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Unlocking Twitter’s local news potential

Unlocking Twitter’s local news potential

Twitter has received a lot of publicity for the speed and first-hand accounts following big news stories. The Mumbai attacks, a California earthquake and the emergency landing on the Hudson all showcased the power of Twitter.

I think there’s no question that Twitter is a fantastic tool for reporting big news events.

Unheralded, however, is the power of Twitter for sourcing local, everyday news. As the service soars into the mainstream, not a day goes by in a major city in which someone doesn’t tweet about police officers surrounding a building, a business closing (or on fire), a wreck on a major thoroughfare, etc. People report what they see on Twitter, almost as it happens.

Journalists (both inside and outside of the mainstream press) are really starting to discover this potential. I think a lot of journalists get on Twitter because they hear it’s the right thing to do these days (like blogging and signing up for a Facebook account).

Those who get hooked on the service figure out it’s more than a silly name with a silly purpose.

What Twitter is doing, in a way that blogging almost did, is bringing news reporting to the masses. With the potential for so many amateur reporters, what role does a professional journalist or blogger have?

Are journalists completely obsolete?

I don’t think so. Journalists, if they know how to use Twitter well, are just as important in the social media age as they were in their pre-Internet days. The reason: even on Twitter, people turn to journalists to find answers to what’s really going on.

When someone tweets that police are surrounding a home (and it gets retweeted a few times), there is rarely much information beyond “Saw the SWAT team outside a home on Main.” A smart journalist would be looking for such local tweets (or have such a good reputation within the Twitter community that someone brings that tweet to his or her attention via @replies and direct messages).

Journalists are still the ones who have the relationships with the local police department, have the public information officer’s cell phone on speed dial, and have the time to make a call or head down to the scene.

As a journalist, once you find out about an event, and get to the bottom of what is really going on, the key is to quickly announce the findings on Twitter (and share a Twitpic from the scene, if possible).

Don’t wait until a full story is written and ready for print or the evening news — send what you know at the time. Source the material (“according to officials” is a phrase that should show up, even in tweets.) Be sure to thank whomever gave the original news tip.

I’m the main person behind the @statesman Twitter account. I receive probably 5-6 tips a week from readers (directed at my account through @replies or direct message). I estimate that three of them a week turn out to be either a blog post or a story. Many have made it into print.

When I hear from a reporter that something is going on in town, I immediately flip to It’s amazing how many times there are eyewitnesses to the events, tweeting what they see or sharing photos. I’ve built a community on Twitter that not only thinks of telling the Statesman when news is happening, but also thinks to send pictures, as well. Several times, pictures from Twitter followers have led our home page.

Journalists have heard for years about the importance of user- generated content and crowd-sourcing. It has always been easier said than done. I think that’s because in the past, people didn’t feel like they “knew” anyone at the local media outlets. So why put in the effort? Thanks to Twitter, they can know the local outlets, and even care. That type of relationship is what unlocks Twitter’s potential for local news. Journalists just have to know how to take advantage of it.

Robert Quigley, who is the Internet editor for the Austin American- Statesman, is the co-author of the media blog

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