Twitter for Newsrooms: first impressions

Tonight Twitter released a set of guides for newsrooms. There’s going to be a lot said about them in the next few days I’m sure, and it’ll be a while before we see what impact (if any) they have on the news ecosystem. But here are a few first impressions, in no particular order.

  • Newsrooms, not (just) journalists. This isn’t just about newsgathering, it’s about process and presentation too.
  • This is basic stuff – tools, examples, glossary, links, support. That’s as it should be, I reckon. The newsroom denizens who understand Twitter well enough to build their own techniques are still vastly in the minority. This is about bridging a gap.
  • The examples of engagement are very well-chosen indeed, and it’s genuinely heartening to see a range of reporters from the internationally renowned to the metro beat, with follower count ranges to match. I hope they keep this list up to date.
  • There’s that word “branding” again, providing more fuel for the ongoing branding debates. This is good basic advice about making yourself recognisable and accessible on Twitter, but I suspect a fair few journalists will bristle at the problematic word.
  • The focus when it comes to reporting is on the @acarvin style of curation and publication, not on live reporting or on breaking your own news. There’s a small section on mobile reporting, but the bulk of the reporting guide is around tapping into pre-existing communities, building on top of citizen journalism work, and finding sources. That looks a little like a missed opportunity to tout the real power of Twitter as a direct conduit for breaking news.
  • I’m glad Twitter is making more of its advanced search tools. They’re immensely useful for journalists, but unless you already know about them they’re next to impossible to use. Including them here, prominently, is smart. And it’s wise to explain there’s a difference between Top and All tweets, even if it’s still not clear what “most relevant” means in this context.
  • Twitter is protecting/building its brand. Some of these guidelines are about making sure the platform gets credit for quotes and information shared there. Others offer ways to embed Twitter functionality on news sites. It reminds me of Facebook’s Open Graph plugins, in a nascent and very specific way – proliferating its own platform while performing useful functions. Aiming to become needed, where it isn’t already.

How do you make local news on Twitter engaging?

Like this:

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This is @eveningnews, and it’s not your average local news feed. Delivering a wry, funny take on the day’s news in Norwich, it’s not scared to poke fun at the newspaper – and the results are a far cry from the sterile RSS-based robots that many news brands use on Twitter.

@eveningnews has, at last count, nearly 3,700 followers – not bad for a local newspaper with a print circulation of 18,923 – and it’s talkative. It doesn’t follow many folks back but it does engage with the followers it has, talking back, retweeting and chatting about what’s going on.

The voice behind the tweeting is Stacia Briggs, current UK Columnist of the Year and feature writer for the Evening News, who also tweets as @womaninblack. She says that far from seeing Twitter as something difficult, it’s child’s play by comparison to traditional writing: “Give me 140 characters in comparison to 1,500 words any day.”

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The feed was originally started by a colleague but quickly taken over by Stacia, and these days it’s very rare that anyone else uses it. Stacia admits being “extremely territorial”, and says that when the account was started she “was one of the only people on my newspaper who had some experience of Twitter – it’s not much of a basis for my unstinting belief that I could do the best job with the account, but it was a start”.

Like many folks looking at local news feeds, Stacia says she struggled to find something engaging out there – a feed that actually made people want to click on links, rather than simply treating the medium as a one-way publishing stream. So she set out to create something different.

“I consider the account to be fairly informal, hopefully amusing and friendly – sometimes a bit edgy and slightly naughty,” she says. “I don’t want bland RSS feeds or po-faced updates that command me to read a story. What I wanted to do is make the feed like a conversation: I’ll tweet a link, and then I’ll sometimes make an observation. Sometimes, the observations are quite oblique – I like oblique observations.”

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“One of the things I feel most strongly about is maintaining a voice, one which people recognise and can relate to,” Stacia says.

“Clearly, there are stories which are serious and which must be treated as such. I don’t post a story about an inquest and then make a joke – if I did, I’d imagine it would be my career that required an inquest after a very sudden death.”

