the transition to digital journalism


When Twitter was publicly released in August 2006 there were plenty of skeptics. The idea was to give people an easy way to post very short - 140 characters or less - notes about what they were doing in their daily lives. Postings from people saying they were about to go to lunch or board a plane seemed trivial.

People can set up accounts on Twitter for free and then post the short messages (called "tweets") that appear on their personal pages on the Twitter website. The notes can be posted at the Twitter website or from cellphones and other mobile devices.

Others then can check a person's postings by subscribing to them (referred to as "following" a person) on the Twitter website. The notes can be viewed on the website or on a cellphone or other mobile device. They also can be embedded in a personal blog or website.

Twitter's Growth

Despite early reservations about the usefulness of Twitter, the service took off, launching what has been referred to as the "microblogging" phenomenon. Twitter had 7 million visitors to its website in February 2009, a 1,382 percent increase over a year earlier, according to Nielsen Online. By March 2009, Twitter was growing at a 2,565 percent annual rate, according to Nielsen Online data.

Twitter's growth appeared to slow in late 2009, according to some studies, and a relatively small percentage of Twitter users actively post (see the studies cited in the Readings and Resources section below).

In May 2013, 18 percent of adult American Internet users were Twitter users, according to a Pew Internet & American Life survey. That's up from 15 percent in February 2012, 13 percent in May 2011 and 8 percent in November 2010.

survey by the Pew Research Center in August-September 2013 reported that 16 percent of U.S. adults were Twitter users (people polled in this survey included non-Internet users, which probably accounts for the slightly smaller percentage of Twitter users than the May 2013 survey above).

The number of people using Twitter to get news remains small. During the 2012 presidential primary elections, only 5 percent of people regularly or sometimes got campaign information from Twitter, according to a Pew Research Center survey in February 2012. A year later still only 8 percent of of people were using Twitter for news, according to an August-September 2013 Pew Research survey.   

People using Twitter to Report News Events

People often use Twitter to report on news events they witness or participate in:

  • Iranians protesting their country's elections in June 2009 used Twitter to report on and organize demonstrations. See this New York Times story.
  • A passenger on a plane that went off the runway at the Denver Airport in December 2008 used twitter to post notes about the crash and the evacuation from the plane right after they occurred.
  • During the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, in November 2008, some of the first reports on what was happening came on Twitter. See TechCrunch's summary on the Mumbai Twitter postings.
  • A UC Berkeley journalism student used Twitter to report he had been detained by Egyptian police while covering anti-government protests there in April 2008.
  • A passenger on a ferry posted a photo on twitpic of a plane that crash landed in the Hudson River in New York in January 2009
  • Amy Stewart, a bookstore owner in Eureka, California, reported on a January 9, 2010, earthquake there via text posts and photos to Twitter. See the story at Mashable. And check out Stewart's Twitter feed for Jan. 9, including the many requests from media companies to use her photos.
  • A small local paper, the Ferndale Enterprise, also used Twitter to cover the Eureka earthquake (and the paper's editor and publisher learned about using Twitter from her 20-year-old daughter).
  • Twitter outdistanced news sites in breaking news coverage of the man who took hostages at the Discovery Channel's headquarters in September 2010.
  • News of singer Whitney Houston's death was reported on Twitter before media organizations posted the story. Also see the mediabistro story on the first reports of Houston's death.
  • A Reddit contributor used Twitter posts to put together a story on shootings at a party in a Toronto suburb.

Demographics of Twitter Users

When Twitter first began to take off in the late 2000s, its main demographic was not teenagers or young kids, but somewhat older professionals in metropolitan areas, according to surveys at the time.

See the 2009 story "Stats Confirm It: Teens Don’t Tweet" in Mashable, and the 2009 analysis of Twitter usage data at TechCrunch: "Why Don’t Teens Tweet? We Asked Over 10,000 of Them." Watch this Current TV video on Twouble with Twitters on the Twitter generation gap.

A Nielsen Online study in February 2009 reported that the largest age group using Twitter was 35 - 49 years old.

Only 22 percent of 18-24 year olds used Twitter, according to a Participatory Marketing Network study in 2009. A Pew Internet and American Life survey released in October 2009 put the median age of a Twitter user at 31, compared with 26 for MySpace and 33 for Facebook (up from 26 for Facebook in May 2008).

But more recent Pew surveys found that young adults were significantly more likely to use Twitter than older people. Internet users 18 to 24 year old were the fastest growing group of Twitter users, according to a February 2012 Pew survey.

