Why Journalists Should Use Twitter

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I get asked a lot of questions about social media.  Fellow journalists wonder why I spend so much time on Twitter, while online friends wonder why so few of my colleagues do.  This blog seems like a good place to answer those questions, and explain why they matter.

The journalists’ questions make sense if you put yourself in our shoes.  Why write messages for hundreds of people, when you’re used to writing for hundreds of thousands?  And if your entire professional life revolves around daily deadlines, how do you justify taking days or weeks to learn about these new tools?

Facebook First

Journalists want information now, and we want to distribute it immediately. That’s the way we’re wired, and that’s why our first (and often only) step into social media is the easiest:  Facebook.  I did a story about Amelia Santaniello learning Facebook, almost exactly a year ago,  that had some excellent analysis from David Erickson of Tunheim Partners.  He said Facebook is so popular because it’s “easy to use, and simple to understand.”

That’s also why it’s popular with so many journalists.  But while it’s a great first step for using social media to interact with friends, family and maybe even colleagues, it misses the real benefits – particularly network expansion – of Twitter.

Advantages of Twitter

Twitter is a much better tool for journalists, because it’s built to connect people who don’t already know each other – something journalists have traditionally done over the phone.  In fact, when Twitter is done right, it’s basically phone-work on steroids.  Thanks to Twitter, I now have hundreds of extra contacts, places to find stories, and people to poll for information (crowdsourcing).  Better yet, those hundreds turn into thousands whenever my connections retweet my questions.  That tool has paid off so often, I actually quit counting all the tips and stories I’ve gotten through Twitter.

Social media sites also allow for extra access to news sources.  Sometimes, it’s planned,  like Norm Coleman announcing plans for the future on Facebook, and sometimes it’s not, like Kevin Love  Tweeting about Kevin McHale before the Wolves had a chance to announce he’d been fired.  These days, a good follow list can be just as valuable as a good contact list.

Still, one of the most effective uses of social media is rarely discussed:  market research.

A Virtual Water Cooler

We are constantly searching for “water cooler” stories, things that get people talking, which is what Facebook and Twitter are all about.  Particularly Twitter, with a chance to watch EVERYTHING in your tweet stream.  The random, coded conversations that intimidate newcomers can be incredibly valuable for journalists.  They can help us identify trends, measure buzz, and react to it immediately.  In other words, there’s a virtual water cooler right there on your computer.

In fact, while I was working on this post, the New York Times discussed ways to use Twitter as a tracking tool, calling it a personalized news feed.  Whether watching  the Trending Topics list, searching Twitter directories, or simply observing the comments in your own tweet stream, there are so many ways Twitter can help you analyze the audience.  And the information is not only free, it’s available immediately.

I realize that TV already has valuable measurement tools.  But overnight ratings have limitations, because they aren’t posted until the next day, and they only measure the audience in 15 minute increments.  Since most of our news stories are only one or two minutes long, those ratings provide relatively imprecise feedback.

We’re pretty good at analyzing those numbers, extrapolating them, and figuring out what works for our audience – but when you’re looking for an edge, extra information is always helpful.  Yes, the analysis needs to be strategic and targeted, but if you agree that the audience is the key to communication,  you shouldn’t turn down anything that helps you better understand it.

Other Businesses?

My question is, how does this translate to other businesses?  We’re all trying to connect with our customers/audiences, so how do you use social media to improve your business and understand your customers better?  Please let me know.  That’s how I’ll get to know this audience better.

  1. Many (maybe most) businesses using Twitter for marketing are Twitter-broadcasters only (engaging)but never or seldom engage in conversations (be engaged by others). Regular Twitter users will soon “unfollow” or others like myself will “block” their tweets.
    Some have come to the conclusion that the hub of any social media-based business strategy is the blog, with Twitter the vehicle to attract readers.The majority of their posts to Twitter are conversational, with occasional posts linking to their blog.
    Some prime examples of successful “Twitter-marketing” are Bob Collins of MPR, Frederick Melo of the St. Paul Pioneer Press,some guy named Litman of WCCO, Maya Paveza a Realtor® in Delaware,and (of course)Teresa Boardman, a St. Paul Realtor®. They all have one thing in common – they “get it.”
    There are many others who get it, but those come to mind immediately.
    There’s my uneducated opinion on social media and business.

    • JACK: Thanks for the comment, and the kind words. I hope more people “get it” as time goes on. We’re all experimenting here, but it seems like the folks who use these tools the most – and show their audience the most respect – are doing it best. Thanks for including me with such a nice group of Tweeters. I really appreciate it.