But between the straight tweets that link the reader to important stories and keep people up to date, @eveningnews is genuinely funny and wonderfully compelling. It’s a fantastic mix that makes readers feel they have a genuine relationship and a line into the paper – as is shown by the number of stories that come straight to Stacia via @eveningnews – and it has a nice side line in gently mocking the newspaper’s occasional online mishaps in a way that brings readers into an inside joke.

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Looking at @edp24, a feed run out of the same office by the same team, the difference is clear – the Eastern Daily Press feed is entirely automated, even automatically passing on reporters’ tweets. The Eastern Daily Press has more than three times the circulation of the Evening News in print, and the circulation area is much wider – but it has just a few more followers than @eveningnews.

And despite regular attempts at engagement from the people who follow it, it simply doesn’t talk back. In this, it’s like most other news brands, both local and national – but it’s clear from what @eveningnews has achieved that much more is possible when someone committed and talented takes ownership and makes the news their own.

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Readers tell @eveningnews their stories freely, they pass on ideas, they offer case studies and point out errors – but the open dialogue has drawbacks. Stacia doesn’t stop when she goes on holiday or is unwell – keeping @eveningnews going is a constant task that transcends normal work hours and boundaries. But it’s worth it, she says.

“There’s a mine of untapped data and information on Twitter which hugely benefits newspapers – and I’m trying to access it. I’ve got some great, breaking stories from Twitter, and within minutes we’ve had them on our websites.

“A huge city centre fire was first reported on Twitter and we then followed it with live tweeting, pictures from our photographers and Twitter followers and regularly updated reports. It directed people to our website and was a great example of how Twitter can break the news and we can expand on it.

“I’ve been given feature ideas, news stories, pictures, video, song clips – it’s been like a news sweet shop.”

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And the best advice for people tweeting as news brands?

“Don’t churn out corporate slurry. Talk like a human being. Engage with people. Reply to people who talk to you. Look for the unusual in a story and highlight it. Encourage your reporters to find lots of stories about UFOs, big cats, sharks or local eccentrics – they’re Twitter gold.”

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Full disclosure: I worked for the Evening News from 2008 to 2010, and I am a total Stacia fangirl. Stacia’s job at the Evening News is currently at risk due to Archant Norfolk’s editorial review.

Live tweeting tips

Between the Budget and the march I’ve been doing a fair bit of live tweeting over the last week or so. Here are the principles I follow when I’m doing this sort of live reporting, wbether it’s live on the ground at a breaking news event or curating in front of a screen in the office.

General tips

  • Pick a hashtag. Most big events organically end up with two or three hashtags at least – #march26, #26march, for instance. A few, like the Egypt protests, end up unified behind one (#jan25) with others appearing and disappearing from time to time (#tahrir). Official organisations, if they know what they’re doing, will tend to tell people in advance of an organised event what tag they’re using (HM Treasury used #budget11) but often large numbers of other tweeters will decide to use a different one (#budget2011). Pick yours and tell people which one it is – but don’t be afraid to change it as long as you tell people why.
  • Find sources. Work out who’s there, who’s reporting, who’s involved. If you can get non-Twitter contact details for some of them, so much the better – that way if they suddenly go dark you have another way to find out what’s happened, and you can get in touch directly for more detailed reports if you need them.
  • Know your sources. Finding eye-witnesses is relatively easy. Working out whose reports you can trust is much harder. Try and get some background on your go-to people, understand their perspective a little – sometimes this is as simple as reading a few pages back in their Twitter timeline, or checking their bio, or Googling them. Bear in mind, as you would with sources you’re interviewing, their likely biases and the slant they’re likely to put on information.
  • Use Twitter lists. Once I’ve IDed potential sources I use private lists to curate eye-witness reports. On the ground, there isn’t often time to update these as events progress, but having a go-to list of people whose words you trust and who are reporting live can be immensely useful in making sure you’re up to date. Back at the desk, curating eye-witness lists can ensure you’re among the first to be aware when a situation changes.
  • Use search wisely. If something big is breaking, you can usually pinpoint it quickly using – and if you’re looking for particular pieces of information, or pictures, or opinions, you can use search operators to pinpoint further. For instance, “#march26 -RT” brings back tweets tagged #march26 that are not retweets. “#budget2011 ?” finds questions about the Budget (which you might be able to answer). “libya :(” finds negative sentiment tweets which mention Libya. You can also use near: and within: to get location-tagged tweets. Here’s a complete list of search operators.
  • Stay balanced. Think about your personal biases, whatever they are, and be aware of how they’re likely to affect your reporting. Read up on confirmation bias and think about whether you’d trust something or retweet it if it was saying the opposite of what it says. Think about your use of language and avoid over- or under-dramatising a situation.
  • Attribute. If you saw something yourself with your own eyes, tweet it as is. Everything else needs an attribution. Use new-style retweets for eye-witness information that you can verify or from sources you trust.
  • Verify. And if you can’t verify, clarify. Try not to get carried away with the moment. Remember that if something sounds too good to be true, or too bad, it often is. Beware of tweeting things that agree with the way you want the story to pan out. Be aware of your storyteller’s instinct that will bias you towards neat resolutions (like Mubarak’s resignation, which was pre-emptively reported at least twice). Find original sources, ask for confirmation and clarification, and if you accidentally tweet something untrue, correct yourself.

