If you’ve ever been to a journalism conference, you know to expect to be hit over the head by a hundred new products, social media networks and online tools that you should have been using yesterday. I’m always leery of the “you should bes” and “next best things,” and the absolutism of online peddlers trying to push the latest, greatest new product can understandably create blowback among overworked and underpaid journalists.
But to all the editors and reporters reading this column, I’m only going to say this once—it’s not cool, and actually detrimental to your job, to ignore Twitter.
According to a now-famous innovation report from the New York Times, the company has struggled getting all of its journalists to board this “new media” train and embrace digital change. It specifically mentioned the importance of Twitter to the digital future of the Times no less than 18 times. Buzzfeed had a little fun with the Times’ staff, taking readers on a tour of some of the abandoned accounts its staffers launched that have since been abandoned, a “graveyard of egg profiles.”
Nowhere is this disconnect more apparent than in the newsroom’s leader, executive editor Dean Baquet, who joined Twitter back in September 2011, has more than 11,000 followers, yet has only composed a grand total of two tweets.
While most professional journalists see the obvious benefits of Twitter, high-profile holdouts like Baquet have their defenders. After all, Twitter can be an obvious distraction to reporters on deadline, and with so many social networks out there (have you gotten an invite yet from Ello?), is 8-year-old Twitter even that sexy anymore? As Matt McFarland over at the Washington Post noted, Buzzfeed actually gets more traffic from Pinterest than Twitter, and no one is complaining about Baquet’s lack of pinned recipes.
So should it really be a requirement, in today’s digital environment, for reporters and editors to be on Twitter? Yes, according to Steve Buttry, formerly the digital transformation editor for Digital First Media, now Lamar Visiting Scholar at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University, Buttry called out Baquet in a blog post, making the case that journalists that choose not to be active on Twitter “choose to remain or fall behind.”
For Buttry, it’s all about leaders actually doing (or in Baquet’s case, not doing) what they’ve preached to their newsrooms time and time again: innovate and embrace change. “[I]nactivity on Twitter is the most reliable indicator of someone who’s refusing to embrace change,” Buttry wrote in defense of his position, noting that it undercuts Baquet’s role as the leader of a newsroom expected to adapt to the times.
It’s easy to castigate journalists at large, metro papers for not being active on things like Twitter, but what about small towns across the country? According to the Pew Research Center, just 19 percent of adults are on Twitter. So does it really make sense for a newsroom editor in Sioux City, Iowa to spend part of this busy day on Twitter, when so few in the community are actually engaged?
Rick Mills, the editor of the Morning Sun in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., didn’t see the need to engage with Twitter. His paper serves a rural area, and other than a local college, no one else in town seemed to care about Twitter. He ignored it all together—until Twitter became a company mandate, and now he can’t imagine a day without it.
“It’s addictive,” Mills enthusiastically told me. “In recent years we have developed sources on Twitter, gleaned countless story ideas or inspirations, and have been tipped and able to follow a few breaking news stories.”
Despite it’s rural location, the Morning Sun serves a community that includes a local college, Central Michigan University. While most of the 20-somethings who attend the school probably don’t read the daily newspaper on a regular basis, most (if not all) are on Twitter, enabling Mills and his staff to reach an audience they previous struggled with finding.
With all the emphasis placed these days on building a brand and driving traffic to your newspaper’s website, one thing that’s often overlooked about Twitter is its ability to be a useful tool regardless of the number of followers you have. Not only was Morning Sun’s most recent hire discovered because of Twitter, Mills uses it to keep up with other journalists around the country from whom he might gleam a new reporting idea or a way to improve his paper’s journalism.
“Twitter is better than Facebook or blogs, or any other thing I can think of, to keep up on industry trends, ideas and innovations and happenings,” Mills said. “I cannot think of anyplace we get more journalism and media news these days than on Twitter, even if much of it is links to other content on websites and blogs.”
Steve Woodward, a former reporter turned instructor at Central Washington University, found the geocoded search tool on Twitter most useful in his reporting. Using a search term like “near:Ellensburg,WA within:5mi,” or going a step further and using latitude and longitude, allowed him to uncover revealing tweets and stories in and around his community he never would have heard about otherwise.
Here are a couple of recent tweets he was able to uncover using this simple approach he posted on Buttry’s blog. You tell me if they’d be useful to a reporter: “I’m the asshole that just about hit a biker with my car,” and “I beat up women because I think it’s fun” and “Yay domestic violence…” from a local athlete.
Don Wyatt, the state editor for the Morning Sun, has been experimenting with a software tool called Dataminr. Developed in a partnership with Twitter, Dataminr analyzes the 500 million tweets posted every day to help track potential breaking news and patterns that could indicated important stories. It also provides an advanced geographic analysis of tweets, as well as a sophisticated system to track breaking news by region.
There are countless other Twitter tools journalists should have in their toolbox. Some of the best include:
Trendsmap: shows the latest local Twitter trends in your community
Buzzsumo: displays the most shared links and key influencers of your content
SocialBro: lots of data about your audience and community
Twipho: Twitter picture feed searchable by keyword or location
Hashtagify: shows related hashtags around a specific topic
Bluenod: Maps and visualizes communities around a Twitter user or hashtag
Is Twitter a silver bullet that can magically save newsrooms? Of course not. But it’s a powerful, free tool that every journalist could be availing themselves of and adapting into their workflow. Avoiding it because Twitter advocates like Buttry come across as a new journalistic “priesthood” (as Baquet noted) seems to be the same tired response that got newsrooms into a cycle of complacency many are still trying to dig out from.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.