This week, I spoke with Amy Gahran, editor of Poynter Institute's group weblog, E-Media Tidbits, about the ways in which Twitter might be harnessed for journalism.
Besides having a fantastic first name, Amy has amassed a very large Twitter following and really understands how to use the service well. She's also incredibly nice, wickedly smart and eager to help! You can read a tutorial Amy wrote, while this page offers some insight on how Amy built such a large Twitter community. You can visit Amy on Twitter or via E-Media Tidbits.
Meantime, our conversation is below:
Amy Webb: Twitter has certainly taken off among tech folks, but what about journalists?
Amy Gahran: Some journalists and recovering journos are using Twitter quite well. A few of my favorite examples are MSU j-prof Dave Poulson, Knight Digital Media Center's Michele McLellan, Greg Harman of the San Antonio Current, Aron Pilhofer of the New York Times, Matt Waite of the St. Pete Times, and Chris Krewson of Philly.com.
AW: Have you seen interesting examples of Twitter being used as a reporting tool?
AG: I've seen some reporters using Twitter as part of their journalistic process (especially during breaking news), but not nearly as much as the promise this medium holds on this front. My impression is that mostly, so far, MSM [mainstream media] journalists are using Twitter to promote their work and to connect with communities. They're probably also monitoring Twitter in ways that contribute to their journalism -- but if so, they don't seem to acknowledge that much in their work.
Citizen journalists and freelance/alt press reporters are more likely to make better journalistic use of Twitter.
AW: What about citizen journalism efforts? Do you think that Twitter can be an effective tool?
AG: Yep -- especially as a collaborative tool. Hashtags to aggregate tweets about events or issues can really help here. So can having a Twitter account for coverage of a topic. One of the best examples of this is Teeth Maestro, a dentist in Pakistan who keeps the world updated on happenings in Pakistan. A lot of that is highlighting local bloggers' work -- which often is broadening the reach of citizen journalism.
AW: What about using Twitter for covering events in economically disadvantaged areas?
AG: That depends on the net/mobile access available. If all you have available is bare-bones text messaging access you can tweet to get news out, but it's more difficult (and possible expensive in texting fees) to get info back from Twitter (including replies and other people's coverage) solely via text messaging. In those circumstances, services like Ushaidi in Africa can help a lot.
Learn how to use services like Twitpic to distribute photos via Twitter. Also, use hashtags to make it easier for people to find your coverage. If possible, find or launch an appropriate hashtag before you start doing your coverage.
If you have a smartphone that's GPS-enabled, make sure you use a mobile Twitter client that will geotag tweets. Twibble mobile is good on the Blackberry; Twittelator Pro is good on the iPhone; and GPStwit works on the iPhone and Windows Mobile. There are GPS-enable Twitter clients for all smartphone platforms.
AW: A lot of journalists may think that with the advent of so many social networking tools (Facebook, MySpace, Ning, etc.) it's too hard to keep up -- Twitter would just add to the clutter. What do you think?
AG: Twitter is definitely not for everyone -- but it's so popular, lightweight, mobile-friendly, and versatile that any media pro should at least know how to use it.
I recommend trying Twitter for at least three weeks before you make up your mind about it. Many people are confused or annoyed by Twitter when they first start using it, but somewhere around 2-3 weeks into it something just clicks with them on a subconscious level and they grasp the value and fun of it.
If you prefer Facebook or Friendfeed, you can update your Twitter account from those services -- or vice versa.
Also, find a good Twitter client -- don't just use the Twitter site for updates. The site is really kind of awful and not very usable. On the Mac I recommend Twhirl and Tweetdeck -- but there are many others.
AW: What are the biggest mistakes that new Twitter users make?
AG: Answering the question "What are you doing?" -- which is the prompt you get on the Twitter site. Unless you're doing something REALLY intriguing, that's just about the most boring way to tweet. It isn't likely to encourage anyone to follow you and engage with you.
A mistake I often see journos and news orgs make is to use Twitter only or mainly to post links to their own web content. That just feels like spam. Especially avoid services like Twitterfeed which automate tweets from your feed. These almost always truncate and thus are too cryptic to be interesting or useful.
And another common mistake is failing to engage in conversation on Twitter. I recommend that at least a third to half of your tweets should be responding to other people. That's a good way not only to build community, but to have fun.
Oh, and don't protect your updates so you have to approve people who follow you. You'll miss most of the fun and value of Twitter that way. Have the courage to put yourself out there.
AW: Any examples of Tweets gone wrong?
AG: That's really subjective. It depends on what your goals are, who you're trying to connect with, what can hurt you personally or professionally, etc.
In general you can get away with almost anything in moderation (talking about your pets, your day, your meals, your sinuses) as long as you're entertaining or witty about it, and not mean-spirited or plain boring.
As with any social media, you don't want to use Twitter to air the dirty laundry about your job, relationships, friends, or clients if you want to keep them. People do talk -- that's the whole point of social media. Word gets around.
AW: Can you offer any "insider tips" on expert Twitter use? Tricks to try?
AG: If you're attending a live event (like major conferences, demonstrations, festivals, etc.) cover it on Twitter -- and use the event hashtag so that your tweets can be easily aggregated with other coverage. Every time I do this I pick up a lot of followers, and they tend to stick around.
Also, don't ask people to follow you. That just looks desperate and sad. Simply make an effort to be compelling and engaging -- and respond to people, especially to be helpful. That's a good way to attract a quality posse.
If certain topics interest you, monitor those keywords or hashtags in Twitter Search. That can be a good radar screen and tip you off about useful people or hashtags to follow.
To read all of Amy Webb's Webb on the Webb columns, click here.
Follow me on Twitter! Amy Webb is a digital media consultant and head of Webbmedia Group, LLC. Find more multimedia tips and ideas at her blog, http://www.mydigimedia.com. Webbmedia Group is a vendor-neutral company. Any opinions expressed about products or services are formed after testing, research and interviews. Neither Amy Webb nor Webbmedia Group or its employees receives any financial or other benefits from vendors.