On the ground

  • Be openminded. Decide where you’re going and why. Think about the issues you want to report, and work out a plan to do that to the best of your ability. But go with an open mind, and be prepared to change your focus if events change.
  • Go well equipped. Spare batteries if you can get them. More pens than you know what to do with. Spare notebook. Spare spare notebook. Chargers, in case you can get to a plug socket. Comfortable shoes. Dress warmly but smartly. Enough food, and then some extra food. And bananas if you’re likely to be on your feet for any length of time (seriously, I learned this by fighting the undead for 8 hours at a time).
  • Have a plan for what happens if your connection goes down. I spent large parts of the march through Whitehall frantically texting my Twitter updates in via SMS, taking pics to stack up for later tweets, and talking to people with my notebook out.
  • Think detail. Think colour. Think little moments that only you saw, snippets of the larger whole. Don’t try to encompass everything; pick out what’s unusual in your field of view and frame it succinctly.
  • Take pictures. Geotagged images uploaded in real time are an easy way for someone to verify that you’re a reliable source. They don’t have to be beautiful, though it helps if you’ve a good eye for an image and you have the kit to take something striking. But iPhone images work just fine, as do most Android and Blackberry models. Look for moments, and capture them. And if that moment is “holy crap the cops are beating up kids”, remember that a picture, however grainy and hurried, is evidence that your words alone can’t provide.
  • Use audio if it’s appropriate. Audioboo, for instance, is a great tool for short snippets of speech with ambient noise. But its efficiency and use depends on how good your kit is (do you have a microphone?) and the ambient noise (believe me when I say that vuvuzelas under a bridge are not conducive to effective audio). And remember upload time, battery life, connection speed. Balance your resources.
  • Think about video. If it’s not your primary task to bring back raw footage, then bear in mind that 30-second snippets of video uploaded straight from the ground can tell fantastic stories – but that comes at a price. It’s likely, if you’re like me, that any decent kit you have is focused on keeping you connected and not on shooting gorgeous scenes, so work within the limitations of your kit. Balance whether the images you’re seeing are worth the trouble, the time and the battery life that video takes, and balance whether it’s worth trying to upload to YouTube or a similar site while you’re on scene. Remember that uploading takes time, too. And bear in mind that if all you have are talking heads, audio plus a picture might be better.
  • Take time out to catch up. You’ll be caught up in events a lot of the time, and that’s fine. But when you get chance, stop and check the hashtag. Stay aware of what’s happening elsewhere – both in terms of where you should be and what people will want to know.
  • Don’t forget the notebook. Tech breaks. Shorthand doesn’t. People who don’t want to be recorded will let you write things down. And a notebook is still a visual shorthand for print journalism, in some crowds – and being visible can be useful.
  • Remember you can’t cover everything. You’re part of the event, and you can only report your part of what’s going on. It’s OK to let go of the bigger picture while it’s happening – in fact, if you want to report well where you are, you have to do it. Yes, it’s hard.
  • Don’t be reckless. Don’t put yourself in needless danger, and don’t charge away from a big story to chase a sexy one unless it’s justified.

