Monday, 20 April 2009

Yet another 'why journalists should use Twitter' post

Twitter, is an integral part of my job as a journalist. So it was something of a surprise to learn this week there are still some journalism colleges that don't show its potential benefits to their students.

I was talking to some J-students this week about how newspapers and journalists can use Twitter when one of them told me it wasn't on the syllabus she was studying, as it was perceived to have no value.

"Why?"I asked her."And who else on your course is using it?" Turned out, she was one of only a few tweeting, and her college did not see Twitter as adding value to a journalist's toolkit.
This baffled me. I assumed most journalists - hell, most people (apart from Oprah and look how she's caught up) - had heard of or tried this micro-blog lark. I assumed that J-students across the country were being taught it, experimenting with different ways of using Twitter and finding out how to being conversations, crowdsource and engage with audiences online.

Er, no.

Why, when there is so much competition not only to get a job in journalism but to simply get the story and be first, or just to be the one people engage with, would a lecturer would not give their students access to as many useful tools as possible?
So, while the Twitter canon is extensive enough without me adding to it, I thought I'd lay out why I think journalists should use Twitter. Just in case my J-student needs some extra ammo...

1. Twitter makes you build a network. There are no shortcuts; you have to think about who to follow, what you can discover from them, who they follow and why. You have to initiate conversations, engage with total strangers, put in some effort and maybe head up get some blind alleys, before you start seeing results. If you're a journalism student, I'd say that's a pretty fair introduction to your first few weeks in the 'real' job.

2. Breaking news gets tweeted, often, and with links and, increasingly, with photos. Twitter is not always first with the news, and I wouldn't take all tweets as gospel, but it gives journalists who use it a very useful edge on those that don't, as well as access to people at the centre of the maelstrom. Plus there's a certain satisfaction in telling your newsdesk about a big breaking story they don't know...

3. Sometimes its hard to know who you're writing for - it's not your newsdesk, or your editor, but these might be the loudest views you get to hear when you start out in a newsroom. Then there are mosaic groups selected by your marketing department, your print readers, your online audience, the casual reader to consider. Using Twitter you get to talk to a cross-section of all of them, find out what's important to them. Do that and, along with your other external networks, it will give you an idea of what's relevant to your readers, rather than what the office thinks is important.

4. By engaging with people you learn - whether it's individuals, communities or simply geography, Twitter helps you gain knowledge.
Find out what what blogs and websites people you who inspire you enjoy have or simply read, who they admire/loathe and what they view as emerging trends. What is important to them; it's like having a personal shopper to help you pick out what suits you best.

5. You get to engage complete strangers on Twitter, in an informal and open way. You have to get to the point in 140 characters or less, and that means people tend get to the point. It's often easier for me to send someone a DM than an email and it just feels more like natural conversation. Twitter can enhance reputations (#followfriday), gives you access to some experts in their field, or question politicians (and see what other people are asking them). And, should you care, you get to see where all the Showbiz reporters on the nationals are nicking their 'exclusives' from, well in advance.

6. Using Twitter to crowdsource often means you can seek opinions on issues, even if you aren't near a computer. I used it during a product development meeting this week:

...and got 10 replies in less than two minutes. Really useful.

7. Journalists who get stuck in the office with only each other and press officers to speak to can sometimes get isolated from reality. But online conversations - blog comments, forums, tweets - are great levellers. If you've built up a good relationship with your local network, they're probably going to come to you with tricky questions occasionally (Why has your paper gone up 5p? Why didn't you cover x-story?) and these are on a public timeline. You can't ignore them - if you do, you're not engaging with your network - and others will be watching for your answer so you have to draw on untapped wells of tact and diplomacy. Believe me, it's a good skill to acquire.

So that's my take on the subject. Three J-students have asked me this week why Twitter is important to newspapers and, although I'd say the real question is 'why is Twitter important to journalists' I think it's a shame their colleges aren't helping them find the answers too.
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