(UPDATED 2 Feb 08, see at the end)
I've been e-mailing recently with Howard Rheingold about the potential of Twitter for news coverage. The discussion was prompted by a post by Nate Ritter on using Twitter during the Southern California fires of last year, an how to use it for community organization.
Twitter, for those who haven't heard of it or used it, is a so-called "micro-blogging" system that allows its users to send updates, or "tweets": short text strings of 140 characters max. Updates can be sent via SMS or instant messaging or various online applications, and are displayed on the user's Twitter page and/or delivered instantly to others who have signed up to receive them via RSS, SMS, instant messaging or e-mail. (Here a Twitter how-to video, 9 minutes, by Sam Harrelson, while Howard Rheingold has a page of resources here and Mark Glaser a good guide here).
I've been a Twitter skeptic, mostly because the service has been largely used for absolutely necessary updates such as "I'm at Starbucks having a latte", "totally bored", and other egoboosting or navelcentrism. As Howard would say, "I don't NEED more opportunity for infograzing in my life". But then many users have started to fine-tune their use and their inputs, and to experiment with news reporting, with useful recommendations, with catastrophe updates (the fires in California, Kenya's recent political violence), with headline streams (the BBC and Al Jazeera and many others are using Twitter to distribute headlines, and for a quick scan that's faster and better than their webpages - UPDATE 21 Jan 08: NYT story), with community organization and mobilization and activism, and signals started emerging from the collective noise.
While I was exchanging views with Howard, I coincidentally had a discussion with Pam Maples, the managing editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the daily newspaper in St. Louis, Missouri, and she told me how they've been experimenting with Twitter to cover a big story there, the shutdown of Highway 40 for repairs. For daily life in St. Louis, the shutdown is really a big deal: commute disruptions, need for alternative routes, etc. So I asked her to summarize their experience. Here, in her own words.
-- by guest blogger Pam Maples, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
For a few months, we'd been talking about incorporating Twitter into our journalism and Kurt Greenbaum, our director of social media, had been watching for the right story: one that would be of high interest and usefulness to the community and be likely to be developing and changing swiftly.
The beginning of a two-year long construction shutdown of Highway 40/I-64, the most heavily traveled East-West freeway in St. Louis, seemed like the perfect opportunity. We wanted to provide real-time information of an immediate nature that could be posted -- or accessed -- on the move, using wireless devices. (News of an accident that just happened on a main alternate route would be one example.) Twitter was ideal because people didn't need, or even want, long or detailed posts to help them navigate the new situation as they were commuting.
By the time we embarked on our Twitter experiment late last month, we'd spent months expanding the traffic & commuting subchannel on our website -- to cover the preparations for the shutdown, provide our readers useful information and interactive tools to help them cope with the disruption, and of course to position ourselves as the leader on a story that would be long-running and of vital interest to our audience. We were adding Twitter to several other tools we already were using to cover the Hwy40 story: blogs, forums, videos, interactive graphics, slide shows and real-time region-wide traffic updates and mapping tools. We fed the Twitter updates via RSS onto our Highway 40 special report page and on the home page of the site; we also promoted it in the newspaper.
Beginning a few weeks ahead, Kurt recruited volunteers in the community and reporters in our newsroom to post tweets before, during and after the shutdown. He enlisted the help of several community bloggers to spread the word, posted a note on the STLbloggers website, and attended that group's holiday gathering.
We wound up with 11 "citizen reporters" who would work alongside our journalists. On shutdown day (Jan. 2), they were tweeting away and began picking up followers. Predictions that the shutdown would trigger prolonged gridlock on the alternate routes did not materialize; our hunch, of course, is that if that had been the case, the number of folks following and the number of daily tweets would have been much higher. As of today, we have had 99 people active on the Hwy40 page on Twitter. Daily tweets are down to around 4, from about 8 early on.
We got a lot of positive reaction from the community and positive buzz. (And yes, a few folks called the newsroom and asked "What's a Twitter?").
We're going to use Twitter again on other big events, and Kurt and some others are exploring ways to do it better and make it easier for folks to follow -- perhaps something like Jeff Jarvis' "twitcrit" experiment. And we want to figure out a way to streamline the set up so we can use Twitter on big breaking news.
Important to keep in mind: Twitter has specific strengths that make it an asset in covering certain types of stories -- where immediate micro-information is very relevant to the readers -- while in other cases, it might not be worth taking the time to add it to your coverage arsenal.
UPDATE 2 Feb 08 - A few recent stories on using twitter for news delivery:
Patrick Ruffini, The Year of Twitter: "Here are the vectors I see converging on a big year for Twitter: the US presidential election ... open architecture ... it fills a void: Traditional news operated on a 24-hour cycle. Blogs shortened this to minutes and hours. Twitter shortens it further to seconds. It's not right for every piece of information. It's certainly not well suited for longer analysis. But when it comes to instantly assembling raw data from several sources that then go into fully baked news stories, nothing beats it. ... A minor earthquake in the Bay Area last fall. One evening, several people within seconds of one another typed "Earthquake" or something to that effect. In less than 2 minutes, someone had posted the USGS record of event. The whole story was wrapped up in less time than it took the first wire story to hit. And unlike a news story or even a blog, I can ask real time questions of those experiencing an event and get real time answers."
Josh Catone, Twitter as a platform for serious discourse: "Twitter is fast becoming a serious platform for discourse and discussion. More than a status app, it is being used as a first alert mechanism for the dissemination of news and for immediate discussion surrounding that news. It is the coverage of news events and the continued emergence of citizen journalism that will push Twitter toward the mainstream this year".
The Economist, A-Twitter: "“ORLANDO, FL:...Speaking of Rudy: Scuttle is that on the bus there is open talk coming loss. 12:27 PM January 28, 2008 from web.” So reads a “tweet” from Ana Marie Cox, typed on her mobile phone ... Ms Cox ... covered the 2004 presidential campaign from home, on her blog. This year, travelling for Time.com, she is developing a new medium: the two-sentence observation."