Reflections on using social media to inform the world

Police work at the crime scene on Dec. 8. Photo by Paul Kurlak/SPPS

During the Dec. 8 shootings at Virginia Tech, my staff at the Collegiate Times had a lot of questions to think about. They were coming from everywhere. The obvious questions were about the incident. Was the shooter at-large? Why was this officer targeted? But another question, which weighed just as heavily on the collective mind of the CT staff, involved logistics.

Where are our readers? What do they need to know? How can we get them information?

The answers were especially hard to predict considering it was “reading day,” a day on campus between the end of classes and beginning of final exams. Nobody was in classes, but plenty of people were on campus studying or talking with professors. We decided fairly early on at the CT that we should focus our efforts on Twitter and Facebook.

Why? Because most readers, regardless of their location or situation, likely had access to those ubiquitous social media networks. Twitter is especially tailored to mobile use and quick updates — so it is pretty much built for delivering breaking news — so our updates went there first and were then copied over to Facebook more often than not. As the first panicked sounds emanated from the police scanner in our office, I left with a news editor to head toward the scene. Shortly thereafter, an alert went out from the university saying there had been shots fired. We put a brief update with the info from the alert up on our website. But when I got to the parking lot across campus where the shots had been fired, the attitude changed. I tweeted from my phone, immediately confirming that one person was dead.

Nearly two months later, the Collegiate Times has almost 18,000 followers on Twitter. When I confirmed one dead in the parking lot, I tweeted from the CT account to only 2,000 followers. Our updates that day drew more than 18,000 people to follow us for their information (we exceeded 20,000 followers on Dec. 8 and for about a week afterward, but have since lost some followers because they had no other reason to care about what is going on at Virginia Tech).

The implications of our tweets were huge. We were gaining followers exponentially between each tweet. Our tweets were being retweeted up to 600 times. It is hard to explain or understand just how many people were reading that quickly typed information.

Perhaps no student journalists understand this phenomenon as well as those who work and study at Penn State. The Daily Collegian has garnered well-earned plaudits for their Twitter coverage of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, aftermath and Joe Paterno’s death. In fact, they (along with the CT) made Buzzfeed’s list of the 90 Best Twitter Accounts of 2011. But a different Penn State student media outlet — Onward State — made headlines last month for reporting Joe Paterno had died. The problem was, he hadn’t died when they reported it. Furthering the issue was CBS Sports’ decision to publish a story that Paterno had died, with their only confirmation being Onward State’s report.

Onward State’s leaders acquitted themselves well, quickly explaining why they published the information and where their reporting went wrong. CBS Sports was a different story.

But the episode shows the fine line that must be walked when reporting breaking news in this era. A firestorm can be started by 140 characters or less. And they are even harder to get right in tense breaking situations.

For most of the lockdown on Dec. 8, a few staff members and I were in a windowless lecture hall with about 300 other students. We took over several power outlets and huddled around a police scanner, 3 computers and four cell phones. Eventually, the building staff got us a power cart. From there, we directed reporters who weren’t locked in a room and interacted with people who were tweeting at us with rumors or reports that we attempted to confirm or deny.

We tried to be very transparent about what we had confirmed and what we were just hearing. On two occasions, we corrected ourselves on Twitter. Once, we retweeted a photo that may have been from 2007. We were never able to confirm one way or the other, so we just pulled back the tweet. A different tweet reported nearby Radford University was on lockdown. The school refuted that, so we corrected ourselves.

Our major reports, thankfully, were accurate and helped the world understand what was going on. We also had to report on the many smaller incidents across campus where police apprehended potential suspects only to let them go. It was a lesson in attention to detail.

As our follower count multiplied, and the day grew longer, we slowed the updates and sent summary tweets looking at the big picture every hour or so.

Two months later, I realize that the most important thing we did with our social networking that day was interact with people. We weren’t broadcasting information as much as we were conversing with the community. That conversation drove most of our coverage. Really, news stories are answers to questions. Most of the time, editors make up the questions they think readers have, and reporters go about answering them. In this case, readers were sending us questions in real time, and we were reading them as they flew by in the constantly updating TweetDeck column. Our coverage consisted of all the answers we could muster.