At the desk

  • Monitor. Even though you’ll probably only use one hashtag, remember the others. I use Hootsuite or Tweetdeck depending on my mood to set up a monitoring dashboard and keep an eye on incoming tweets, with columns for my mentions and as many other hashtags and searches as I can think of. I’ll also tend to use “-RT” to strip retweet noise out, but I’ll generally include a column specifically for RTs with links, so that I don’t miss big-news images or new sources in the excitement.
  • Aggregate and curate. Collect stuff together, pick the best bits, and re-broadcast them. Add value by providing a stream of the best information available. Think like an editor.
  • Use outside sources. If you’re not stuck in the moment, then you have access to sources who are outside the Twittersphere. That can mean TV news, other journalists’ reports, official organisations, and so on. In Norfolk I covered a breaking news story of a train/car crash in tandem with another reporter – I was at the desk while she went to the scene of the incident to chase quotes. That meant I had access to the emergency services press offices as information filtered out, and could keep the story up to date while she spoke to witnesses and got pictures. There are always people who have interesting things to add to the conversation who aren’t on Twitter.
  • Connect individuals. The folks you’re seeing in your timeline might need information. You might see them ask questions. If you can answer them, or point them in the direction of someone who can, then do so. Be helpful. Be useful.
  • Refute. Sometimes, people tweet bollocks, either because they have something to gain by doing so or because they believed a rumour. (Or, sometimes, for the lulz.) Don’t be tempted to believe something because it sounds like it ought to be true or because you want the story to work out a certain way. If you spot something you know to be wrong, correct it, and cc the person who made the original claim.
  • Keep it factual – at least, during the event. If people are using Twitter to share information, adding opinion into the mix can be confusing and add to the noise. If you’ve got a relevant piece of reporting, a pic or a video or a news item to share, share it, but don’t use (for instance) a hashtag sharing information about the protests in Yemen as a hook for your opinion piece about left-wing support for violent intervention in dictatorships.
  • Question everything. Ask questions on the hashtag about things that aren’t clear. Ask why things are happening. Ask questions of the information that’s streaming past you and of the individuals providing it. Don’t assume.

Directing the shambling hordes

Zombies at the doorI’m running my first social media campaign, and so far, it’s working.

Let me explain. I’m one of the two head organisers of a live-action simulation game called Zombie LARP (we wish we’d picked a better name sometimes, but it works) in which a whole bunch of people run around in the dark pretending to be zombies and taking it in turns to shoot the zombies with NERF guns. Think Left 4 Dead in real life.

It started out as a daft idea at university. We ran the first one on a wing and a prayer. It went so well – so blisteringly, terrifyingly, incredibly well – that we’ve been running one every six months since then. We got players initially by running something no one else was doing; then, later on, we started getting them by wor of mouth.

Last autumn 57 people turned up from my home town to a game designed for about 30. Many of them were regular players but many of them were new, buzzed because they’d been told about it by their friends.

We’ve grown up a little now, and we want to take it professional, and that means moving out of university buildings and a student mindset and tapping into the wider community around live gaming, NERF/Airsoft play, and zombies.

Which means an entrepreneurial mindset, learning web design, and running a social marketing campaign that opens us up to a wider market while maintaining our relationship with the core group who got us where we are now – our regular and most loyal players, the people who make our game possible.

In late September our website went live. In November we ran our most recent event, with bookings online. It sold out. Shortly after the event – while everyone was watching for photos – we made the move from a dying and mostly inactive Facebook group to a page, which had 50 fans within 24 hours. Globally, that’s not many, but in our niche it’s fantastic. Every one of those fans is a player, or a potential player. We are reaching the people we need to reach.

And more. In November our website had more than 80,000 hits.

Our fan page is slowly filtering through to friends of friends, people who are interested in the concept, people in that slightly wider niche who might come to the next game.

We ran a short-notice one-off event that wouldn’t have been possible without the forum and Facebook page as communication tools, and we backed that up with video.