One survey of teens in 2013 reported that Twitter was more important to them than Facebook (although this was primarily because of declining popularity for Facebook among teens, according to the survey data).

Another Pew survey in August-September 2013 found that Twitter uses were younger, more mobile and more educated than Facebook users.

Urban Internet users also are twice as likely as rural residents to use Twitter, according to a Pew Internet & American Life survey in December 2010.

African American adults who use the Internet are more likely to use Twitter (28 percent) than white Internet users (12 percent), according to Pew Internet & American Life survey released in May 2012. The number for Hispanics was 14 percent.

A similar trend was found among African-American teens who are internet users: 39 percent of African-American teens use Twitter, compared with 23 percent of while teens, according to a Pew Internet & American Life report in 2013.

News Organizations Twittering

News organizations soon picked up on Twitter, using it to post quick updates on breaking news stories or just provide a more general feed of links to news stories.

See this list of news organizations using Twitter compiled in February 2008, and another list that's more up to date. One example is the New York Times feed on Twitter of links to its news stories. Also read the postings by Knight Digital Media Center journalism fellows about how their news organizations are using Twitter.

Twitter can be particularly effective on breaking news stories, according to surveys (see, for example, NPR's survey of its Twitter followers).

Twitter feeds on breaking news can be a mix of postings by reporters and by citizen eye-witnesses:

  • The Orange County Register used Twitter to post updates on the huge fires there in November 2008.
  • That idea was inspired by an Oregonian experiment in taking advantage of Twitter's API to aggregate tweets by people in the Portland area about heavy rain and flooding. The Oregonian uses the Monitter service to create a widget that generated the feed and was embeddable on the Oregonian website).
  • Reporters from four publications in Washington state collaborated with citizens to post updates on Twitter about flooding in western Washington in January 2009. The journalists also used the Publish2 link aggregator service to link to each others' stories and those by other news organizations.
  • The Ferndale Enterprise, a small local paper in northern California, used Twitter to cover an earthquake there on Jan. 10, 2009
  • The Tuscaloosa News used Twitter to file breaking news alerts on the destruction caused by a tornado in April 2011. The paper won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News for its coverage.
  • The Denver Post relied heavily on Twitter to post breaking news about the mass shootings at a Colorado theater

In August 2010 Twitter also released a Tweet button that a news website can place next to a news story to make it easier for people to do a Twitter post about the story.

In April 2013 Twitter released its Web Intents feature, which a news organization can use to highlighted a phrase or sentence in a story, so a reader can click on it and send it out to his/her Twitter feed. When someone then clicks on the item in the Twitter feed, they're taken to the part of the story where the excerpt appeared.

The New York Times used this to highlight quotes for tweeting in an August 2013 article with interviews with cast members of Saturday Night Live.

Making Effective Tweets

Here are some tips for journalists on how to effectively use Twitter to engage people:

  • Tweet about breaking news rather than feature stories (this takes advantage of how most people use Twitter: "a core function of Twitter is passing along pieces of information as (a breaking news) story develops," according to a Pew Research Center survey of Twitter users.
  • Have your individual reporters tweet rather than sending tweets from your news organization's centralized Twitter account. Readers tend to respond better to personal rather than corporate postings.
  • Tweet not just about stories on which you're working but also about other things you come across on your beat, and include URLs
  • Try to use more action verbs in a tweet, rather than just nouns
  • Being clear is better than being clever in a tweet
  • Include a #hashtag in your tweet to increase the number of people who see your tweet. The hashtag in effect allows you to join a larger topical conversation that's using the hashtag or to create a new conversation that invites others to join in by using the same hashtag.
  • Include a photo.
  • Use Twitter to interact with people by asking for sources on a story or offering to answer their questions about a story
  • The best times for getting people to re-tweet your tweets are during the early afternoon and then very late afternoon and possibly on weekends (the data on best times and days to tweet is conflicting).

For more tips on how to compose an effective "tweet," see Dan Zarrella's How to Get More Clicks on Twitter, this Poynter story on a Twitter study and this Mashable story on a study on how marketers can best use Twitter.

While journalists have embraced Twitter probably more than any other social network, news sites get far more referrals from Facebook and even Instagram.

So journalists are to some degree out of synch with the public on the social media platforms of choice. See this Washington Post story by Ezra Klein on Why do journalists prefer Twitter to Facebook?

In 2012 a paid alternative to Twitter was launched - The rationale for is that advertising supported social networks (like Twitter) will require features that are at odds with what users need, whereas a pay-to-use network will cater better to what users want.

Readings and Resources

Presentation Links