Twitter tips for journalists

twitter-foloAs a newbie on Twitter, I quickly found myself drowning in the gusher of Tweets from the folks I follow.  I have a pretty short “following” list so far, but some of them are such prodigious posters that it was hard to for me to keep up.

Then along came Twitter (wouldn’t you know it?) to my rescue.  Someone I follow (can’t quite remember who) pointed to a terrific post from Kim Pittaway at Canada’s J-source listing tips for journalists on how to use Twitter. What saved me was this simple advice:

On the subject of time-sucking procrastination: When I first signed on, I used to scroll back to see what I’d missed since I last checked in. Great way to kill time—and go bleary-eyed. Now I treat Twitter more like a river than a pool: I watch what floats by when I’m signed in, and accept that if I miss something, I miss it. There’s plenty of info-fish in the stream, and I’ll catch something interesting later (to push that metaphor to its limits—and beyond).

I’ve already sent Kim a DM (direct message) of thanks and started following her.  The rest of her suggestions are spot on, too. Check them out.


In defense of TV reporters

You know the public image of TV news reporters, right?  They’re unethical, lazy and overpaid. Not.

In this brilliant blog post, former Atlanta TV reporter Doug Richards  debunks  those myths, and several more–like this one:

They can tell you what’s really going on. Well, yes.  But chances are they’ve put almost everything they know into a story already.

It always amazed me, when I was reporting for CBS and CNN, how many people thought I knew much more than I was telling them on the air.  Of course there were times when I got stuff off the record, but my goal was always to find a way of confirming it so I could use it.   I heard this assumption a lot, too:

They have writers who tell them what to say. No.  They write it, which explains why some of it is so poorly written.

Ha! It also explains why one of my most requested workshop topics has always been “better broadcast writing.”

When news finds you

Sometimes, the most amazing stories just fall into your lap. NJ Burkett, a reporter at WABC-TV in New York, says a viewer phone call this week led him to this story about a trail of personal information found in the street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

I learned about the story when Burkett tweeted on Monday that he was on to something.

In newsvan now in Manhattan working on a maddening story about a real estate firm that apparently left its trash unsecured on the street…Now I’m calling people, “Hi, this is NJ Burkett. I found your name in the middle of Columbus Avenue along with your 401k statement…”

Wasn’t it risky to make that information public while still reporting the story?  Not really, says Burkett.

I didn’t put the name or address of the firm on Twitter because I know for a fact that several of my competitors (including at least one New York market news director) are following me.

He also held off on his Twitter post until the mess was largely cleaned up and “the exclusive was in the bag.”  By that time, he was setting up interviews with people whose names were on the documents found in the street. Or at least, he was trying. Burkett says many of the people he contacted thought he was a scam artist, pretending to be a reporter to talk them out of their personal information.

One of them was a doctor in Arizona, who finally agreed to be interviewed the next day. At that point, Burkett reached out to ABC’s Phoenix affiliate, KNXV.  He shared his video and script with reporter Tony Arranaga, who did the interview, sent it to New York, and then aired his own story.  More proof that it pays to listen when viewers call.

Blogging for dollars

So you’ve been laid off or can’t find a job in journalism. Think you can survive on blogging alone?  Not so fast, says Scott Joseph.

After taking a buyout from the Orlando Sentinel, where he’d spent 20 years as a restaurant critic, Joseph figured he could still make a living as a writer by freelancing and starting his own food blog.

It hasn’t been easy, but he’s learned a few things along the way. Writing at OJR, Joseph says the most important step is to plan ahead if you intend to keep covering the same beat once you leave your job:

Who are your contacts? Where do you get your press releases? Start making a list of these people. Are those names only in your workplace e-mail server? Find out how to make an electronic copy of that list and save it to a flash drive or e-mail it to a personal account. If your employer shows up at your desk tomorrow with a buyout package and an escort to the front door, I guarantee your laptop isn’t going with you.

Other good advice: save emails from readers so you can let them know where you’ve gone. Share a personal email address so people can stay in touch once you’ve left the newsroom. And don’t forget those business cards you’ve been collecting for years, says a commenter on Joseph’s post. You can add those emails to your promotional list to draw in new blog readers.

How many readers does it take for a blog to be commercially viable?  That depends. There’s a rule of thumb floating around online that you need 10,000 visits a day, but OJR’s Robert Niles diagrees. The number depends on your niche and your visitors. If they’re affluent, you won’t need as many to break even.

And this may be obvious, but you really can’t make a dime with a free blog host like that doesn’t allow advertising.  Which is why Advancing the Story just might be moving.  Advice welcome!

Support for journalists

What’s happening in newsrooms today can be traumatic. Layoffs, cutbacks and fear are a daily reality.  Reporters, photographers and news managers worry that bottom-line pressures are affecting the quality of their work.  Many could use some help to deal with what they’re going through, but they may not be willing to admit it.

Journalists like to think of themselves as tough and self-sufficient, after all.  They believe they can cover any story, no matter how grim, and remain unaffected.  But that’s a myth.

For years, the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma has helped journalists cope with what they’ve witnessed or experienced.  Now, the Center’s Dart Society is helping journalists deal with the impact of the recession.

Reporter Dan Grech of  Marketplace on NPR helped get the program started.  Tentatively entitled “Project Invictus,” Latin for “unconquered,” the program brings journalists together for a candid, off-the-record conversation about the state of the industry and their place in it:

The first meeting, which I attended over the weekend in suburban Washington, DC, drew a diverse group of about 20 journalists–print and broadcast.  Some had just lost their jobs; others are still employed but anxious about the future.  My sense is that they all drew strength from each other and their shared commitment to good journalism.

