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Second of a five-part series based on 50 interviews with journalists at four U.S. metro papers on how they are embracing the innovation of Twitter

Florida produces some weird news.

Consider the runaway kangaroo bouncing all over Pasco County.

Tampa Bay Times environmental reporter Craig Pittman tweeted about the ensuing police pursuit, which included the use of a Taser and tranquilizer darts on the marsupial. When that didn’t stop it, an overzealous bystander tackled the critter. “That was the same week that the Tallahassee Police Department tasered a llama,” Pittman said.

The abundance of weird news prompted Pittman to share stories like these on his Twitter account, using the catchphrase “Oh #Florida!” before introducing the latest Sunshine State oddity to the world. Pittman’s posts have produced more than cocktail party chitchat. In the summer of 2013, the editor of Slate magazine invited Pittman to do a month-long blog about the state of Florida. “People are paying attention,” he said.

Some journalists need a nudge to try Twitter, as they dismissed it as a place where people posted pictures of their dinner. But most journalists get hooked once they see how Twitter can help expand their source list, increase their visibility and even help them land freelance gigs or better jobs. Getting established on Twitter helps journalists build their individual brands, which is increasingly important as one’s career may span several jobs.

Getting started on Twitter often begins with a friendly rivalry among colleagues. Joy Tipping, staff writer for The Dallas Morning News, recalls seeing a colleague’s Twitter following grow to 2,500 people, provoking her friendly, rivalrous tendencies. “That just ticked me off,” Tipping recalled. “You are not going to have more Twitter followers than I do.” She tells this story with a hearty laugh, almost mocking herself and the idea that the number of followers really matters. Tipping found that Twitter helped spread the word about her “Joy’s Jaunts,” a weekly column on places to visit around Texas. When the producers from American Public Media’s “A Prairie Home Companion” needed a quick education on Dallas, Tipping volunteered to help them. Her efforts led to an invite by producers to be on the show, hosted by Garrison Keillor. “That was my 6 ½ minutes of fame,” she said. “People now hear my name and say, ‘I heard you on Prairie Home Companion!’ ”

Journalists are increasingly in tune with viewing themselves as brands, not just employees of one media company. They are getting more adept at appearing on television as well as writing for a newspaper. And Twitter expands that even more. “If my brand is good for business and the business is a struggling business, I’m happy to do what I can to enhance my brand,” said Robert Wilonsky, digital managing editor at The Dallas Morning News.

Journalists are increasingly in tune with viewing themselves as brands, not just employees of one media company. They are getting more adept at appearing on television as well as writing for a newspaper. And Twitter expands that even more.

Journalists are increasingly in tune with viewing themselves as brands, not just employees of one media company. They are getting more adept at appearing on television as well as writing for a newspaper. And Twitter expands that even more.

Sarah Blaskovich, digital music and entertainment editor at The Dallas Morning News, tailored her Twitter bio to reflect her aspiration to be the go-to person for information on what to do, eat or drink in Dallas. “It has been a big branding thing for me. I started to embody what I promised on Twitter. I hope the links I provide prove that I know what’s going on.” In addition, Blaskovich appears on the News’ partner television station KXAS to do “Sarah’s Weekend Picks,” her choice of five things to do over the weekend. She takes her brand name seriously and told her then-fiance that she would not change her name after they married. “I’m a digital journalist first. I’m still Sarah Blaskovich.” She noted that if someone Googles her married name, they would not find her professional work but “pictures of me with my husband and dog.”

Matthew Haag, one of the education reporters at The Dallas Morning News, notes that his Twitter page is the first thing that pops up if someone Googles his name. “If you want to know more about me or if I apply for a job, the first thing they will check out is my social media presence. I want people to see that I’m part of this next generation of digital news.”

Younger journalists clearly have a sense of promoting themselves and their work as an extension of being part of a larger news organization. (Of those interviewed, 14 of the 50 were under the age of 35.) One reason is the proliferation of personal Web pages, often created during their college years. Another reason: the harsh reality of seeing so many colleagues fired during round after round of downsizings.  As the 23-year-old Sarah Mervosh at the News explained: “The Dallas Morning News used to be a destination paper, where you work your whole career. I love working here, and I am hopeful about the future. But there are no guarantees. I don’t know whether the paper will be here in five years. I have my own website. That was a conscious decision. It stays with me even if my employers no longer exist.”

Reporters have learned the importance of keeping their Twitter name specific to their name, not the paper’s brand. “My wish is to never go anywhere else,” said Greg Bluestein, Atlantic Journal-Constitution (AJC) political reporter and Atlanta native. “This is something that you can hold on to. It is like a part of you.”

Twitter has changed how journalists view their jobs and routines. For instance, the social medium allows anyone to cover any topic that interests them, not just their beat. This can be a great outlet for personal interests and a way to expand their newspaper’s limited coverage of some topics. Consider Jamila Robinson, senior editor for ACJ’s features and entertainment website. She is an avid figure skater, dating back to her youth in Michigan. While watching the Winter Olympics, she noticed people were talking about the skaters and reflecting on Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, who made headlines when Harding’s pals tried to cripple Kerrigan. But AJC sports editors told Robinson that people in Atlanta do not follow the winter games. So Robinson began tweeting about the competition, even doing her own video of a “Twizzle” move and an explainer on the judges’ scores. “We picked up another 500 followers (on Twitter) because they want to engage with people who know what they’re talking about. I think it’s all about figuring out where the audience is. If you get them engaged, they will stick with you."

Twitter has also helped change the way beat reporters view the boundaries of their jobs. Consider AJC’s Jennifer Brett, whose entertainment beat includes news of new television shows or movies being filmed in the area. She realized her beat spills over into traffic patrol because movie crews shut down big chunks of town to shoot scenes. So Brett tweets about road closings, not just celebrities.

“When it’s snowing, I’m a weather reporter,” she said. “It is unthinkable to go an hour without posting or checking Twitter. When I go on vacation, I keep up with my people. I feel a great accountability to the people who follow me. I owe them the best around the clock.

“It has recalibrated the way I think about my job. I have a customer-service mentality. (Twitter) turns your cherished readers into a marketing force."

Next: How journalists are using Twitter to tell stories in a new way

Twitter tips

  • Reporters should edit their digital appearance. Make sure Twitter and Facebook accounts reflect the image of a professional journalist, not a drunken football fan tweeting about a missed touchdown.
  • Encourage everyone to reach beyond individual beats. If they tweet about things that interest them, this expands the newsroom’s coverage and audience.
  • Reward those who go the extra mile. Praise the entertainment reporter who tweets about traffic snarls or bad weather while out covering a new movie. A simple thank-you note goes a long way to encouraging people.
  • Create an environment where freelance work is embraced. Landing magazine articles or books generated from Twitter accounts should be applauded, not frowned upon. Most papers have cut budgets, so think of this as a reward that soothes the staff’s morale after getting that last crummy raise — or pay cut.

Alecia Swasy  
Research scholar


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