Hundreds of local TV journalists have adopted the popular micro-blogging, social-networking technology and are using it regularly to push out news, get tips on stories, stay in touch with viewers and market the brand. “It’s a little bit town crier, a little bit police scanner and another news monitor on the assignment desk wall,” says one news director.
With the same uncanny speed that it has the rest of American popular culture, Twitter has overtaken local TV broadcasting.
Hundreds a news directors, anchors and reporters are now twittering daily, seeing the combination micro-blogging and social-networking platform with its 23 million monthly unique visitors as a useful new tool for pushing out news, getting tips on stories, generally staying in touch with viewers and marketing the brand, their own and the station’s.
“Twittering does not pay the bills, but it’s a space where things are going on, and not being aware of that is like being blind to one of the counties you cover,” says Bob Jordan, news director at Cox’s WFTV Orlando, Fla.
Jordan has a passion of a convert.
“I thought the social networking sites were strictly a phenomenon of teenagers and young kids,” he says. “I thought it was meaningless chatter, but it’s not.
“It’s now the primary way a lot of people communicate, share and obtain information. Not to be in that space would be just the dumbest thing anyone could do, if you’re in the communications business.”
Across town at the competing Hearst station, WESH, News Director Bob Longo echoes Jordan.
“I like it for a few reasons: It’s a little bit town crier, a little bit police scanner and another news monitor on the assignment desk wall,” he says as the Miami Herald tweet on the release of Squeaky Fromme from prison pops up on his Twitter page.
“At only 140 characters, you can’t get a lot more than that on it, but you can also get an attachment — links to video, a picture. It’s a great brand extension to our Web site.”
Another news director, Peggy Phillip at Scripps’ KSHB Kansas City, shares the enthusiasm for Twitter as a breaking news and sourcing tool.
“We brand ourselves the breaking news station, so if we have breaking news or a difficult weather situation, we use Twitter to push page views,” says Phillip. “I’m sort of platform agnostic, so I’m looking for ways … to push information out whatever way I can. Twitter is part of the pie.”
Scott Adkins, a reporter and weekend anchor at WEHT, the ABC affiliate in Evansville, Ind., has been on Twitter for about six months.
“Our reporters are encouraged to post at least two to three times a day. Our main anchor has been in the business for over 30 years and he’s active on Twitter. I’m 26 and I find it a good tool to reach my generation as well as generations older than myself.”
Adkins adds that about once every three weeks he will get a tip that turns into a legitimate story. “That’s valuable in itself.”
Those who dismiss Twitter as a fad are short changing themselves and their newscasts, he says. “Twitter gives you an opportunity to engage the audience on a more frequent basis. I know it’s not a fad, because people wouldn’t be sending me story ideas. If it were, it would have been here for just a year and gone.”
Jim Smith, director of online media at Young’s WATE Knoxville, Tenn., says that almost every anchor and most of the reporters are twittering at the station. “We tell them to be careful, but we don’t filter what they do.
“My colleagues realize that they have to stay up on this, so none of the anchors or reporters has hesitated. They’re seeing the trend where everyone is becoming their own brand.”
Smith acknowledges that Twitter is “partly marketing,” but says that the people at his station are using it to converse with people and find news.
A few months ago, Smith says, someone he was following said “my goodness, that’s terrible,” in response to another person Smith wasn’t following. “I thought, ‘I wonder what they’re talking about.'”
Smith learned, after several tweet exchanges, a man had been arrested for disrupting services at a local church — the same church where a gunman had opened fire six months earlier, killing two and wounding six.
Ellyn Angelotti, interactivity editor at the Poynter Institute, stresses the branding potential of Twitter.
“Twitter is based on personal brands — something that many television journalists do a good job of representing. When a station can tap into the individual brands within the organization, it can strengthen the collective organization’s brand.”
Angelotti says Twitter should be an integral part of the news distribution mix at stations. “Once a story airs, it can be posted to the Web and watched again. At the very least, it can be blogged, tweeted, e-mailed and commented on by an audience much larger than the traditional audience because the Web can overcome time and distance. Stations get the opportunity to tell stories to a potentially much larger audience.
“Twitter also lets journalists collaborate with their audience as a story develops from the time a story is an idea until after it is published. Because of this, stations can get more information and many times much richer information.”
Angelotti says stations should base their Twitter strategy on goals and needs and to use it as an engagement tool to do better journalism. She advises stations, as a general rule, to post 80 percent conversational tweets and no more than 20 percent promotional. She counsels stations to avoid just publishing stories from their Web site.
That engagement approach works for WEHT where Adkins says the station has built a Twitter community comprising all sorts of people from realtors to stay-at-home dads to communications directors at local universities.
KSHB’s Phillip is also a believer in the community-building strategy. She follows and shares postings with several local user groups, and avoids tweeting meaningless personal messages. “You’ll never see me posting ‘I’m taking a bath,’ I try not to be stupid.”
As a station marketing tool, the Twittering can sometimes get a little nasty. “I know some news directors who tend to get snarky with the competition,” says Phillip.
In fact, in Orlando, WFTV’s Jordan regularly uses Twitter to tweak his rivals. Among his recent tweets: “It takes WESH and WKMG combined to equal WFTV’s 6AM news audience (Aug. 18)” and “Let’s see if WESH pulls that phony-as-a-three-dollar-bill claim to having the most accurate wx forecast. It’s fake! Sold to highest bidder (June 3).”
Jordan makes no apology. “I have fun with it,” he says. “We’re competitive. I can comment about the news flow of the day, motivate my own people, and, if I annoy my competitors, all the better.
But, over at WESH, such posts clearly don’t sit well.
“Other folks in this town are using it to take shots at people, places and things,” says Longo. “We’re taking the high road. We’re not going to call them on all their falsehoods. I’d spend half my day worrying about that. I’ll let the results, the ratings and the product and the content speak for themselves.”
Despite such annoyances, Longo says the value of Twitter in the newsroom is clear. “People are there disseminating information, they’re online, they’re Facebooking, they’re twittering, they’re talking, their texting. We’re best served if we’re part of that.”