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Tracking breaking news on Twitter

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.

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  • Daniel

    And for a newsroom, what about using an InFocus projector to put that information on a wall for everyone to track in realtime?

  • Mathew Ingram

    A great idea, Daniel.

  • Sal.

    Excellent feedback and recommendations for using Twitter. Additional tools, services, and articles can be found on the following Twitter Resources and Links Web page:

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  • Craig Kanalley

    Matt, speaking of breaking news on Twitter, there’s a new site called Breaking Tweets ( and @breakingtweets) that tracks world news and tweets about that news across the globe. That includes tweets in foreign languages as it translates them to English.

    Just started the site yesterday and would love if you could check it out. “Stories” are composed in a journalistic style, since I have a journalism background. The biggest reason I started it is that while auto services to search breaking news on Twitter are great, I think having a manual editor sift through them and pick the best ones is well worth it.

    Perhaps you could help spread the word about it as well? I expect to update daily. Thanks.

  • Craig Kanalley

    BTW, Matt! I just noticed you were born in Zweibrucken, Germany. Check out my Web site and go to Genealogy section. I have ancestors from this area (Zweibrucken/Bierbach) including Graebel, Schwarz, Candidus, Dessloch, and Weber. If you go to Web Cards, I have all my families there. We may be related?

  • Mathew Ingram

    Thanks, Craig — I will check out Breaking Tweets. Sounds like an interesting idea.

    As for the Zweibrucken connection, I was only born there because my father was in the Royal Canadian Air Force and he was stationed there for a couple of years in the earlu 1960s.

  • Craig Kanalley

    OK, great – thanks Matt. Feel free to send feedback on the site too – always looking to make it better.

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  • MrLunk

    You wanna give this tool a go too…

    add the words ‘scoop’ and ‘breaking news’ and you have yourself a worldwide alarmscroll of all what people find is breaking news…

    could allso be breaking news about lil bobby who broke his toe when he kicked the pole in uwubuluru somewhere in twinkitown…. ;)

    just depends on what people concern to be breaking news to them…

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