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@ShayTotten Reports: Using Twitter to Report Breaking News


@ShayTotten Reports: Using Twitter to Report Breaking News

Apr 22, 2009By Michael Stoner

Totten is investigative and political columnist at Seven Days, an alternative weekly in Burlington, Vermont. And while many reporters and writers have been quick to adopt new technologies-and many reporters are using Twitter-much of their tweeting is focused on trolling for leads, sharing resources and stories they’ve reported, and personal brand-building. Totten’s reporting illustrated how powerful Twitter can be in the hands of a pro reporting on a breaking news story.

Two weeks ago, Vermonters (and people in other states) were riveted by discussion in our Legislature about a bill legalizing same-sex marriage. Passed by both houses of the Legislature, it was vetoed by Governor Jim Douglas. There was never a question about whether the Senate could muster enough votes to override the Governor’s vetto, but no one knew what the House would do. The galleries were packed as discussion began.

Shay Totten was not content to sit in the press box and file his report when the debate was over. Tweeting as @ShayTotten, he offered real-time debate updates via Twitter, which were tracked using the #vtfreetomarry hashtag and became part of an ongoing Twitter conversation.* [If you don’t understand what these terms mean, see the introduction to Twitter below.]

A reporter’s insights about tweeting breaking news

We asked Totten to share some insights about using Twitter to cover an event like this. Here are his comments.

How did you decide to use Twitter to report on the Senate and House civil marriage debates?

At Seven Days, we’ve been experimenting with a different social media and other online tools to engage readers in real-time discussions during big news events. In some cases, we partner with other media (WPTZ and Channel 17) to provide live video streaming. But, at the presidential health care forum on 19 March, we used Twitter almost exclusively. This foray proved to be a hit with readers, so we thought I should try it again during the same-sex marriage debates—which we all knew would have much more interest to Vermont readers and readers around the country. It was also something different than hosting a live blog, which other media were already doing (along with a lot of live streaming). Also, this gives us a chance to cover breaking news, which is hard to do in our weekly newspaper.

Because you were tweeting about the debate, you were communicating in real-time with your followers.* It strikes me that that’s quite different than taking notes and digesting them in a report written after the debate is over. What was the experience like for you?

Communicating with readers in real-time is different than taking notes (in fact, its more like letting people read your notes in real-time), but it’s not completely unlike being in a press gallery where there are sometimes brief bursts of conversations, commentary, or “who said that?” queries. Live-blogging while reporting is much more arduous than replying on Twitter—and most of the questions that came in while I was Twittering were pretty straightforward and easy to answer.

That said, the reader queries served two important elements for my reporting: There are always some lulls in live debate coverage, so answering reader queries kept the coverage moving forward even when the debate wasn’t. And followers often bring up some of the “obvious” questions reporters often overlook while in the throes of taking notes.

In the end, though, I think reader interaction is what I’m after—whether through DMs, re-Tweets or @replies during the event.* I’m their eyes, ears, and typing fingers (if not a personal news ticker) during an event and I like to know there’s someone on the other end who is doing more than just scrolling along.

Did you face any obstacles in using Twitter in the House and Senate galleries?

Not many, but there does seem to be a technical glitch with the Statehouse wifi system when working in the Senate gallery. For some reason after a certain period of time, the security certificate for Twitter is rejected and therefore I can no longer use the laptop. So, I then switch to my iPhone, which can be a bit of a pain in the thumbs, but it’s not all that much slower. Makes for more difficult simultaneous note-taking, so I have to switch between the laptop and the phone more. The House gallery does not seem to have this issue. During big events like the same-sex marriage debate, it always pays to get there early and stake your claim as space is limited and once the TV crews show up they take up a lot of space.

You used a hashtag—#vtfreetomarry—for your tweets. Were you tracking the conversation associated with the hashtag. If so, what was it like to do that? Did it affect your reporting?

I was tracking the conversation associated with #vtfreetomarry, and at times (during the lulls) I was able to get a sense of what those who were impassioned about the issue were saying about either my Tweets, or observations of others, or their own observations based on watching a live stream or live audio feed. I wouldn’t say it affected my reporting, but it did reinforce for me that what I was doing was important and relevant in a different way than just making commentary. I was truly trying to achieve a dialogue of the debate-from all sides-to boil it down for those who might not have access to these other media.

One other fun tidbit regarding a conversation associated with a hashtag. At one point during the debate, #vtfreetomarry had trended in the top 10 on Twitter and I was the most reTweeted of that hashtag. My brief flash of Twitter fame and glory.*

Will Twitter be part of your reporting arsenal in the future? When might it be inappropriate to use it?

Absolutely. I’ve already done a little bit more at Burlington City Council meetings. I believe large protests, gatherings and major legislative debates are a perfect time to use it. As for when not to use it, I think it all comes down to what your audience wants to read and what it doesn’t. That’s an ongoing dialogue that columnists such as myself, and the newspapers we work for, have on a regular basis. I would say it might not be appropriate when in closed quarters with an interview subject, or when the news value is low (arduous debates about zoning regulations, for example).

What advice would you give to other reporters using Twitter to cover breaking events? Anything you wish you’d done differently?

To other reporters, I say give a whirl. It’s a lot of fun, and you can use the “transcripts” to inform your stories for the next morning, that afternoon or next week. I’ve used Tweets for same-day blog posts, and weekly columns. There are always aspects of a story that cant be easily told in 140-character bursts. Tweets are components of a narrative, not the complete narrative. While I try to provide context while I live-Twitter, its more appropriate to provide such contexts in a long form.

If you work at a big-enough news operation that runs a simultaneous live-blog, you can have a hashtag feed into your live blog so reportage can inform-and inspire-debate on the live blog (this takes the onus off of reporters to report and reply all the time).

As for doing anything differently next time, I’m not sure yet. I think this last iteration of using Twitter worked much better than in my past attempts (election night, health care forum, city council meetings, etc.) as I learned how to inspire a dialogue and to get people to reTweet or DM during an event. Each time, I tend to hone my skills given the 140-character limitation. One thing I’m trying to do better is provide people with links to stories and blog posts (by myself and others) during a debate to provide additional resources. Already, I reTweet posts from colleagues in the media so people know there are other ways to track a debate.

*Intro to Twitter
A quick description of how Twitter works, for those who don’t use it: Twitter is a microblogging service, allowing users to send 140-character messages (called “tweets”) to people who’ve signed up to “follow” their messages. A person’s Twitter ID is indicated by an ”@” followed by a word or phrase (I tweet as @mstonerblog.) On Twitter, “hashtags”-designated by the ”#” followed by a word or phrase-to track a subject. Searching for a hashtag on Twitter helps you find out what people are saying about a specific topic. If you like something someone tweets, you can “retweet” it to your own followers; you can reply in public; or you can direct message (DM) them with a comment. Avid Twitter users follow topics in the news by watching the hashtags and topics that emerge as “trending topics” throughout the day. But now that even @Oprah is using Twitter, you need to find out about it for yourself.

  • Michael Stoner Co-Founder and Co-Owner Was I born a skeptic or did I become one as I watched the hypestorm gather during the dotcom years, recede, and congeal once more as we come to terms with our online, social, mobile world? Whatever. I'm not much interested in cutting edge but what actually works for real people in the real world. Does that make me a bad person?