How We Use Twitter for Journalism

How useful can communication limited to 140 characters be for serious journalism? It turns out that the short messages you find on Twitter have proven wildly useful for some writers penning larger pieces.

Here at ReadWriteWeb we’ve been leveraging Twitter heavily for some of our most important news writing. While cynics dismiss twitter as frivolous, we’ve got stories to share that should make anyone reconsider their doubts about the microblogging medium.

Josh Catone wrote here in January about the rise of Twitter as a platform for serious discourse and discussed the way that a handful of mainstream journalists are using the tool. Charles Cooper did an informal survey earlier this month that found a definite majority of journalists old and new to be absent from Twitter.

I did an interview on the BBC last week with some traditional journalists about Twitter and they scoffed at the idea that it could be useful. “Well,” one said after I talked about how we’ve used it, “I certainly won’t be checking it out.” Hmph!

The scoffers can scoff all they want, but here at RWW our use of Twitter so far has included:

  • the discovery of breaking stories,

  • performing interviews,

  • quality assurance

  • and promotion of our work.

Breaking News

One of the defining characteristics of Twitter is its ease of use. While getting engaged enough to find value in the service does require some initial investment of time and energy – on a day to day and minute by minute basis, Twitter is remarkably easy to post to. As a result, people often post things they discover to Twitter before or instead of posting it to a blog.

Whether it’s natural disasters, political developments or breaking tech news – it’s common to discover items of interest first on Twitter.

Robert Scoble wrote a year ago about how Twitter users reported a major earthquake in Mexico City several minutes before the USGS did. Zolie Erdos chronicled last month how Twitter users beat government agencies and the world’s (formerly) leading news organizations in reporting on March earthquakes in both China and Japan.

We discover tech news tips on Twitter first on a regular basis. When Google bought Twitter competitor Jaiku, for example, we learned about it on Twitter. That early news tip lead to our covering the news before any one else and getting our story on the front page of Digg – good in this case for tens of thousands of pageviews.


When we got to interview Mark Zuckerberg at SXSW this year, we solicited interview questions via Twitter. If was quickly evident that many people wanted to read his thoughts about data portability, but we got some other good question suggestions as well. That’s becoming an increasingly common tactic for us and other writers, as it’s so easy to supplement our own questions with those of a larger network.

Below: Richard masters the


(ha!), requests questions he should ask Sun’s Jonathan Schwartz. Interview forthcoming.

We’ve also found lately though that Twitter itself is very useful for performing public interviews. By putting out single or multiple questions into our Twitter networks in a call-and-response fashion, we’ve gathered piles of rich research in far less time than it would have taken to try and call people on the phone.

Some Twitter users reply to our questions with single line answers, others with a few tweets in a row and still others send us paragraphs by email when they see we’ve asked an interesting question.

The questions we asked for our post titled “APIs and Developer Platforms: A Discussion of the Pros and Cons‘, for example, recieved answers via Twitter from people like Esther Schindler, senior online editor at, Ray Valdes, Research Director of Web Services at Gartner Inc, Chris Saad, co-founder and chairman of the Data Portability Workgroup and Raju Vegesna, of web office suite Zoho. In addition to people of such stature that we’d have to take a deep breath before being so presumptuous as to call them on the phone – our questions get interesting replies from a diverse group of people we would never have thought to ask personally.

We recognize that people using and replying on Twitter may not be generally representative of the population at large, but for qualitative interviews it’s a tool that’s hard to beat.

When Sarah Perez wrote a post here titled “Real People Don’t Have Time for Social Media” she found a wide range of respondents for her questions. Some were hardcore early adopters and others reported that they just dabbled in tools like Twitter.

As Kevin Anderson wrote about Sarah’s post at Corante, “No, it’s not a random sample. But since when are ‘man on the street’ interviews?”

Quality Assurance

I’m not ashamed to admit that I do QA via Twitter. We often get feedback on misspellings, missed links and other publishing faux pas very quickly via Twitter. It’s an easy way for readers to offer quick feedback.

Twitter can work really well for tech support or for finding quick answers to small tech questions. That makes it great for filling in details you can’t quite remember. “What is that technology that does the toast-like popups on Mac desktop?” I asked when writing an article last week. Within minutes several people reminded me it’s GROWL. Thanks!

There’s a general sentiment of giving on Twitter, but a journalist’s opportunity to perhaps provide later coverage can’t help but further incentivize people to provide help.


Promoting your online articles over Twitter is probably the crassest way a journalist can use the medium. Some people like getting an RSS feed through their Twitter account, but not very many. Here in Portland, Oregon our local daily paper feeds headlines through Twitter and that works real well. When bloggers post links to their posts, or post pleas for votes on Digg, it can feel a little dirty. We try to post either particularly interesting articles or to add a little extra value to each link to our own content we send out. We also try to make sure that the clear majority of our Tweets aren’t about our own content.

That said, Twitter is a remarkably good traffic driver to our posts. A healthy little group of people click through our links on Twitter, some more via FriendFeed and they often give us great early feedback.

If we’re working on something we think will be of interest, sometimes we’ll prime the pump a bit and let people know what’s coming up. So far, we’ve heard almost entirely positive feedback on these practices. That’s probably based largely on the relationships we’ve got with our readers, many of which were developed using Twitter. If you had 20 to 50 people that consistently offered feedback on your articles, wouldn’t that be great? That’s what it feels like we get on Twitter.


When I first saw Twitter I thought it was the stupidest thing ever. Now, despite the length of this post, I find 140 characters plenty of space to communicate about almost anything. You can scoff all you want, we’re using the hell out of this tool here at RWW and it’s treating us very well. Others are starting to do similar things and it will likely be downright common very soon.

You can add RWW Editor Richard MacManus, Josh Catone, Sarah Perez and myself as friends on Twitter to join in the reporting fun! Thanks to Scott Macdonald for the reporter birdy pic.

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