Why Producers Should Be Active on Twitter (In Much More Than 140 Characters)

A news producer’s job is never done.  Trust me, I am one.  How do we both engage the anchors and keep our newscasts looking fresh and relevant to an audience who has had access to the internet all day long?  I’m about to suggest a method that will initially make many of you cringe.

Add Twitter to your repertoire. It will make you a better producer who can come up with story ideas faster and have a better grasp on what people in the “real world” are talking about at any given time.

Ok, now that you’ve read that twice, done the gratuitous spit take, and asked the screen (or your fellow producers, for that matter) how on Earth you will have time for that in an already slammed day, I’ll explain.  Again, trust me: I jumped into the Twitterverse about 3 years ago now.  I have no on-screen presence, so no one knows me.  Yet, as of this writing, I have 2100+ followers – more than any of the on-air talent at our station – and it has helped me come up with stories, angles, sources, and scoops that have eluded reporters assigned to those beats.  Believe me yet?  Then let’s get started.

Step One: Get on Twitter

For some reason, most TV producers are technophobes.  We may work with computers all day, but few of us know how they work, and I believe that lack of knowledge leads us to be late adopters of any new technology.  In my shop, I’m the Go-To-Girl (outside our online department, that is) when it comes to social media.   For anyone reading this, I will direct you to this very readable article from Mashable to set yourself up accordingly.  Instead of reinventing the wheel; we take someone else’s wheel and put some shiny new spinners on it!

Step Two: Start with the familiar

As with anything new, I’m going to suggest that you start with something familiar.  For a producer, that’s a press release.  A number of government organizations, non-profits, and other groups use Twitter as just another venue to distribute the traditional press releases.  Not ideal for them, but their lost opportunity is still our gain.  Recognizing this is one of the first steps toward using Twitter to make your day more efficient.

Take 30 minutes or so per day for a week or two and find the Twitter feeds of all the major newsmakers in your area.  For example, I’m in North Carolina.  My governor has a Twitter account.  So does my DOT, where I can get all the info on closed roads, and upcoming road hearings and construction projects.  That’s news your viewers want to use.  All the major universities near me Tweet their news, and so do a number of state agencies.  All of a sudden, some of that stuff that’s cluttering up my inbox, I can read while I’m on Twitter.  There’s one major difference, though: The press release in your inbox is a static document.  The Tweet is dynamic – people highlight the parts they find pertinent, they comment upon it, and the forward it to friends.  This gives you insight into what’s really important in a news release, instead of just the headline.

Once you start collecting a number of similar sources, create lists.  That makes it easy to check the updates without them getting lost in your information stream.  That may seem pointless now, but the more successful at this you become, the more you’ll need these tools to sift through the information so nothing important slips through the cracks.  I use HootSuite to make that happen, but some of my co-workers swear by TweetDeck as well.  Others use the original Twitter interface. Bottom line, get organized now before the data overwhelms you.

One more thing before we leave this step – follow your competition!  It’s just like watching their newscast or reading their website, and I guarantee they’ll follow you when they see you becoming active online.  Get their main account, then look for their individuals, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera.  Think twice before interacting, though.  Take commenting slowly, and with a grain of salt, unless you know them personally.  Also be aware, your management may frown upon actual interaction with the “Other Guys” beyond just following them.

Step Three: Start the conversation

Now, Tweet something.  It’s that simple.  When you go to a Meet up group, the only guaranteed way to get people to start talking to you is to start conversation with them.  So begin.  Start small – after all, you’re still looking for your voice.  Tweeting a tease for your newscast is a good start, but make sure you’re not all news, all the time.  Have a conversation with the general public.  Ask open-ended questions that people are encouraged to answer.  Post random musings or some of those funny things you overhear in a newsroom.   Don’t do anything stupid, like posting where your spare key is hidden or that Fido the Guard Dog is all alone at your house tonight.

For the numbers-based producers among us, when starting out, I’d try to go 60%-40% news-non news tweets. As you start to develop an audience, drop back to 40% news (including news organization retweets) 30% non-news, 30% interacting with people and retweets of actual people.  These are just guidelines, though, for people who feel better with rules to follow.  In the end, let your gut reaction be your guide.

A few examples from my last few days:

My boyfriend asked me, could haiku fit in a tweet?  Yes, with space to spare.  This falls into random… Doesn’t require an answer, but people will anyway.

The National Honesty Index says redheads are more honest than blondes or brunettes! Woo hoo Gingers! (I am one – I can say that!)  This is part of me being me online… not quite random but not overly informative either

Read @jgravleyWRAL to get the developments on Butch Davis releasing his personal cell records  This tweet doubles as relating news AND relationship-building… SCORE!
Get your whooping cough vaccine! A baby in Forsyth County is now the first 2012 pertussis death in NC – @WRAL at noon to find out where the shots are   Blatant news tease, but it doesn’t read like one. You get something out of it even if you don’t watch the news

Which brings me to something to watch out for – when you do tweet news teases, be sure to offer substance in the tweet itself.  Don’t make the whole thing a tease, or people will stop reading your stream.  I’ve read many a news station tweet that is aiming solely for the gratuitous click-through, so they say something to the effect of

“Let us know if this is the way you think the logo should look” followed by a link to their website.