There’s no public schedule for future meetings, which will be by invitation only.  But if you’d like more information, contact Deirdre Stoelzle Graves, administrator of the Dart Society.

Backpack journalism toolkit

When you work alone as a backpack journalist, you need lightweight, reliable gear and an efficient process for getting the job done.  In the 14 months she’s been working as NBC’s “digital journalist,” Maria Schiavocampo has figured out through trial and error what works best for her.

Schiavocampo tells the Nieman Foundation that she now travels with a 30-pound rolling backpack filled with $10,000 worth of gear–about one fifth of the cost of a full size Sony digital Betacam. Her camera, the $3,000 Sony HVR-V1U, shoots on DV tape, which she prefers over newer, tapeless models that use expensive memory cards and offer less recording time.  She writes and edits on a MacBook pro.

Her workflow centers around her video camera, which also serves as her still camera and notebook.  “I’m very scaled down–it’s just bare bones for me,” she says.  Among her guidelines for working fast:

  • When on a tight deadline, shoot sparingly; when time allows, shoot generously.
  • Plot out sequences (shoot wide, medium, tight from different angles).
  • Hold your shots, and then hold some more. “If you’re going to do a move, hold at the top, do your move, hold at the tail.”

While Schiavocampo mostly works alone, she always has a fixer or guide for overseas assignments.  And if there’s danger involved, she travels with an NBC crew, a luxury not afforded to most backpack journalists.

Grad school or not?

Not to belabor the obvious, but it’s a tough time to find a job in any field.  If you’re about to finish your undergraduate studies and you want to be a journalist, should you bag the job search and apply to graduate school?

The short answer is, it depends.  I’ve never thought journalists need to have masters degrees, even though I do have one myself.  I went back to school for a couple of reasons after working for several years in TV news.  I wanted to learn from Ed Bliss, and I thought I might want to teach some day, so an MA seemed like a good thing to have.

A masters can definitely be helpful if your BA is in something other than journalism. In grad school, you can learn the skills you’re expected to bring to the job on day one, and you can make contacts in the business who can help you find that job.

One good reason not to go to grad school: it’s expensive–almost $40,000 in tuition and fees alone at USC’s Annenberg, for example.  If you’re already carrying a heavy load of student loans, it may be too much of a burden to take on the cost of grad school.

But what if you didn’t have to pay full price? According to Columbia J-school”s  Sree Sreenivasan, there’s “very generous funding” available for that school’s nine-month masters program in specialized journalism. The application deadline is Sunday, Feb. 1.  Are any other programs offering funding? And even if they are, is it worth it to get an MA in journalism?

The journalism skills gap

News organizations rarely find new hires who have all the skills they’re looking for.  But a survey of employers conducted in the UK finds they’re most concerned about gaps in traditional journalism skills, not the multimedia skills journalists are told they need in a converging world.

The survey conducted by Britain’s National Council for the Training of Journalists, found 71% of employers reported a gap between skills new hires have and those the employers believe they need.  The main core skills on which new hires fall short?

Finding their own stories
Use of language
Media law

Employers said new hires aren’t up to snuff in several new skills, as well, but rated these as somewhat less important.

Video: recording and editing
Writing for search
Writing for multiple platforms and 24 hour rolling news
Prioritizing ways to tell a story
Assembling news bulletins and audio/video packages
Using FOIA

Of even less concern to employers: new hires who lacked specific software knowledge, experience in hazardous assignments or skills in photojournalism or radio presentation.  Those were the kinds of things employers apparently were willing to have employees learn on the job.

Do these British results apply here in the US?  I’d say most of them probably do.  But one skill on the traditional list seems a misfit: shorthand.  The only reporter I’ve ever seen take notes in real shorthand (Gregg, I think) is Helen Thomas.  Maybe the survey was measuring the need for better note taking–I’d buy that. But shorthand?  Are they kidding?

Are news Web sites all the same?

When it comes to page views, is doing more than OK.  According to an article in the International Herald Tribune, “Nielsen ranked as the No.1 current events and global news Web site last year, with a monthly average of 1.7 billion – half a billion views more than its nearest competitor, ”

But the new boss at, K.C. Estenson, says he’s still worried. 

At the end of a long day recently, he showed a visitor screen grabs from four Web pages. “When you look at the top news sites, they often look almost identical,” he said, gesturing to the home pages of CNN, ABC News, The Wall Street Journal and Yahoo News. Down to photo choices and color schemes, the four sites look almost interchangeable and utilitarian, he says – hence his emphasis on the power of unique signatures.

That seemed like a terrific idea.  So, here are screen grabs from those four sites, taken within just a couple minutes of each other. Click on each to take a look at how similar they are in design and, to some extent, content. Now, the question is – have all these sites found the optimal design and definition of what’s news? Or as Estenson suggests are most news Web sites simply “predictable and homogenous.”

And take a look at the news sites in your own market. How distinctive are they? And what would it take to give them “the unique signature” that Estenson thinks a site needs to achieve success in the future?

Inaugural multimedia

The Washington Post is already up with a very cool interactive map and timeline of President Obama’s inauguration. TimeSpace lets users “experience the events of Inauguration Day through photos, video and text from specific locations.”


Students from the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism are helping with the Post coverage.  According to the school, all of the journalists working on TimeSpace are equipped with a GPS device making it possible to upload video and photos of the event as it happens with the exact time and location of the coverage.

American University students are contributing to Inauguration Report, a project of CBS News and NPR, along with the people behind TwitterVision.  AU students with Flip cameras are shooting video for the project, which also uses GPS technology to map the location of submissions.  What an amazing opportunity for the students from both schools to have a piece of this story.

There are no doubt dozens of amazing multimedia projects being created today. Let us know of others we should highlight.