Facebook Lives. We use that for Q and As with reporters, and other goodies. Just this week, we did a 2-hour “liveathon” for Giving Tuesday.

Could you detail how you spend a typical day?

I keep an eye on all of our social channels; write social copy for each upcoming story, blog post and episode; design the digital assets to go along with them; write each episode’s website copy; work on longer-term engagement projects like this one; host Facebook Lives; write and report stories (text and radio); write The Weekly Reveal newsletter; help craft our broader digital strategy; and drink coffee.

* * *

ProPublica's Eric Umansky and Terry Parris Jr.

I’m curious about your planning process for your Twitter threads. Do you write them somewhere else, find links, and then put them into Twitter? Are they edited? Is it spontaneous? How does the process work?

Terry: We tend to do a few different types of threads:

  1. Threads for investigative stories where we try to explain the story.
  2. Threads to contextualize our work, tying in a bunch of different pieces to tell folks that a piece is part of a larger body of work.
  3. Threads to comment and contextualize the news/journalism that is happening around us. And sometimes it’s about us.
  4. Threads that are actually about what we do as a news org.

The process for each isn’t all that different than a story: We have an idea, gather the thread (whether it’s in the story or links elsewhere), write a narrative, edit for accuracy and voice and visuals, then we tweet it. The editing goes through a few people. If it’s about a particular investigation, that reporter will either write it, help out or edit. Their editor will edit. And, if needed, we’ll lawyer it. The process takes place in Google Docs.

Some of the threads are spontaneous, especially the ones that are riffing off or adding to the news. Generally, however, the ones around our stories and investigations are planned.

I find that the messaging on Twitter is always really clear, because you’re forced to be short. And they hit so many wins: They a) engage supporters b) explain why what you do matters c) unveil the mystery behind your work and d) lead people into deeper relationships with ProPublica. Do you use the same language from Twitter elsewhere — like a newsletter or in other mediums — to connect with readers and promote content?

Terry: Yes. Our weekly newsletter has a somewhat personal, familiar voice, not institutional. We want people to feel like they are getting an email from someone they know. Our weekly usually has a top portion about something we’ve published that week or the previous week where the reporter of that story offers up some insight, some “news you can use” or some other window into his or her reporting.

In our deeper engagement work, crowdsourcing work, messages we send to contributors, our investigations or the posts we make in Facebook groups, voice is important, too. We’re not institutional. We’re softer. We’re personal. We’re human.

How do you use what you learn from these Twitter experiments elsewhere at ProPublica?

Terry: In a lot of ways, it’s what we’ve learned from storytelling that showed us a better way to do experiments on Twitter. Like I said above: tell a full story, be compelling, have a voice. That’s our approach. It’s also important to embrace the platform as it is; make things for that platform. Talk to that platform. Optimize the idea for that platform.

How effective have you found these Twitter threads? Are they more popular than other forms of promotion?

Terry: Again, they are like stories. Some are more popular than others. Some are more effective in driving people to the full story. Some are meant to ask people to participate in a particular project. Some even generate donations.

Eric: But generally, yeah, people dig them. We’ve found, for example, that they can be quite helpful for gaining for followers. A big part, i think, is that as Terry has said, it’s not marketing copy meant to send you somewhere else (to a site). It’s storytelling that’s native to the platform.

What advice would you give to someone else who wanted to write in this way?

Terry: First and foremost, it’s a story. So tell one. Have a lede, have evidence, be compelling. But, more nuts and bolts, here are some things we try to do: If you have something you want someone to see regarding the thread —for example, a story you’re threading about — put that in the first tweet if you can. That’s the one that’ll get the most attention and set the tone. We like to include a call-to-action at the end of each thread — a newsletter signup or a request to participate in an investigation. We also try to make each tweet visual or have media in some way. We want to avoid straight text tweets.

Where do you look for inspiration for these threads and social in general? Who’s doing it well both for ProPublica and elsewhere?

Terry: I think Reveal has done some really nice, voice-y threads recently. I kinda love the massive threads the Texas Tribune have done where they’ve asked everyone in state government to comment on something. They’ve done it a few times. Here’s one. I like threads that show the litany of something. For example, this thread about the history of self-owns by James O’Keefe. But the threads that really stand out, for me, are the ones done by folks who have an expertise or insight into something that is shared and feels native on Twitter, that is meant for Twitter and isn’t necessarily tied to some sort of idea of distributing a story. This one from Pamela Colloff is a good example.

I love the way you use Twitter — it’s voice-driven and seems like you really embrace the medium. I’m wondering what other social platforms you are experimenting on, and how?

Eric: We have been experimenting on Instagram. You can check out our feed for a sense.

Can you talk a little bit about your “no bullshit” strategy over the course of 2017? Has anything changed?

Eric: I think we’ve remained quite consistent in tone and delivery. We don’t do snark for snark’s sake. We call things what they are — and show the evidence that supports it. The one thing that has evolved has been our process. We treat tweet storms as stories in terms of editorial process, but that has become more structured over the year. So for example, just like about all of our stories, most of them get legal review.

  • Profile picture for user Melody Kramer

    Melody Kramer

    Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.

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