That makes me, as a reader, feel a little used.  I would suggest changing it to something like this to make readers feel engaged:

“The state DOT has three options for the new construction zone sign. You can vote for your favorite on our website (same link here)

See – don’t you feel better knowing what you’re clicking?  More satisfied?  Thought you might.  On to step 4 – the other half of the conversation.
Step Four: Find some listeners

So far, we’ve followed institutions, and we’ve started talking.  Now it’s time to make sure people are listening.  Some of the organizational accounts you’ve followed have probably followed you back, and that’s a start.  However, taking Twitter to the next level means finding humans and acting human online.  This is where real life interactions come in.  If you know someone in your area who is big into Twitter, ask them for a few people to follow.  Once you get to know them, ask those people for more suggestions.

Pay attention to the #FF (follow Friday) recommendations that go by – a number of people will qualify their posts so you know what you’re getting.  For example, #FF TV Edition, #FF Raleigh Socialites, #FF Coworkers, et cetera.  Check out the ones that are in areas you’re interested in learning more about – if you don’t like them or they aren’t useful, it’s okay to unfollow them later.

Resist the urge to follow anyone and everyone in an attempt to “collect” followers – try to stick to people who are saying things you find interesting, whether it’s about work or your hobbies or a celebrity who interests you.  Once you find these people, actually read their tweets.  Respond. Interact.  Soon you’ll be someone who is on their radar screen, and you’ll move from feeling like you’re “talking at” people to actually “conversing with” them.

There’s even something to learn from all those organizational account I asked you to follow.  Some of them use Twitter as a press release clearinghouse, others actually get it.  They use their 140 characters wisely to draw you into their organization or the story they’re selling that day.  One of our local universities does a stellar job with this – They send out their typical press releases via email, but when they boil it down to put on Twitter, they find the “why you should care” element and sell it well.  While I am honored they believe journalists can make sense of some of the highly academic language, we often skip interesting things farther down the release because we miss or just can’t find the “Why we care” factor.  Twitter can help you tease that out, both in picking stories and in writing them.
These are the steps that just make Twitter an enjoyable experience.  Now, it’s time to step up and get your news cred out there too.

Step Five: Before you click that Retweet button…    

As you start reading posts, you’ll find a few things you want to share.  Twitter makes that so easy – a few clicks and boom – retweeted to all your followers.  Before you make that set of clicks, though, pause and ask yourself:

1) is it really interesting or really funny?  Or are you just putting another LOLcat out there?

2) Where does it come from?  My rule of thumb is that any news organization that my station respects enough to call by name on the air, I’ll retweet without worries.  So just like we would say “A Washington Post investigation reports…” I have no problem retweeting content from the Washington Post.  Same for AP, CNN, BBC, and NPR – add to the list as you see fit for your area.  On the flip side, I’d stay away from retweeting any other content from major media in your own market.  Independents organizations are ok in my book – they may even thank you for it – but no helping out the local newspaper.

3) Is it on my site already, or can I get it on my site so the link I post drives the traffic there?  If you see a funny story on the wires and want to tweet a link, check your station’s site first.  If it’s not there, ask your web folks if they’ll put it up.  If your station is serious about social media, they’ll appreciate the fact that you thought of driving the traffic to your own site rather than MSNBC or Yahoo News.

Step Six: Adding a Link

It’s worth a paragraph or two here to talk about link shorteners.  Links can take up valuable real estate in a tweet, and the shorter they are, the better.  I’m lucky enough not to have to worry about it – our company’s dedication to social media included unique URLs that can be shortened so that all that appears in the tweet is www.wral.com/{unique story ID number here} .  Talk to your online division to see if you have anything similar.

If you don’t, this is the argument for using a management website such as HootSuite or TweetDeck for your interface.  Both have link shorteners built into their tweet page – just copy, paste, click “shorten” and voila – an owl.ly or a bit.ly link takes the place of the mumbo jumbo you started with.
Step Seven: Live Tweet something

Next time you have breaking news, start live tweeting it.  If you can, use a hash tag that makes it obvious you’re local, such as #ncwx  or #RaleighTraffic.  Each situation calls for a different approach, but here are a few I’ve found to be most common:

In a weather situation, send out updates on where the storm is, who needs to watch out, and when viewers share, retweet their descriptions and images!  Put out the all-call on the broadcast for people to send information via Facebook and Twitter, then use that information liberally (once it’s confirmed!).  I would also recommend reminding people to do so WHEN IT IS SAFE.  You’d be surprised what some people will do to get their 10 seconds of cell phone video on TV.

