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Six Ways Journalists Can Use Twitter Better

By Sree Sreenivasan | November 23, 2010 11:12am
A close-up of the bio section of Twitter user @Rozzy, the first social media director at NBC News. Note the clear description of his job; as well as e-mail and phone contact info.
A close-up of the bio section of Twitter user @Rozzy, the first social media director at NBC News. Note the clear description of his job; as well as e-mail and phone contact info.
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By Sree Sreenivasan

DNAinfo Contributing Editor

For several months now, I have been thinking about how journalists can use Twitter in smarter ways. Here's a compilation of ideas - many of them found, of course, on Twitter itself.

GET TO KNOW TWITTER BETTER: Too many journalists still don't understand Twitter. Some are critical without ever trying it out. Some tried Twitter a couple of years ago, found it lacking and never went back. Some look at folks like me, who advocate its use, as time-wasters who are somehow less serious about work. 

If those people won't listen to me, then I suggest they read this piece by Alan Rusbridger, the editor-in-chief of the UK GuardianWhy Twitter matters for media organizations. In it, he lays out 15 reasons journalists should take Twitter seriously. Among them: 1) It's an amazing form of distribution; 2) It's where things happen first; 3) As a search engine, it rivals Google; 4) It's a formidable aggregation tool; 5) It's a great reporting tool.

UPGRADE YOUR BIO: I am talking here about the bio section of your Twitter account, which tells visitors about you. I come across too many accounts where not even the full name is spelled out. 

See the screengrab above from the account of Ryan Osborn (@Rozzy), the first social media director of NBC News. He used to run the giant @TodayShow account, so he really knows this stuff. What he does right:

• His full name, spelled out

• His title, in full

• His e-mail address and phone are included

• A link to a personal web page (if you don't have one, link to your news org's site)

• A recognizable photo

His disclaimer — "Links and retweets aren't endorsements. Opinions are my own" — make sense at a major network like NBC. I believe that in the months and years ahead, it will be obvious that links aren't endorsements and no one will need the disclaimers. 

As I wrote in my Twitter case study last month, journalist Amy B. Wang (@AmyBWang) is able to connect with sources faster because she includes an e-mail address in her Twitter bio.

And a reminder about profile photos: Back in April 2010, I wrote a column about the importance of your profile photo. I wrote, "I've been telling my students and journalism pros that those photos will affect people's perceptions of you - especially because they are most likely to see you first in that format." Since then I've become even more convinced of the value of the profile photo. So follow my guidelines, please, including: clear, recent close-up shot of your face; and no shots of you with a celebrity, a national monument, pet or child.

UPGRADE YOUR LISTS: Twitter's list feature is a terrific tool for journalists who want to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of the service. For example, my list of 80-plus social-media editors around the country (which you can follow here) is filled with useful tweets from journalists whose job includes social media work. 

This week, an applicant to Columbia Journalism School wrote me a note in which he ratified the value of a Twitter list of 18+ Columbia J-school faculty and adjuncts (which you can follow here): "I also happen to be following you on Twitter and you should know that your list of Columbia professors has been particularly useful in getting a feel for the intellectual environment of the school."

THINK THROUGH YOUR TWEETS: Sources, would-be employers, etc., are going to make judgement calls about you based on what you tweet, so this is important. While no one cares about what you ate for lunch or who you are hanging out with, no one is asking you to be an automaton, either, tweeting only about the work-related stuff. Think through what your account is going to feature — perhaps one or two categories of topics — and tweet those. While you are it, you can include in your Twitter bio what you are going to be tweeting about. My bio, for example, says "tweeting about tech, media and more."

STUDY OTHERS' TWITTER FEEDS: If you are meeting a potential source or employer, one of the most important steps you can take to prepare is studying his or her Twitter feed (if one exists). It's a smart way to get to know the other person's interests, backgrounds and what he/she is working on. Not only will that help you find something (or many things) to connect about, but it will also tell you what to avoid, if necessary. For example, a source I was going to connect with had a recent death in his family and tweeted about it; I decided to postpone my interview request. 

In addition to reading their feeds, it's also a good idea to see who they are reading. One fast way to do that: T4BP.com (Twitter for Busy People) - which lets you to put in a person's name and gives you a visual presentation of everyone he/she is following. That way, you can read those tweets to get a sense of what your person is reading. 

And, a final thought:

BE NICE: The Daily Beast's Ben Crair (@BenCrair) says in a post this week about media criticism that Twitter messages are "...turning journalists into sniggering cheap-shot artists." Whether you agree with him or not, I think the lesson is the same on Twitter as in real life: don't be a jerk.

What do you think? Post your comments below or on Twitter @sreenet.

Related Columns:

- Review of #NewTwitter

- Notes from the Twitterverse

- Turning Down the Noise on Twitter

- Much Ado About Tweeting

- Twitter Myths and Misconceptions

- Why Profile Photos Matter - Is Yours Appropriate?

Every week, DNAinfo contributing editor Sree Sreenivasan, a Columbia journalism professor, shares his observations about the changing media landscape.