By now, I would hope that most journalists with an interest in online or social media have heard about Twitter, and are at least open to the idea (if they haven’t adopted it entirely) that this group-chat/instant messaging hybrid can be a powerful tool for tracking breaking news events. For me, the tipping point was probably the Chinese earthquake last year, followed by a series of forest fires in California. Twitter and other social-media tools such as Facebook helped spread the news about the latter so quickly that a study by sociologists later found they did a better job than either the official emergency information networks or the traditional media.
More recent events, such as the emergency landing of a US Airways jet in the middle of the Hudson River and the inauguration of President Barack Obama, have only reinforced how much a part of the news cycle social-media Twitter has become. In some cases it functions more as a social network than a news-delivery mechanism, but it is still fascinating to watch, and it can provide instantaneous crowd reaction to an event in ways that are definitely newsworthy. During the inauguration, for example, I was live-blogging for the newspaper I work for, and we were also feeding people’s Twitter posts and thoughts into the blog.
One tool that I find indispensable for tracking Twitter is called Tweetdeck. It runs on Adobe’s AIR platform, which allows applications to be a blend of desktop software and Internet service, and it provides a kind of dashboard for Twitter tracking. You can have several “panes” open within the application — one for friends, another for groups you create based on specific topics, another for direct messages (which go to you alone), and so on. I keep a pane open with a real-time Twitter trends keyword “cloud,” which shows the terms people are using the most. Clicking on one brings up a Tweetscan search showing all the recent messages with that keyword.
There are other Web-based tools that can be very handy for Twitter-tracking as well. Tweetscan is one, and another keyword search is called Twitscoop (Twitter also has its own search service here). A service called Tweetgrid allows you to create panels with different keywords in them — including what are called “hashtags,” which are just keywords with a number sign in front of them, which some feel make it easier to follow a specific conversation. During the inauguration, I had three panels in Tweetgrid with real-time messages flowing by based on the keywords inaug09, inauguration and Obama. When I saw one that was worthwhile, I simply “re-tweeted” or quoted it in my own Twitter feed, which was automatically fed into our live-blogging tool (a Canadian-built service called Cover It Live).
Those are far from the only Twitter tools out there — in fact, Twitter has created an entire ecosystem of tools that add features to and expand the utility of the service. There’s a good list of some other tools for journalists here, and Gina Chen of Save The Media has some other tips on how journalists can use Twitter and ways to get started. Robert Niles at OJR has some thoughts as well, and the Columbia Journalism School recently did a podcast all about using Twitter for news.