For a developing situation, a verdict being read in court, anything with background or multiple layers, try to keep the tweets coming.  You don’t have to send an update every 30 seconds, but as developments come into the newsroom and get confirmed, send ’em out.  Keep your writing to a headline-style – it’s easier for people to see that you’re in “news” mode.  Have your station’s hash tag on things where you can, and always wrap it up with a recap, a drive to the full story, and if possible, what you’ll have on TV in your next newscast.  An example:

Jury finds Jason Young guilty of first-degree murder in death of pregnant wife #YoungTrial
Young convicted of beating his pregnant wife, Michelle, to death in their Wake County home in Nov 2006, leaving 2 yr old daughter at scene
Young could face death penalty, sentencing phase starts after lunch recess #YoungTrial
Young’s mother crying in courtroom as judge polls jurors on murder conviction #YoungTrial
Jury convicts Jason Young of murdering his wife. Full recap on @WRAL.com,  Amanda Lamb talks live to his wife’s sister @ 5p on @wral

If there’s a bad accident, tweet the crash then the detour route.  If there’s a big announcement, tweet the highlights.  In most scenarios, be sure to take the time to sound a little more human when you send these out.  If your news copy would say “breaking news in West Raleigh where an accident involving a tractor trailer and two cars has blocked Hillsborough street” then the tweets should say:
Wreck blocking eastbound Hillsborough Street at Dan Allen Drive – avoid the area for a half hour or so.
If you need to miss the Hillsborough/Dan Allen trouble spot, try 440 to Western Blvd, turn rt on Pullen to get back on track
Tractor trailer rolled over a car on Hillsborough Street, and everyone survived – check the pics on
wral.com (put a real link here to the pictures instead of a generic website tease if you can)

Overall, live tweeting an event is the fastest way to get your news chops out there and have people recognize you as a conduit to the TV news.  This usually ends in new followers and builds your personal online brand as a go-to person for news in your area.  Which leads me to my last step:

Step Eight: I’m gleaning info – now what?

Twitter can be a veritable gold mine of information, story ideas, tips, and filler stories.  However, I would be remiss if I didn’t address the challenges of what to do with that information.

First, do not report anything that comes from Twitter as fact!  Treat it as scanner traffic or something you got from a dispatcher.  Best case scenario, in the case of viewer pictures of weather or car accidents, be SURE to say in your copy “We received this picture from a viewer via Twitter- they say this is the scene right now in blah-blah-blah.”  It doesn’t absolve you from legal responsibility, but it does protect you in some cases.  Otherwise, treat it as background knowledge that you can use for questioning authorities but do not run with it to air unless you have a second source.

There’s really only one exception to that rule: authorized, official Twitter accounts.  I mentioned above that our state’s Governor has a Twitter account.  So do both of our state Senators.  We have had the discussion as a station, and decided to consider anything tweeted on those accounts to be official statements from those offices, we just write it into the script that instead of issuing a statement, the officials tweeted.  So in the midst of the Rep. Todd Akin controversy, even though we never received a press release with the statement, I had a script in my 5pm newscast that read:

North Carolina’s Senior Senator has joined a growing number of Republicans calling for Rep. Todd Akin to remove himself from the Missouri Senate race.  This afternoon, Senator Richard Burr tweeted: “Congressman Akin’s comments were offensive, outrageous, & wrong. I urge him to do the right thing & withdraw from MO Senate race now.

Neat, eh?

This new community is also ripe for helping reporters find story contacts – just tweet what you need!  Or for getting an idea what they think is news-worthy.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent the tweet “slow morning meeting today – anybody got a story idea for me?”  People are usually quick to respond, but I don’t recommend sending that one out until you have a significant following.  Finally, your newsroom management may be on board with the idea of social media, but when you make the argument “This is trending on Twitter” or “It’s hot online, tomorrow it’ll be old news,” you may get some strange looks, or even pshaw’d at times.  It happens to all of us.  Keep trying to make your case.  Eventually, you’ll break a story or build up enough times when you were right that they will start to listen.  Cut them a break – chances are you were a bit of a Luddite too before you started this process.

            There you have it – a brief overview of what I’ve done over the last few years to cultivate the community of followers and leads that I have on Twitter.  It’s a community that has brought me story ideas, direct tips, interviews, and ideas from seeing what other people are talking about.  It has given me that extra story to fill the 5 o’clock news, or a glimpse into what’s going viral so we can be on the front edge of the wave and show it to you now, instead of tomorrow when it feels old.  It’s a place for an exchange of ideas that will help you think a little faster the next time you need a plan C for a story that falls through.  It’s how playing on the Internet can actually make you a better producer, if you put in the work.  I’m @sbeckwral – let me know if you see results.


Stephanie Beck is a producer at WRAL in Raleigh. Has been there since 2001.  She spends her free time traveling to dance West Coast Swing (like in her Twitter profile picture) with her boyfriend and watching Dr. Who and anything Sorkin.  Stephanie has been known to contribute to the number of cat photos on the net, but Calypso and Fritz do not have their own accounts.  She attended UNC for BA and MA. She is always looking for the next way to engage her audience. Stephanie is one of the most followed local TV news producers on Twitter.