We’re starting to get attention from German groups on Twitter purely by having Youtube and Facebook accounts feeding there. And a group of people are running a spin-off game in Kansas, suddenly. We’re international.

There’s a lot more work to do. We have video processing problems to iron out, insurance to negotiate, banks to deal with, applications to fill in, alternate reality games to create and venues to find.

But the next event will be bigger, better, more widely anticipated and more fun because of the community we’re building around the game. And, if we’re lucky and we work hard and smart, it’ll be in either an abandoned shopping mall or a fort.

I think that’s a success. What do you think?

Short is sexy

16/06/2009 - Magnetic poetry wall at the Cambridge Arts FestivalI’m a fairly recent Twitter convert, and at the moment there are two main reasons I’m sticking with it. First, it’s short, and second, it’s art.

I’ve failed to enjoy Facebook or work well with it for several years, preferring to do my moaning on my blog and my events management by email. Yes, I know, I should do better. That’s why I joined Twitter.

The interface is easy, keeping up with people you find intriguing or blogs you want to keep tabs on is suddenly very simple, and you can engage as much or as little as you fancy.

All of which is lovely, but it’s not why I like it so much – it’s not why it works. The best and most innovative thing Twitter has done is forced us to condense communication into short bursts – to crystallise. To be brief.

Twitter’s 140-character limit forces poetry from mundanity. It’s possible to build a tweet around a single thought, a concept, without over-egging it or forcing it. It rewards neatness. Even “pointless babble” becomes a crystal of meaning, complete in itself.

And people are using the microblogging format for all sorts of textual art, from condensing words down to fit within the strict limits to haiku to artistic political satire, such as William Shatner’s Tonight Show recital of Sarah Palin’s Twitter feed. The medium even spawned the world’s first interactive poetry competition.

Mashable laid out the reasons for loving the character limit very neatly and persuasively, but didn’t mention the possibility of poetry.

Twitter is forcing us to distill our words, and words distilled can make art.

Pointless babble

A study (warning, PDF) was published recently by Pear Analytics looking at Twitter usage, which found that more than 40% of all tweets are “pointless babble”. It’s a startling result – I for one was expecting a much higher percentage of spam and links posts – but I’m fascinated by the idea that a type of communication making up such a large proportion of a medium is defined as “pointless”.

The study authors defined six groups – news, spam, self-promotion, conversational, pass-along value and pointless babble – and babble is the only one that carries a value judgement. “Pointless babble” is a biased description, and I’m not sure why the authors of a statistical study decided to pass judgement on their data – or whether they even realised that’s what they were doing.

The implication is that we shouldn’t be babbling, we should be doing something else instead. No one wants to know whether you’re eating a sandwich or on a train – this is babbling, minutiae, and therefore without purpose – pointless.

For many Twitter users, someone else’s conversational tweets are often uninteresting unless they are directed at you, whereas your friend tweeting that their bus is stuck in traffic might be very relevant if they’ve arranged to meet you in half an hour. Sometimes status updates are far from pointless – “out of hospital, all’s well” is a long way from a pointless post even if it’s not directed at anyone in particular.

And I suspect, but can’t prove except with this very study, a lot of people use Twitter like Facebook status updates, following people rather than friending them and using the site as an easily-accessible Facebook lite. The description of that usage as “pointless” seems more than a little harsh – particularly when you’ve just found that 40.55% of the site is examples of that type of usage.

Many of these utterances are the sort of speech that human beings use to remind each other, and themselves, that they are still alive. It’s a way of keeping in touch without saying anything, akin to talking about the weather (if you’re English, of course). Rather than calling it pointless, wouldn’t it have made more sense to ask why this use is so common, and whether it’s a feature of Twitter rather than a bug?

There are a couple of other question marks for me about this study – why did the authors chose not to sample tweets on Saturday or Sunday? Why didn’t they sample between 5pm and 11am CST – that’s 11pm-5pm GMT, neatly missing the daytime usage of a lot of non-American folks? Did they include non-English language tweets?

But those are methodology quibbles, when my main problem with the study is the way it demeans a form of communication as “pointless” without asking whether or not it has a point. I don’t know if it does, but I’d retweet any study that had a go at finding out.