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My Twitter proof-of-concept moment

I’ve been using Twitter for about a year and a half. At times I have a love hate relationship. But a few occurrences have cemented its place in my arsenal of reporting tools.

Because I’ve blogged about Twitter probably too much already, I had sort of put a moratorium on blogging about it. But a few posts from Ryan Sholin, who offers five solid tips for reporting with it, and Mindy McAdams, who wonders if it’s reached the tipping point, brought it back to mind. I thought I should share, for those of you trying to convince your editors of its usefulness, what I’ve done with it and how it’s worked.

The setup… My friends list is composed of three distinct types of people beyond news feeds: real life friends from college, other journalists and people who live in my town (including a city council member and many members of a department relevant to my beat at the local university). I tweet probably an average of a dozen times a day, mostly via my blackberry or on the Web at home. Most of these, sadly?, are mundane details about what I’m reporting on or how I’m having terrible luck getting a hold of sources, or about funny things I happen upon. I do not in any way pretend my feed is for work. It’s not. Any work-related elements are happenstance. It’s as personal as this blog, though I pimp my day job on it a little more there than here.

So what have I done with it beyond bantering about how tired I am? Plenty that should convince my bosses I’m not just tinkering around with the technology. (Though I still limit its use during the work day, because I don’t want to leave a trail of perceived procrastination/unproductiveness.)

I live tweeted a few presidential campaign events, which included conversations via twitter with people in the audience and back in the office. These spurts, during which I was also live blogging for our news site, also gained me several new followers here and beyond our region.

I have used it to push content to my org’s site. That means, when we published live video on election night, I posted the link and a tease a few times that night. (This actually sparked several of my followers to move the Twitter conversation to our Web site where there was a chat on the video. Said chat — which a half dozen of my followers tried to get me to join as if I wasn’t busy on election night — also sparked a Facebook group, of people who met through Twitter/joined together on our video’s chat.) Other live video events have also been published on my feed, as well as some breaking news items. I post links to my own stories/columns or others we write which I think might be interesting to my followers, or that garner a “Wow.” or “WTF?” response from me.

When we had a severe storm/nearby tornado and all that goes with that, I used Twitter and my and the paper’s followers to see how many people were talking about it and if we could get a sense for damage and where.

I’ve used it to find sources, though this has been met with limited success, in large part because I haven’t developed my list enough for this purpose. But when another reporter needed to find — on deadline — a real person who travels the local interstate on a regular basis to talk about increased speed limits, I turned to twitter with limited success.

Also, I’ve help scoop other news outlets by watching my stream. For example, I knew Obama was setting up a campaign office here — and even where — because I listened. And we’ve been able to tamp down and confirm some rumors via twitter. Granted in those cases, Twitter was the starting point, but it was a point that put us a few days or hours ahead of others.

All those are great. But the moment I really felt I got proof of concept for Twitter was totally unexpected. I had tweeted about my failed attempts to find parents for a story I was working on. It was more a flippant, “I don’t think I’ll ever find…” tweet. But about half an hour later, I just happened to check my replies and saw one, from someone I was not following back but who was following me, it was a simple reply, “I’m a parent.” Desperate, but not expecting much since I didn’t really know who this guy was and had already resigned myself to not finding what I needed, I DM’d him, explained my story and what I was looking for. I told him I’d be around for another hour or so, if he fit the story and would be willing to talk, call me. When my phone rang half an hour later, I had no idea who could be calling me. When he said his name, my mind flashed. And as I got his personal details (backed up not only by his bio, but by other stuff I’d looked up briefly — so no, I wasn’t just going blindly with random strangers) and his kids names, schools, etc. I couldn’t help but think how this just kind of happened not because I was trying but because I wasn’t. I’d joined the conversation, and actually listened to the noise.

And that is what the take-away from this whole post and all my previous notes about twitter is. You just have to jump in and join the conversation. Don’t set your expectations high, as they are likely to be dashed. But when it works, it works. It’s not going to be the everyday scotch tape in your reporting tool box. It won’t fix everything. But it might be like duct tape. You probably won’t use it as often, but sometimes it’s the right tool for the job or at least worth trying when you’ve run out of options or time. The more you interact, the more you get to know your twitter stream and what segments of your community is there, the more you’ll get from the conversation and the more you can give to the community.

Those are only examples relevant to my day job. That says nothing of the amazing, intriguing debates, stories and conversations I’ve seen and participated in with other journalists. But that’s for another post.

(By the way, I’m meranduh on Twitter. If you want to join my conversations.)

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