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Third 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

Even political junkies must get bored writing the same election stories every cycle. So let’s hear it for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Daniel Malloy for trying something different for the Georgia gubernatorial primary.

Malloy, the paper’s Washington correspondent, rapped about Election Day in a selfie video (wearing a pair of shades) and posted the clip on Twitter.

“Eh, yo, wake up Georgia. It’s Election Day....

There’s a governor’s race, not much to say about it.”

Even rap junkies would agree it was pretty bad, musically speaking. But it was a breakout moment for stuffy political reporters. To be sure, AJC did its share of print and online coverage: a voter’s guide and plenty of stories on each candidate’s stance on the issues. But Malloy’s bosses didn’t know he was doing the rap; they saw it when it popped up on Twitter. They thought it was hilarious and proof that journalists are embracing social media.  “It’s a sign that we’ve won the war,” said AJC Managing Editor Bert Roughton. Indeed, Malloy posted a second rap song to update his followers on the race.

Journalists are using Twitter for more than promoting their work or finding sources. They are bending the professional norms about how to cover the news and tell stories. Traditionally, journalists filed daily dispatches on their beats, general assignment duty or a feature. Everyone worked on a longer piece for the Sunday paper. But the 24/7 nature of the Internet changed that mindset and Twitter has made the news cycle even shorter.

Journalists say Twitter has made them rethink what makes a great story. “It’s a different mindset,” said Dana Coffield, business editor of The Denver Post. The traditional newspaper standard was to reward those who wrote the long, narrative pieces for Page 1 of the Sunday paper. “The Internet doesn’t reward us that way.” The Postis getting a new mobile application and she considers Twitter good practice for writers to learn to write more concisely. “You don’t need blathering, long quotes. People are consuming smaller bites of information.”

Here’s proof: One of The Post’s star reporters, Ryan Parker, just got hired by the Los Angeles Times after building a reputation for being consistently first to break news on Twitter. “He is the person who does not give a s--- if something goes in the paper,” Coffield said. “He just wants to be first to break news.” He was named one of Time’s most influential people on Twitter. Here’s what Time said:

Time: The 140 best Twitter feeds of 2014

Journalists are enjoying the freedom that Twitter gives them to experiment with new formats for stories. In some cases, Twitter has allowed reporters to go back and recreate a deeper narrative after a breaking news event. For instance, Sarah Mervosh, criminal justice reporter at The Dallas Morning News, marked the one-year anniversary of the West Fertilizer Co. explosion by posting tweets to recreate what happened that day as it happened. “It was a different way to tell a story,” she said.

While Mervosh used Twitter to build the narrative for a one-year anniversary of the explosion, editors at AJC decided to use Twitter to write an anniversary story on Hank Aaron’s record-setting 715 home runs. The idea was simple: What if Twitter had been popular back in the spring of 1974? Editors got the idea after attending a Cox Media Group conference where other journalists talked about how they were using Twitter to create narratives. Mark Waligore, one of AJC’s managing editors, came back to work and proposed doing something similar to mark Aaron’s anniversary. Tom Stinson, a writer and editor, was asked to do the piece.

The paper sent out live tweets at the exact time the homerun was hit, then compiled photos and the tweets for the website. “It created a lot of buzz just because of the coolness of it,” Waligore said. He credits Stinson’s excellent writing, but notes one reader’s tweet that said: “Whoever came up with this idea is a genius and should get a raise.”

Storify: Hank Aaron

Twitter tips

  • Encourage journalists to try new things. Twitter needs to be edgier than news stories.
  • Hold training sessions to discuss how to be edgy, without going too far.
  • Share examples of success, such as Daniel Malloy’s Election Day rap.
  • Challenge the most popular tweeters to try something new, such as swapping Twitter accounts between the food and sports columnists. See what the baseball writer suggests for dinner at the ballpark.
  • Use your staff’s Twitter accounts to promote special work so it has higher impact.

Alecia Swasy  
Research scholar


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