      • Frederick Melo
      • March 15th, 2010

      Wow, that’s flattering of you, Jack. I think Twitter is primarily a rich social tool, and I agree that businesses that consistently and exclusively tell you to “drink their Kool-Aid, it tastes great!” quickly get unfollowed.

      That said, I follow Sun Country Airlines and a handful of restaurants and other businesses on Twitter so I can stay on top of their sales, happy hours, etc.

      As long as they’re not ramming advertising down my throat every minute, I can handle a little marketing with the social jawboning.

      But the best part of Twitter remains the interaction with readers such as yourself. You the man, man!

  2. Congrats on the start to blogging. You hit on the biggest thing for me with Social Media early in your post when you mentioned ACCESS. You get to connect with great people, great minds, great businesses and more.

    Jack is spot on with his comment. You can go to hundreds of Twitter accounts for many in media and see they follow a handful of people while wanting 1,000s of followers. They’re not looking to connect, they’re looking for one more way to shout. Too bad.

    • AARON: Thanks. I agree completely. Engagement and interaction are what make social media so special. Without that, I never would have “met” you and Jack – and all the other people I learn from every day.

    • bloisolson
    • March 13th, 2010


    As for other businesses, and to the small degree that I practice journalism. There is certainly a nimbleness to Twitter to understand the buzz/conversation of the day. In addition, Twitter offers a timeliness that journalists should find highly valuable and finding sources/quick fact checking etc.

    Great job with the new blog.

    – Blois

  3. Every industry has a long way to go, but I’m surprised, shocked even, that more journalists wouldn’t just jump on the chance to get real time news around the world. Yes, there is that little factor of journalistic integrity. I understand it is important to check facts and even more important to get to know who you can trust. Great article very insightful.

    • DESARAE: Journalists are slowly adopting – just like other folks. Hopefully this post will convince them that it’s worth the time and effort.

  4. Somewhat selfishly, Gregg, I hope people continue to NOT adapt and adopt these new tools, because it makes guys like us look like geniuses.

    Up until today, there’s been little risk for journalists who don’t get into Twitter or Facebook. No one gets fired for not getting into social media. People do get fired for saying dumb things on social media.

    No one gets promoted to a higher paying gig because of being active online.

    I think that’s starting to change, but it’s understandable while people would hesitate to dive in.

    Personally, I get access to a far wider pool of experts and viewers who make my work better. That’s the payoff for me.

    • JASON: I think you’re right. Fortunately, our bosses have been very fair and forward-thinking about social media, and allowed us to venture out. I can understand, though, how others might be more hesitant.

  5. I watch WCCO news because of Jason DeRusha. He has been online in social settings for years. Because he frequents the online places I frequent (MNSpeak, Twitter, Facebook) I consider him a “friend” even though I have never met him and rarely interact online with him.

    Because of this, not only do I only watch WCCO news, I actually started watching the news again. I hadn’t watched the news in year, but now watch it 3-4 days a week. I know the same is true of my husband and a few friends.

    And he isn’t the only person who has done this for me. If Mac Wilson is on The Current, I will listen. He’s also an online friend who I’ve never met. I read Bob Collins’ blog and listen to The Current when he is on due to his Twitter presence.

    Simply put, a good online presence can lead to loyal readers/viewers/listeners.

    • KASSIE: Thanks for commenting on this post, connecting with Jason, and watching our newscasts. It’s nice to see how social media can not only build our audience, but build loyalty with our newfound friends. Trust me, it’s very much appreciated.

  6. Actually Jason, I have a story on Monday about a local media person getting promoted (more or less) due in considerable part to social networking.

    It is changing, though obviously the ability to move the revenue needle meaningfully remains in the future for most large operations.

    • DAVID: In TV, we call that a tease. I’m anxious to see who’s getting promoted by using social networking – and maybe a bit jealous!

  7. And I overstate things a bit, of course. I think my success internally at WCCO has a lot to do with my work online. I just think for the average on-air person, there’s more of a perceived risk than a perceived reward in getting too far out online. I disagree – of course – but I get it.

    And thanks Kassie!

    • Shelman
    • March 14th, 2010


    I agree with much of what has been said. If I was still in my former life, I think at least monitoring social media would be crucial in my job.

    Twitter has real applications for journalists. You have the ability to get a sense of what is going on surrounding a certain topic. You can follow experts. You can get links to tons of stories on a topic.