Looking back, I am very proud of what we were able to do. I received many letters and emails praising our coverage and calling our Twitter updates the best source of information that day. I am also proud CT staffers who were here on April 16, 2007, praised the coverage. One of those staffers wrote with encouraging words while the coverage was still unfolding. His email aided my decision to print a special edition to cover the shootings.

It was an experience that I hope informs my future in journalism. I also know the events of Dec. 8 gave several of my staffers a new appreciation of what they do and steered at least one to more seriously consider a future in journalism (many of them work for the paper but plan to pursue various different career paths).

Certainly we weren’t perfect, but if I can inform people at that level on events in the future, I will be doing something right. This was a learning experience in how to do just that — help the community understand a difficult, confusing situation.

Exploring the habits of young music listeners

In previewing a campus discussion event tonight, I took a deeper look at how students on my campus (and presumably the trends carry over) consume music.

A survey conducted by the university and The Future of Music Coalition found Virginia Tech students overwhelmingly prefer free streaming music services such as YouTube and Pandora.

My story took a look at some key results of the survey and what they could mean for both universities and the music industry.

The discussion tonight will examine a very noticeable effect of their shifting consumption habits: Artists’ revenue is in danger. Many students support their favorite artists in other ways, such as attending concerts or promoting the music to friends and family, but the fact is in many cases they are gaining unlimited access to music while the artist receives little or no compensation for their use. The difference between what artists make from an iTunes purchase and what they make when someone listens to their song on Last.fm or Spotify is immense, as the great infographic (linked from the great site, Information Is Beautiful) below shows.

The Collegiate Times goes to Orlando…

…And comes back with some hardware. The National College Media Convention was held in Orlando last week. It offers opportunities to learn and meet with college publications from around the country. It also features the presentation of some of college journalism’s most prestigious awards.

We were very proud to take home 10th place Best in Show for our print edition. It put us in some very nice company with our fellow daily broadsheet college papers. Being in the top 10 of all the great papers at the conference was an honor and a good sign for this year’s CT staff.

The paper we submitted was our Oct. 14 edition, which featured coverage of the Occupy Virginia Tech demonstration and a special opinion section to go with it, discussing the national movement and its implications for college students.

Lindsey Brookbank, our managing editor, won 2nd place in the Associated Collegiate Press Reporter of the Year category for her body of work last year, including  reports on how two families are dealing with the loss of their children.

I won 4th place Feature Story of the Year for “Ex-felon moves forward.”

The CT was a finalist for Online Pacemaker, but came up short again. Still, being named a finalist shows our website is one of the nation’s leaders.

The conference should help us find new ways to innovate with our paper moving forward.

Occupy Wall Street movement comes to college

The Occupy Wall Street movement has come to occupy everything else. Virginia Tech students were a little late to get in on the action, but they staged a protest Thursday afternoon and showed some serious anger over student loan debt, as well as the income inequality that has been the point of contention for most of the larger movement.

I was very proud of the paper we put together to cover the protests.

My personal contribution? The front page headline, “American Dream ‘a myth,'” which came from a very powerfully said quote in the story.

Check out all of our coverage here.

Today’s gunman scare at Virginia Tech

Another gun scare froze Virginia Tech in its tracks today, the most recent in a string of similar incidents that have drawn worldwide attention since the April 16, 2007, campus shootings.

The 2007 shootings, when student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty members and wounded 17 more, inspired security changes at Tech and colleges across the nation. Tech seems to have plenty of occasions to test them.

In a November 2008 scare, there were reports of gunshots in Pritchard Hall. After a search and evacuation of the building during a busy school day, police determined nail gun cartridges in a dumpster outside the dorm were to blame.

In March of this year, two Blacksburg public schools were locked down after reports that a man was walking down the road carrying a rifle. This man was never found.

Today, three middle school girls attending a summer camp on Tech’s campus (a frequent occurrence during lazy Tech summers) reported seeing a man walking quickly through the residential side of campus carrying a handgun under a cloth. We will likely never know exactly what they saw.

I was not in Blacksburg for this, but I wrote about it for the New York Post as media outlets around the globe picked up the story.