Five Ways News Organisations Should Use Twitter

Rule nine of the Twitter playbook says don’t talk numbers. The only person who cares how many followers you’ve got is you and this craven attention-seeking is likely to backfire – followers soon stop following.

Sod rule nine. For now, at least.

I want to mark the fact that @channel4news has broken through the 10,000 barrier.

It happened sometime on Sunday, a quiet day in the Twittersphere - the downtime between the height of the Iran crisis and the Commons Speaker-fest.

And as I no longer work for Channel 4 News and these are not my numbers any more, I can’t be accused of indulging. Much.

And anyway, it’s an excuse to re-tell the story of the feed, aka Newsroom Blogger.

We went live at the end of April 2008 with this promise:

So here’s the plan: we’ll take you inside the Channel 4 Newsroom and share what we can, when we can. Always inside. Occasionally insightful.

After a sluggish start we soon found an enthusiastic audience for our kind of trivia, nonsense and, yes, occasional insight.

And as we built up a following we realised our relationship with them had been transformed.

And this is what we learned. These were the most successful/rewarding uses of Twitter:

1. A sounding board
Twitter is not about to replace those editorial and ethical guidelines news organisations have in place but it does let you take the temperature of your user base. In real-time. 

Should we run those pictures of Rihanna post-domestic abuse? Can you take a another day of expenses at the top of the show?

2. An ideas factory
We had viewers writing poetry- 140 character verse, naturally - on the day poet laurette-elect Wendy Cope said you can’t write poetry to order.

We sought suggestions for music to put with programme packages. One was on, of all things, the Manchester congestion charge. (Fools Gold by the Stone Roses, since you ask).

We sought suitable ringtones for Gordon Brownon the day his mobile went off inappropriately at Davos (Golden Brown by the Stranglers, among the suggestions)

3. A platform for breaking news (with a twist)
Twitter as a news feed is lazy and uninspired if that’s all you do, but using it to break some gob-smacking stories is a acceptable use of the form.

The Schipol plane crash, the Mumbai terror attacks and the China earthquakes are good examples.

And when you do break news try to add some insight or, at least, some inside:  ‘We’ve torn up the running order…’; ‘A correspondent has been called off another story…’ ‘We’re trying to line up an interview with x…’

4. A vehicle for news gathering/trend spotting
I’ve mentioned Schipol already when a Turkish Airlines plane crashed early one Wednesday morning.

The news broke just after 10am, and we put a hopeful Tweet out for an eye-witness on the ground.

None of our followers were there but – and here’s the (social) network effect in action – one of our followers was following someone who was.

In less than two hours this guy was speaking live on News at Noon- sourced on Twitter, authenticated using traditional journalistic techniques and sharing his tale on a mobile phone to Krishnan Guru-Murthy (@krishgm)  in London.

5. A window into the newsroom
And we are back where we started. Share some of the adrenalin, some of the headaches, some of the dilemmas of putting a programme/newspaper/story together.

There are other news organisations out there who out-do @channel4news on the follower count but most, I would guess, envy it for the level of interactivity and passion it generates - the retweets (RT), the replies (@) and assorted mentions along the way.

Here’s to the next 10,000.

UPDATE: Internet consultant Martin Belam (aka: Currybetdotnet) has put together a useful guide to big publisher’s use of social media – the good and the bad. In Part 4 he tackles Twitter and says some nice things about @channel4news. But that’s not the only reason I urge you to read it, understand?

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14 comments on “Five Ways News Organisations Should Use Twitter
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Jon Bernstein: I am a digital media consultant, writer and editor and this is my personal blog.

Previously, I was digital director / deputy editor at the New Statesman, the multimedia editor at Channel 4 News, launch editor of Channel 4 FactCheck, editor-in-chief at Directgov and editor-in-chief of silicon.com.

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