Twitter: tips for journos from a recent convert

Kim Pittaway

Kim PittawayFirst images of the Hudson River aircrash: posted by a Twitter user. Eyewitness reports of the Mumbai bombings: posted by Twitter users. Real-time chatter about local news events, from what happened when the power went out on one of the coldest days in January in Toronto to on-the-ground reports from a December coal ash spill in Tennessee: posted by Twitter users.

I’ll admit that I was a Twitter skeptic. When my colleague Lisa Murphy suggested I sign on last October, I rolled my eyes. What possible value could I find—or communicate—in 140-character micro-blogging posts? And wasn’t this just going to be another time-sucking procrastination-enabler? (Well, yes it can be, but more on that later.)

But because I respect Lisa’s opinion, I signed on ( And the skeptic became a convert. I’ve used Twitter to watch news events unfold in real time (and heard about news events before they’ve appeared on newscasts, in print—or even on news organization web sites). I’ve followed posts to background articles I’d never have seen otherwise. I’ve made connections with colleagues I knew only vaguely—or not at all—both here in Toronto and abroad. All 140 characters at a time.

I’m willing to bet, though, that you won’t believe it unless you try it yourself.

Here are my tips for getting the most out of the experience.

  • It’s all in who you follow: The quality of your Twitter experience will be directly related to who you choose to follow. While you can use the “Find people” tab to search for specific names, I’ve had great success checking out who the people I’m following are following. After all, like tend to congregate with like. So, for instance, when I signed on and started following my friend Lisa, I checked out her “following” list and added a whack of those people to my list as well. And then I checked their lists. And so on.
  • Define “value” on your own terms: Before you click that “follow” button, though, scan the person’s last couple of pages of posts. Is there value there for you? I follow some people, like Jay Rosen, Wayne MacPhail, Amber MacArthur and Ivor Tossell because they consistently post links to articles on topics of interest to me and because their opinions are smart and challenging. I follow others, like Susan Orlean, Clive Thompson and Malcolm Gladwell because it makes me feel one step closer to my journalistic heroes to know what they’re doing and thinking. And I follow some, like John Hodgman and Stephen Fry, because they make me laugh—and every day can use a laugh or two.
  • Add the institutions of your choice: Many news and other organizations have Twitter feeds. They have their uses—flagging the latest content to be uploaded to a site, for instance—but I’m generally not a fan of them because they’re, well, institutional. The ones I do like—CBC radio, for instance—have personality and convey the sense that there’s an actual human typing the posts.
  • Check in on events in real time: For news reporters, Twitter can be an instant way to connect with “real” people (as opposed to us unreal journalists) in the midst of news events. How? Click on the “search” button in the bottom navigation footer, and you can search for specific words like “Hudson” or “crash.” With breaking news or hot topics, users will start adding hash tags—words or phrases combined without spaces and preceded by the # sign (for instance, #hudsoncrash) to show that they are in the post as a tag rather than as content—to make searching for content on that event easier.
  • Talk to others directly: Twitter isn’t just about shouting into the street—you can also engage in conversation directly with other users. Roll your cursor over the space to the right of a post and you’ll see two icons pop up. The star allows you to “favourite” an item and save it for future reference (so you don’t have to scroll back to find it). The curved arrow allows you reply to the poster—but be aware that your followers and the poster’s followers will see that reply, so it’s like talking across the table in a crowded room. Want a private conversation? Click on their user name, and look in the righthand bar next to their posts. If they accept direct messages, you’ll see the words “message(username)” under the “Actions” header. And be sure to check your “@Replies” and “Direct Messages” pages, accessible from your righthand nav bar, to see if others are talking to you.
  • Add your own posts: Be a giver, not just a taker! What should you post? Links to articles/resources/images that intrigue/enrage/engage you. Thoughts on what you’re working on or a project you’re seeking input for. A few words about how good/bad your drive in to work was this morning—or the mood in the office. It’s up to you, but from my point of view, the most engaging Twitterers connect with other users both on a professional and politely/slightly distantly personal basis. Think dinner party, not therapy.
  • On the subject of time-sucking procrastination: When I first signed on, I used to scroll back to see what I’d missed since I last checked in. Great way to kill time—and go bleary-eyed. Now I treat Twitter more like a river than a pool: I watch what floats by when I’m signed in, and accept that if I miss something, I miss it. There’s plenty of info-fish in the stream, and I’ll catch something interesting later (to push that metaphor to its limits—and beyond).
  • Oh, and post your picture. Nobody wants to talk to placeholder.

And in the spirit of Twitter, check out these links to other Twitter advice and resources:

Twitter apps:—Translates that 50-character URL into a shorter one, so you have more room in your post for words.—Lets you upload and share pictures through Twitter (as the Hudson crash photographer did)—Allows you to organize your Twitter feeds by category (so you can keep your social networking pros from your foodies) article on a Twitter app database

A wiki about media on Twitter:

Case studies:

Tennessee Coal Ash Spill: Who’s Covering It—or Not? by Amy Gahran at PoynterOnline: A case study in using hashtags to track a local story

Networked Link Journalism: A Revolution Quietly Begins in Washington State, on Publishing 2.0:  A case study in how multiple news organizations worked together to follow a breaking story using Twitter.


Twitter to Journalists: Here’s How It’s Done, on East Sleep Publish

JournoTweeting, by Ellyn Angelotti at PoynterOnline

News Tricks: 10 Tips for Tweeting as Your News Organization, on

Advice on creating a “tweet plan” from TwiTip

Kim Pittaway is a Toronto-based magazine writer
and editor. Her Twitter address is