    I have reached a point where I search for very little on newspaper/media websites. I follow more than 1,000 people for various reasons and if there’s a good story about higher education, the NBA, the Gophers, college basketball or golf, it’s probably going to show up in my Twitter feed. That’s valuable.

    I have newspaper friends who hate Twitter and see no value in it. I kinda shake my head at them. They miss out on a tremendous resource and they also miss on an opportunity to connect with potential sources.

  8. Hey Gregg,

    Good topic, great post.

    I am not a journalist, despite having a non-award winning blog. When more journalists do make the leap into social media, people like Mr. DeRusha should not be worried, but ready to react and keep moving forward. Think of it as competition; the cream rise to the top when competition is around.

    As an online marketer, I am convinced that persons in most any industry can find some value using social media to either listen, connect, crowd source, etc. There are many reasons to use social media for individuals and businesses. We are only in the infancy in the social media era. It will be exciting to see other industries and personalities join the existing community, as they will help social media stay relevant and take necessary steps forward.

    I’m looking forward to reading more posts, Gregg. Keep ’em coming!

    • JASON: I agree. I think we’re all involved in communication, and we can all use this tool to do it better. Thanks.

    • Kim Bettcher
    • March 14th, 2010


    I know I have appreciated journalists use of Twitter. I especially like when they mix up the types of posts (personal, news and “behind the scenes”)…makes me feel more of a connection as previous people have stated.

    As a program director of a fitness and aquatics facility, we started using Twitter in combination w/ Facebook as a way to communicate quickly with both our patrons and people familar with our community (making use of Facebooks event invitations). This is something relatively new in our network of community centers and are still working with how to best make use of the possiblities (e-blasts to members is still most effective for us regarding program information and registrations).

    As a writer, Twitter has allowed me to connect with other writers and I have really appreciated the ablity to follow conversations and topics. With so much information out there, the ability you have with Twitter to “opt in” to conversations helps to make Twitter so appealing.

    I think the biggest challenge people have with trying Twitter is that it has a different rythm to it than Facebook. For it to be effective, you need to be engaged regularly. You can’t just sit back and watch as too many people do with Facebook. But, getting a quick overview to get started and diving in, is so worth it!

    • KIM: Thanks for the insight into how your business uses social media, particularly Facebook, to connect with members. It makes sense that different approaches work in different situations – like many other kinds of communication.

  9. Hey, Gregg:

    Thanks for the shout out and I love the blog!

    I’ve been fascinated watching how the social Web is changing journalism.

    One particular aspect of that change is the emergence of personality-driven journalism. Not that this is really a new phenomenon–TV news is built upon personalities and print has always had its columnists–but social media has leveled the playing field so that ANY journalist can build a following based largely on the strength of their online personality.

    Jason DeRusha and David Brauer are prominent examples of how social channels, Twitter in particular, can help reporters establish a direct relationship with viewers/readers who develop loyalty to them based in no small part on the perceived sense of intimacy that social media helps create.

    Since I can, in a sense, eavesdrop on a reporter’s day-to-day activities though their online content and interactions, I get a much stronger sense of who they are as a person than was ever possible before. Because I feel I know them, I will be more likely to follow their journalism.

    Finally, I think the relationships that this dynamic creates can help to make the news media more accountable. Now individual reporters not only feel an obligation to themselves, their profession, and their employers to ensure the accuracy of their stories but they also have their own social networks to consider.

    • Joel (JoelECarlson)
    • March 15th, 2010

    Very good points in your article Gregg. There can be a lot of street-corner news and information that people talk about and share on Social Media, that they might not call in to a TV station and report on. Even trending topics like restaurants, stores, bad weather, places where the potholes are bad. All of these things can be found from discussions of people on Twitter or Facebook. Good post!

  10. One reason to use Twitter and other social media is because flacks like myself (I’m the communications director of the American Lung Association in Minnesota) use it to pitch story ideas. I follow reporters/editors at all major (and minor) media outlets in the state, but I have a warm spot for the folks at “Jason’s Station” who have adapted social media to their profession more completely than any other television news department I know.

    BTW, I tweet both as “CleanAirChoice2” and “justplainbob.”

    • BOB: It’s nice to know Jason’s hard work is making it easier for all of us at the station. Personally, I think social media has allowed us to streamline the interaction between smart PR folks and some of us journalists – making each of us more easily accessible – and that’s also a good thing.

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