Why every journalist should be using Twitter

It's always difficult to gauge exactly how widely Twitter has extended outside of the tech and social media crowd (and, to a certain extent, the media). On one hand, I have Twitter on in the background every day at work and find it increasingly useful. On the other hand, I went out to dinner the other night with a couple of friends who I did my journalism training with and neither of them had heard of it. But just when I learn to the other hand and start to wonder if it generally has a wider application, something like this comes along.

Essentially, The Chicago Tribute has an online Twitter presence who interacts with other users and it was to this profile that other Twitters turned when a few of them started asking about some kind of panic at a local plaza they were hearing about.

Not only did the Tribute's Twitter feed reply, it got back to them about twenty minutes later with the full story, verified by the paper's journalists, before crediting the breaking story to the Tweeter who first told him (or her) about it.

Thanks to the retweeting of the story by other users, it turned into one of the most widely read stories on the site. Neither the story nor the subsequent hits would have been as big had it not been for Twitter.

This small event is the perfect example of how new and old media can work together to create great journalism, and it's the journalism aspect of Twitter that excites me the most.

At it's most basic, it's like the pub, where plenty of conversations are taking place [1]. Some of them are meaningless, but some may be interesting to the journalist and make a great story. Older journalists will have done more than their fair share of pub stories, while whenever I was sent to cover a story in an area I didn't know, I'd usually head down the pub, as this was one of the best places for background and context.

Twitter can be seen as the pub. Or perhaps a trendy, if somewhat dilapidated, wine bar. That has poor acoustics, and the clientele speak in clipped tones. But is up to date with the latest news from the area.

Twitter, then, goes beyond just searching for people on location for a breaking news event - it allows those users to break the news to the journalists, although that only seems to have happened because of interaction. If the Chicago Tribute's Twitter account didn't bother to interact with its followers, then it wouldn't have got the story (or got the story as quickly).

That, for me, perfectly encapsulates what social media is all about, and why it complements journalism rather than threatens it [2]. And why every journalist should at least be aware of how useful Twitter can be for newsgathering.

It may not have as many people signing up as Facebook did, and nor will it probably take off on such a mass scale as Facebook did. But that's not necessarily the point. As my colleague Ben is fond of saying, it's who you follow, not how many you follow.

The next question is how many news organisations have a presence of Twitter, Facebook, Bebo, and other sites, and regularly interact with readers? Those who don't, or haven't even considered it, are potentially missing a trick.

It's why it's important that Twitter users are able to receive SMS messages in the UK and Europe. The site cut this service due to spiraling costs they incurred from mobile providers.

It's one of the most useful services Twitter offers, and for journalists is a key part of why Twitter is so useful. Paul Bradshaw has started a campaign to get mobile operators to strike a deal with Twitter - the Facebook group is here.

[1] I have a feeling I've shamelessly stolen this analogy from Joanna Geary. Sorry Jo - think of it as social media analogy sharing :)

[2] Quite whether the same is true, at this current stage, for PR, I'm not so sure. It's very useful, but nowhere near as useful as journalists are finding it. There's definitely potential in there though, but as Jaz Cummins said to me at the Shoreditch Twit last week when I mentioned I was using Twitter for PR purposes, a lot of its users are still very much in the London or media-centric bubble and bursting through this bubble is the challenge. At least I think that's what she was saying. My memory of the night is a tad hazy, but it was along those lines and is a very valid point. It's certainly a major challenge for PR to work out how best to utilise the potential of Twitter.