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Newspapers interact with readers through Twitter

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Tweet. Tweets. Tweeter. Twitterer. Twittering. Twittish. Twitterish. Twitterject. Twitterisms. 

All of the Twitter lingo may be a bit overwhelming for anyone who isn’t familiar with the popular social micro-blogging service. Fortunately, newspaper personnel don’t need to study the twittonary — yes, there’s actually a Twitter dictionary — to become part of the growing twitosphere.

Newspapers around the country have taken advantage of this free service, using Twitter to post links to breaking news, interesting stories and upcoming events. Newspapers also can use the site as a medium for communication between staff and readers.

The total number of newspapers on Twitter is hard to come by, but Erica Smith, a blogger and St. Louis Post-Dispatch staff member, has identified 1,125 newspapers of various circulation size on Twitter.

Smith regularly updates her list at her personal blog site. “A lot of it is breaking news,” Smith said. “Sometimes, you can find it there before anywhere else.”

But if you’ve never heard of Twitter, you’re not alone. Although Twitter is gaining popularity with the general public, as well as in the newspaper industry, some newspaper personnel are still unfamiliar with the service.

“One of my Web producers … came to me and said, ‘We should be on Twitter.’ And I was like, ‘What is twitter?’” said Kirsten Miller, Web editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, a 382,796-circulation daily. “He kind of explained it to me as micro-blog site with snippets of information.”

The Sun-Times has been on Twitter for a little more than a year, Miller said, and has 2,676 followers, as of press time. Miller said the newspaper took notice of the site after its cross-town rival, the Chicago Tribune, created a Twitter account. (For the record, the Tribune has 2,101 followers). The Sun-Times’s started experimenting with Twitter during the Oscars last year with film critic and columnist Richard Roeper.

Since then, “it grew organically,” Miller said. “We just wanted to try it out ’cause people were using it as a source of information. … The Web world is changing. We have to market our own work now. It’s still a credible source, but we have to make sure our information gets to people.”

How it works

The way Twitter.com works is that anyone who creates an account can post “tweets,” an update or post that can be no more than 140 characters long. The short format of posts gives readers the right amount of information without overwhelming the reader with content.

Signing up is easy. To create an account, visit twitter.com, click on the “Join the conversation” button, create a username and password, enter an e-mail address, type two words into a security code box and click the “Accept. Create my account” button.

Once a newspaper is signed up, it can start tweeting right away. Just answer the question “What are you doing?” and type it into the text box. Newspapers also can upload a photo, change its settings and look of the profile and get connected with people by adding followers and by following other users. By following other people and news sources, newspapers can see what’s going on in different areas and markets and see what’s generating buzz.

“I think people are afraid of the technology end of it, but it’s really easy,” Miller said. “You get a Twitter account, you put stuff up there and get followers and follow people. It’s ridiculously easy to get into.”

The News-Gazette, a 39,563-circulation newspaper located in Champaign, Ill., got on Twitter in the middle of 2008, said City Editor Mike Howie.

“We use it primarily for breaking news,” Howie said. “We just tweeted [Illinois Gov. Rod] Blagojevich’s impeachment.”

Howie said reporters at The News-Gazette  have been able to use Twitter when on the scene of breaking news, citing one instance when a reporter was on the scene of a fire. The reporter was able to post tweets online, and Howie was able to compile a story from those tweets.

When it comes to breaking news, some newspapers are utilizing Twitter not just to report their own news but also to pass on news they are hearing reported from other news sources.

“We’ve got a bunch of TVs in the office, and if we hear of something, we’ll post it and say, ‘CNN is reporting’ or something like that,” Miller said.

Followers of a newspaper can receive Twitter posts on their cell phones, as well as through instant messenger and e-mail, among other sources, Miller said, which makes breaking news such as weather and traffic updates all the more relevant.

“Originally, I thought it would be a great way to get news updates to people on the phone,” said Stephanie Romanski, Web editor for The Grand Island Independent, a 21,220-circulation newspaper located in Grand Island, Neb. “Now, it’s much more than that.”

