A college journalist’s case for Twitter

Even a year ago, I did not actively use Twitter. I think I had set one up, but that really doesn’t do any good. Twitter is defined by its activity, which is why I think it is becoming perhaps the single best way to engage with the news and the people who are involved in it (knowingly or unknowingly).

Is Twitter a flood of thoughts packed into 140 characters? Yes, in a way. But with very minimal effort it can become organized rivers of thoughts and information on topics of your choosing. For journalists, this tool — which essentially takes the pulse of the world — should be utilized to its full potential every day.

Earlier today, Twitter released a guide for journalists, much as Facebook did earlier this month. But Twitter is far more useful in performing the actual job. Facebook is a nice marketing tool, but very rarely does it aid in reporting a story. Twitter can do that every day.

As you take a read through it, pay attention to the examples that involve the search for an affected person. I was always told the most compelling source is the one who feels the impact of whatever is being reported. For example, the most compelling source in a story about college tuition increases is the student who will have to take drastic measures to stay in school or — on a more somber note — the student who will have to leave the school. How do you find that person? Well, you could start a newsroom phone chain where every staff member calls everyone they know to ask for potential sources. Or you could go to Twitter.

Search Twitter for related terms, and without too much hassle you can probably locate someone that is worked up about it. Will they necessarily be the perfect source? No, but they probably have some reason they are upset — probably a friend or family member who is that perfect source. Tracking down only people who have shown an interest in the topic is a lot faster than asking everyone in the school. Contacting people through Twitter is usually fairly simple. A good number of sane people put their first and last name on their profile, so you can just bypass Twitter and find their phone number. If they don’t have that visible, send them a message and usually they reply quickly because of Twitter’s mobile presence.

Twitter is also a great tool for breaking news. Applications such as TweetDeck let you essentially run continuous searches that grab anything related to a breaking story if you enter the search terms correctly. And if you are a reporter taking part in breaking the news, it is a great way to bring in more sources as you go without having to search for them. Live-tweeting big events, especially when you are trying to unravel a breaking story, is a surefire way to get information from everyday people who happened to know or see something useful.

So, many journalists already know this and utilize it very well.

Those who do not may be converted by the same idea that converted me: Twitter is the single most effective way of getting inside the collective head of your readers and community members.

Every journalist has had those moments when the story ideas simply aren’t flowing. Or the ideas that do get published just don’t matter to the readers. The most vital papers — aka the ones that will survive — are the ones that answer their community’s questions and pique their readers’ interests. Twitter is a 24/7 laboratory where people show the world what is doing that effectively.

Will every great news story or investigation come from Twitter? Absolutely not, because many of those great stories expose things nobody knew about. But some will. Other Twitter sessions will show, for example, that sites like College Problems, are thriving. They are perfect Twitter features that can generate interest in your publication. And they don’t have to be so trivial. Washington Post education reporter Jenna Johnson has a great running feature right now on Twitter that collects observations about summer interns. You’ve got to imagine a very large portion of her readership has some interest in summer interns. That concept can be adapted for just about any publication or beat.

Not everything you try will generate massive interest or become a trending topic. Not every hashtag will become a catchphrase. But if you are engaged, you will improve your reporting and better serve your readers. And you will have the top tweets to prove it.

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