How The New York Times is taking Twitter reporting faster and deeper with @NYTLive

After 346 tweets and 22,000 followers in three days, @NYTLive has gone dormant -- for now.

@NYTLive sent more than 300 tweets, like this one, with the latest updates on Hurricane Irene.

The Times’ new Twitter megaphone for in-depth, real-time curation of big news stories got its first test run this weekend for Hurricane Irene. What did the Times staff learn?

“We learned that people wanted a lot of information, fast,” Social Media Editor Liz Heron told me Monday. “One hypothesis we had never really given ourselves a chance to test was, will people get annoyed with us if they felt like we were tweeting too much? In this case, nobody was complaining.”

The people who started to follow the account after it debuted Friday knew they were signing up for a large volume of hurricane-related tweets, so that helped. Despite that, the Times editors tried to make sure they did not waste anyone’s time.

“We wanted to give people frequent updates,” Heron said, without chasing after "every tiny development and every comment out there. The main goal was to give people a sense of what was actually happening at any given time, and sometimes that meant a little bit more restraint."

Why does @NYTLive exist in the first place? There are 3.6 million reasons.

The New York Times’ main Twitter account, @nytimes, has 3.6 million Twitter followers. That sounds like a good thing. But for the Times, it can be sort of a problem.

Some people follow @nytimes for politics, others for national trends, still others for New York City news, and so on. As long as the account tweets a little of everything, people are happy. But when really big news strikes — say, a hurricane — what do you do? Part of your audience cares a ton about it, while much of your audience does not.

“It’s something we always struggle with on the main @nytimes account,” Heron said. “We don’t want to go overboard and inundate people who might not be interested in following the story incrementally, but at the same time we don’t want to ignore a huge story and just send something out every hour.”

That is where @NYTLive becomes useful. Times staff used the account over the weekend to provide three categories of information, Heron said:

  • The latest reported updates. The Times was able to reach a much deeper level of detail than its main account can. Each home page story gets tweeted by @nytimes. @NYTLive, though, could go deeper, sharing any update for an existing story.
  • Curation of other sources. @NYTLive retweeted a lot of information from others, including other Times accounts and independent sources.
  • User engagement. @NYTLive called attention to many engagement efforts from @NYTMetro, which deputy metro editor Clifford Levy ran all weekend. Heron said in future uses of @NYTLive she hopes to offer more chances to be involved.

How often will the Times need the all-out coverage of @NYTLive? Definitely not every day or even every week, Heron said.

“The kinds of stories we want to activate it on are going to be huge news where there’s lots of new information breaking at any given time -- lots of incremental updates we could be providing,” she said.

Recent examples that might have been suitable include the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt, or the Japanese nuclear disaster, she said.

As @NYTLive’s attention jumps from story to story, Heron expects it may have a transient audience. Thousands of new followers will flow in for one big story and unfollow when it’s over. They, in turn, will be replaced by people chasing the next big story.

If you’re thinking about doing this for your news organization, you probably wonder what kind of staffing it takes to execute this live-tweeting.

Throughout the weekend, one person at any given time managed the @NYTLive account, which included curating tweets featured on the home page and communicating with colleagues to request more information or pass along tips. Shifts rotated among Heron, Social Media Editor Lexi Mainland, Deputy Interactive News Editor Sasha Koren and Assistant Managing Editor Jim Roberts.

“It was pretty brain-frying when you were in the saddle for your shift ... but it was definitely worth it,” Heron said.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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