Fort Hood Shooting Shows How Twitter, Lists Can be Used for Breaking News

November 6, 2009
Category: Uncategorized
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Days after Twitter Lists were introduced to the public, the shootings at Fort Hood on Thursday showed the power of this feature to cover a major news event in real-time.

News organizations quickly created a trusted set of Twitter Lists to follow developments out of Texas. Lists from The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times were among the first. Others were not far behind curating their own lists, like CNN, the Dallas Morning News and The Washington Post.

Lists proved a new way to follow breaking news on Twitter, with filtered groupings of local news outlets, military accounts, and local citizens. But perhaps lost in the shuffle was an honorable journalistic effort on Twitter not involving lists at all, though it quickly made its way onto lists — an account called @FtHoodShootings. The local feed was established by The Austin American-Statesman and chronicled developments of this event in real-time through various sources.

“Single Account” Coverage

The Austin American-Statesman was quick to react to the news as it unfolded about 60 miles north in Fort Hood, outside of Killeen, Texas.

Robert Quigley, social media editor at The Statesman, said the newspaper first caught wind of the Fort Hood shootings in a tweet from a local television station, @News8Austin, which it retweeted (initially as “not confirmed”) and promptly followed up.

“When we heard that, we knew we had to get moving and sent out a breaking news alert,” Quigley said in an interview conducted by phone and e-mail. “Within a few minutes, we had a reporter on the phone with Fort Hood and got confirmation. And we turned it around really fast, setting up the Twitter account.”

Statesman Editor Fred Zipp first proposed the idea of creating a separate Twitter account to cover the event, according to Quigley. Quigley said he liked the idea and immediately jumped on it, trying different name combinations on Twitter, including “FortHood,” before deciding on “FtHoodShootings” to fit Twitter’s character limit for an account name.

He said he sent the first tweet with the very first story The Statesman had on the incident, a blog item, and then promptly mentioned the new account several times on the main @statesman feed, retweeting it and cross-promoting it to build a following.

“We just started running with it from there,” he said.

“Running with it” resulted in more than 3,000 followers by day’s end, aided by the more than 70 lists @FtHoodShootings was quickly added to.

Quigley wasn’t entirely surprised by the rapid growth, citing Twitter’s potential as a “viral medium” and its snowball effect once something takes off on retweets.

“We are the biggest news provider in Central Texas, and we are on the ball when it comes to social media,” Quigley said. “[Also] I think we’re well-respected because we have been using Twitter to interact with the community, not just push out the news, longer than most.”

He also attributed the quick spike in followers to The Statesman‘s promotion — prominently playing up Twitter on its homepage — and being included on Twitter lists by The New York Times, Huffington Post and L.A. Times.

The feed itself was a mix of original content reported by The Statesman and an aggregation of other sources and information, something Quigley endorses.

“It was about 50-50 [between the two],” he said. “I’m a big believer in aggregating the news to provide a complete report. I was posting information from various sources, including from our own reporters, from the Associated Press, from what I was hearing on TV, from tweets from inside Fort Hood that I found on Twitter Search and by retweeting other news sources’ Twitter accounts.”

Quigley said The Statesman sent several reporters to Fort Hood to get details from the scene. One of those reporters, Patrick George, was given the @FtHoodShootings Twitter account info and posted a handful of updates from the scene.

But the majority of updates were posted by Quigley himself, with the help of Internet Editor David Doolittle, who was continuously fed bits of information from all of The Statesman‘s reporters working the story. Quigley stressed that it was a real team effort to make @FtHoodShootings the quality feed it was for real-time updates about this event.

Quigley said that @FtHoodShootings became a hub which “[gave] people a chance to get everything they need in one stream.” He continued, “They can dip in, see everything they want and dip back out. Or they can follow every tweet we send and get all the news. Since I was trying to provide everything possible, including from competing news sources, blogs, retweets, and live tweets from news conferences, you really could get a complete picture of the event all in one place.”

Furthermore, The Statesman Web site was having technical issues as news of the shooting broke. “Twitter and our blog were the only way we could get our news out during that time,” Quigley said. “That just shows the value of social media, and Twitter in particular, as a journalistic tool.”

“List” Coverage

While the story was breaking, Twitter Lists were popping up about the news event. Some of the first lists were created by citizens and locals with a keen interest in the story. Others were created by news organizations.

The New York Times has been preparing its “lists” strategy for some time, says its Social Media Editor Jen Preston.

“We’ve been working on lists for the last few weeks,” Preston told me by phone. “Our journalists have been creating them based on their beats, and we have said one of our goals is to create lists off the news, like for breaking news.”

The Times not only created a list of Fort Hood sources near the scene — culling local Twitter accounts, local news outlets, and military accounts — but it swapped its World Series slot out of its Twitter page for the Fort Hood list, thus integrating the Twitter coverage with its Web site. It also added a Twitter module on the right rail of its “Ledes” blog, providing another place for users to follow the list.

“It’s important for news organizations to have Twitter modules, like we’ve created and The Huffington Post has created,” Preston said. “The lists are good but it’s better to put it into a module right on your Web site so readers can see the tweets. You need to give readers as many ways as possible to get the information, and it’s an effective way to get at the real-time Web.”

Preston said that the idea behind the Times‘ Fort Hood list was simple.

“The best way to serve readers [for a story like this] is to give them coverage from local sources,” she said. “Local, local, local. You want people as close as possible.”

“There’s lots of really good local news sources, and we had other tweeters too, like a biology student who was on the ground.”

Preston added, “It’s not just the lists, it’s the information within the lists that we’re delivering.”

Another key player in developing Twitter lists for the Times is Senior Software Architect Jacob Harris. He pointed out that putting together such lists is not easy and it is time sensitive.

“The biggest problem I’ve seen with Twitter and news remains identifying valuable signal among the noise, and the very limited window you have to look back and try to figure out the primary witnesses,” Harris told me by e-mail.

But the strategy can pay off big time for news outlets.

Preston says, “It’s an opportunity to deliver information in real-time to your readers,” and “it allows your readers to see the sources you as journalists are turning to.”

In the end, that can equate to real value for readers.