There is a feature on Twitter called Twitterfeed that automatically feeds headlines from a newspaper’s Web site—or someone’s blog—onto Twitter. At first, Romanski was simply using Twitterfeed to generate all of the posts. Then, she received some advice from an editor at another newspaper. He told her to turn off Twitterfeed and post everything manually, using more conversational language instead of straight headline speak.

“People prefer a human voice,” Romanski said. “Use your own voice; don’t just repeat the headline.”

After the change to manual posting was made, The Grand Island Independent’s following exploded, Romanski said.

Beyond breaking news

Although Twitter is a great way for newspapers to get breaking news information out to readers, it’s also an ideal venue to start pages pertaining to specific topics of interest. The Chicago Sun-Times has about 10 pages, Miller said, including pages for the Cubs and White Sox, as well as pages for some of its beat reporters and columnists.

By having a presence on Twitter, followers can interact with reporters and columnists, people many readers may have previously viewed as inaccessible. This interaction gives the newspaper an opportunity to find out what its followers are tweeting about and what they are interested in.

“It’s a social medium, and we should be social,” Miller said. “When we first started it, we weren’t very interactive.”

Now, however, the Sun-Times has embraced the technology and taken the opportunity to get to know some of its followers. Miller said Sun-Times editors have hosted TweetUps, when twitterers meet in person.

“They’re not using it just as a link dump,” Smith said. “They’re reaching out the community to see what’s going on.”

The News-Gazette also has used Twitter to tweet invitations to events that the newspaper is putting together, such as focus groups, Howie said. But the site also has provided the paper with content for the print and online products by soliciting feedback.

“We also tweet for reaction from followers,” Howie said. “We put the responses online and in print. We ran it as a box with the news story. It’s like man on the street, except you don’t know who the man is.”

Audience

Content for the newspaper and Web site are pluses, but the value many newspapers experience is from attracting readers. 

“We’ve gotten people following us in ways they couldn’t have followed us before and who wouldn’t have followed us before,” Howie said. “That can’t hurt.

Other benefits

To be sure, Twitter isn’t a new revenue stream for newspapers. For its part, Twitter Inc. has yet to find a viable business model that goes beyond raising venture capital funds. But Romanski said the real value of Twitter for newspapers is the ability to grow audience.

“It’s something equally as valuable” as money, she said. “It’s branding, interactivity. It gets people coming to our Web site.”

Romanski said many of her followers are people who don’t even live in the Grand Island area of Nebraska. Regardless, they still are interested in the newspaper’s posts. As of press time, The Independent had 376 followers and 2,962 updates. The News-Gazette has 350 followers with 832 updates. The Sun-Times, which has a much larger circulation, has 2,676 followers with 10,931 updates.

Ultimately, newspapers see the value in Twitter by the traffic generated by tweets that link to content posted on the Web site. However, simply having a presence on Twitter shows that the newspaper is keeping up with the times and technology, Miller said.

“It gives [the newspaper] a cool factor,” Miller said. “The Web site is great, and a lot of people look at it, but a lot of people are promiscuous Web users, where they’ll just click on any URL on a blog or search engine and go from there. They just look for information, and we might not be a destination anymore.”

But regardless of size, newspapers large and small should make an effort to join the twitosphere and join the conversation.

“I think for a smaller paper, it would definitely be something to look into,” Romanski said. “It’ll help grow your paper. I’d say get on there and talk to people.”

Useful links

Twitter: twitter.com

Old Media New Tricks on the Twitterfeed habit: oldmedianewtricks.com/category/twitter/

Newspapers on Twitter list on Erica Smith’s site: http://graphicdesignr.net/blog/2009/01/04/december-newspapers-that-use-twitter/

Poynter article on Twitter: http://poynter.org/column.asp?id=31&aid=154238

Mentioned newspaper Twitter sites

Chicago Sun-Times: http://twitter.com/suntimes

The Grand Island Independent: http://twitter.com/theindependent

The News-Gazette: http://twitter.com/news_gazette

Contacts: Kirsten Miller, kmiller@chicagosuntimes.com

Erica Smith, erica@graphicdesignr.net

Stephanie Romanski, stephanie.romanski@theindependent.com

Mike Howie, mhowie@news-gazette.com