September 20, 2011

There’s no doubt that Twitter is a useful tool for news organizations. I see journalists use it throughout the day to find story ideas, share news and talk with one another, so I’ve long known that most journalists understand its purpose and appreciate its value.

But recently, I’ve met some journalists who still aren’t on Twitter, or who are on it but hardly ever tweet. Tweeting, they say, seems like “one more thing” they have to add to an already busy day.

The trick, I tell them, is to look at Twitter not as a distraction but as a way to enhance their ability to report and share news. The more you see a tool’s benefits, the easier it is to incorporate it into your daily routine.

After four years on Twitter, I’ve found countless ways to use it as a storytelling and sharing tool. I’ve highlighted my 10 favorite ways below.

Get stakeholders to see your story.

It’s not enough to assume that the social media folks at your news organization will tweet links to your stories; you have to tweet links from your own account and get your stories in front of the right people.

Whenever I finish a story, I email it to the people I interviewed and ask them to tweet it. If they do — and if they have a lot of followers who they regularly engage with — the story’s likely to get in front of people who may not have otherwise seen it.

I also try to alert stakeholders to my stories via Twitter in hopes that they’ll retweet a link to it. You can see who’s retweeted a story by visiting

Start a conversation.

Twitter accounts that only feature headlines are not engaging. Followers want to know that there’s a person behind a Twitter account, and they want to hear that person’s voice. Instead of always tweeting headlines, try starting a conversation about your stories.

Tweet about your favorite part of a story, share a detail about the reporting process, or pose a question. When someone answers the question, respond to them. Starting conversations about our work on Twitter — and adding to the ones already taking place — helps strengthen our voices as journalists.

Recently, my colleague Steve Myers wrote about how journalists had used Twitter to perpetuate a hoax about CNN suspending Piers Morgan. To start a conversation about his story, Myers tweeted a link to it and asked: Should journalists verify information before they tweet it? The question generated dozens of responses, which he captured via Storify.

Give your audience a behind-the-scenes look at the reporting process.

Some reporters, such as KIRO-TV traffic reporter Jenni Hogan, have used Twitter to offer audiences a glimpse into the reporting process.

In a recent interview with Lost Remote, Hogan talked about using Twitter this way to generate interest in her work.

“If I am watching an accident on our chopper feed and it’s hard to look at, I’ll tweet that. If I get starstruck by someone who is in our studio, I’ll let my followers know. It’s more of a behind-the-scenes,” Hogan said. “If I’m covering a story, then they’re going to get information on that story, but it’ll be through my eyes and emotions.” When people react to the information, she replies to them.

Keep up with sources, find ideas.

Twitter can be a powerful tool for finding story ideas and keeping up with news about your beat. If you’re a food critic, follow food bloggers and restaurants in your area. If you’re a sports reporter, follow local coaches and athletes — who have been known to break news on Twitter.

Doing so can help you stay updated on what your sources are saying, while increasing your chances of finding story ideas. If you follow people who are tweeting about a variety of things not specific to your beat, create Twitter lists to help organize tweets. Setting up a third-party app such as TweetDeck or HootSuite makes it easier to organize and follow tweets.

Find & capture reaction.

Twitter is a great tool for seeing how people are reacting to news. Sometimes, I’ll capture people’s reactions in my stories. When the AP Stylebook announced that it had changed “Web site” to “website” last year, I was struck by how many people reacted to the news on Twitter. For people who care about language and style, this change clearly mattered.

The tweets prompted me to write about the style change and capture people’s reactions in my lead: “When the AP Stylebook announced via Twitter that it was changing the style for ‘Web site’ to ‘website,’ some users let out shouts of praise: “Finally!” “Yes!!!” “Yeeha!”

Find local sources.

Twitter’s basic search tool is good for searching key words, but let’s say you want to find out what people in your local community are tweeting. You can refine your search by using Twitter’s advanced search page, which lets you search by location. By typing in your location and a key word, you can find related tweets anywhere between 1 mile and 1,000 miles of that location. (There’s an option for choosing the radius.)

If you find local people you want to interview, follow up with them on Twitter and ask them to send you a Direct Message with their contact information.

Twitter is a solid starting point. It doesn’t replace traditional shoe-leather reporting; it just helps you find sources you may not have otherwise come across. It’s up to you to follow up with the sources you find and, when appropriate, interview them.

Dig up the past.

One of the limitations of Twitter’s built-in search tool is that it doesn’t let you search for tweets from months and years ago. But there are other Twitter search tools that do. Topsy, for instance, lets you search for tweets from as far back as three years ago. To do this, go to Topsy’s advanced search page and where it says “Search a specific type,” click on “tweets.”

I don’t use this tool very often, but I think it can be helpful in some scenarios. Let’s say, for instance, that someone in your community has been arrested for a crime he committed months or years ago. You could use Topsy to search for that person’s tweets around the time of the crime. Or you could use it to see what a politician tweeted during a particular point in her campaign.

Help your audience keep track of an ongoing story.

When reporting on an ongoing story, some news sites create separate Twitter accounts. The Orlando Sentinel created a Casey Anthony Twitter account that amassed nearly 42,000 followers. The Sentinel tweets links to its Casey Anthony coverage from that account, and reporters used the account to live tweet from the trial.

Similarly, created a separate Twitter account specifically related to the News of the World scandal. Creating a separate account enabled us to give readers a go-to spot for our coverage and others’ coverage of the scandal. It also prevented us from bombarding the followers from our main account with tweets about News of the World. We continue to update it as news develops.

When setting up a separate account, tweet about it from your site’s main Twitter account. Also, in the “bio” line, include your news sites’ URL and/or its main Twitter handle to show that the account is connected with your site.

Turn investigations into collaborative storytelling efforts.

Twitter is great for soliciting help with projects, especially when you’re strapped for time. Investigative reporter Wendy Norris used Twitter to seek help with an investigation in response to anecdotal reports that pharmacies across Colorado were locking up condoms and therefore making them less accessible.

Instead of doing all the reporting on her own, she tweeted: “Heading to the grocery/drug store this week? Join fun, stealth crowdsourcing project. No disguise needed. DM me if you’re in Colorado.”

This tweet, a Facebook post and an email led Norris to recruit 17 volunteers. The volunteers went to 64 stores in one week to find out whether condoms were locked up. They found that 63 of the stores sold condoms, and most made them readily available. With the volunteers’ help, Norris disproved the rumors in the community.

Last month, The Guardian’s Paul Lewis talked about how he’s used Twitter for investigations — and how to watch out for the risks involved.

Build your credibility.

Misinformation can spread quickly on Twitter, especially during breaking news situations. We saw this happen during the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and last month’s earthquake.

As a journalist, you can show your credibility by debunking incorrect information and only tweeting information you’ve verified. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tweet during breaking news situations. You can phrase your tweets by saying something along the lines of, “X is reporting Y, but we haven’t been able to confirm this information yet.” Or send a couple of tweets saying: “We are working on this story and will tweet updates as soon as we have them.” … “Here’s what we do know …”

This enables you to get your voice in the mix, while letting your audience know that you’re on top of the story and care about getting it right.

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As managing editor of The Poynter Institute’s website,, I report on the media news industry, edit the site’s How To section, and moderate the…
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