Twitter Basics for Journalists & Recovering Journos

On Saturday, at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, I gave a talk to an audience of mostly journalists explaining the basics of blogs, social media, and search visibility. People had lots of questions, more than I could get to in the session. I was getting stopped in halls, at parties, and even in bathrooms, to be asked things like, “Does it really make that big a difference if I blog under my own domain?” (Answer: Yes!)

OK, I don’t mind answering those questions. That’s really why I went to this conference — because I know that journalists (many of whom are facing potential layoffs, or who have already been laid off) are in dire need of online media awareness and skills.

So I’m going to do a bunch of posts answering questions, because it’s more efficient to do that via blogging. This is one of those posts.

By now you’ve probably heard about Twitter, the social media service that allows you to publish posts of 140 characters max.

What Twitter does, in a nutshell: This service allows you to receive posts (“tweets”) from other Twitter users whom you choose to “follow.” Likewise, other Twitter users can choose to follow you. When you follow someone on Twitter, their tweets show up in reverse chronological order in the “tweetstream” that scrolls down the Twitter home page when you’re logged in. The effect is somewhat like an ongoing Headline News version of what’s happening in the minds and worlds of people you know or find interesting.

Twitter also supports rudimentary public and private conversation between users.


In my experience, Twitter’s biggest payoff is that it allows you to gather a personal posse who can support you in powerful, flexible, speedy ways.

Also, if you’re choosy about the people you follow, Twitter can be quite an effective radar screen for news or relevant issues.

But there are many other potential benefits, especially for journos…

Twitter can help you engage people on a personal level, and to demonstrate your interest in them. This is something that, IMHO, many journalists resist — but that can benefit journos and their work significantly once they loosen up about acting like human beings in a public venue.

Twitter also can help you spread the word about your efforts, driving traffic to online, broadcast, mobile, or print venues — or even live events. Here, the response can be fast!


Communication via Twitter is so tightly constrained because it’s meant to work at the lowest common denominator of digital media: plain text messaging on bare-bones cell phones.

…Of course Twitter also is accessible by smart phones, e-mail, RSS feeds, and other channels. Twitter’s simplicity gives this medium surprising power and portability, especially because it “plays nice” with a remarkable number of other services and tools — which means you can use Twitter to connect with people almost anywhere.


  1. Go to and click the big green “Get Started — Join!” button.
  2. Choose a username. Keep it as short as possible — characters count here! Your first Twitter username also should represent you as a person. For instance, JaneDoe or Jdoe would be much better than GazetteEnvironmentReporter. (If you want to set up separate accounts later for other purposes, you can.) Then choose a password and, given them your e-mail to confirm, pass their anti-robot test, and you’re in.
  3. Configure your account. You do this under the “settings” tab.
    • Under the “notices” tab, select “show me all @replies.” This will make it possible for other Twitter users to get your attention even if you’re not already following them. Don’t worry that people will spam you — that’s really not a big problem, and you can block people who try. It’s far more valuable to be open to connection here.
    • Do NOT “protect your updates.” This is an option under the notices tab that many journos might be tempted to click, because it’s common for journos to want to be very private. But by requiring that you approve people to follow you, you’re sacrificing most of the value of connection that Twitter offers. Take a deep breath, and be willing to put yourself out there. Expand your comfort zone.
    • Do check the boxes for “E-mail when someone starts following me” and “E-mail when I receive a new direct message.”
    • Complete your profile (including a link and one-line bio) and post a picture (icon). This is very important if you want people to follow you. Otherwise you might look too boring or spammish to follow.
    • Under the “devices” tab, register your cell phone so you can tweet via text message if you want to. But for now, set “device updates” to “off” so you don’t receive text messages from Twitter. Give yourself some time to get used to the service before venturing in that direction.
  4. Find just a FEW people to follow, at first. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by Twitter. I recommend that to start you just follow 5-10 Twitter users whom you know or find interesting. If you’re a journalist and don’t know where to start, try looking over the list of people I follow. Many of them are media folks who really tweet well. You can also follow me if you like. Also, SEJers might like to follow environmental journalist Greg Harman, he tweets pretty well. You can also follow people whom you already know — but realize that not all Twitter users tweet often or well. To follow someone, just click on their username, which is a hyperlink that takes you to the page showing all their recent tweets. Click the “follow” button just under their icon at the page top. Now you’ll see their recent tweets on your home page when you log in to Twitter.
  5. Post your first few tweets. When you’re on the Twitter home page, you’ll see at the top a box under the heading “What are you doing?” That’s where you type in your tweets. Click the “update” button to send. There’s a running character count that shows you when you’re running out of space. Be aware that simply saying what you’re doing is about the most BORING way to tweet. If you make an effort to contributing interesting observations, thoughts, questions, etc., it’s more likely people will follow you and respond to you.
  6. Reply to someone. Twitter supports rudimentary conversation.
    • Of all the tweets coming in from the people you’re following, pick one that you like and move your cursor over it. When the box is highlighted, you’ll see a little arrow curving up and to the left. Click that.
    • Then you’ll see that person’s username preceded by an “@” sign appear in the posting box at the page top. After that, type a response to that post. Make sure it’s something you wouldn’t mind other people (even strangers) seeing; this is public.
    • When you send this tweet, that user will see it show up under their “replies” tab. They’ll know you’re trying to engage them in conversation, and they might respond in kind.
    • You can quickly find responses to you by clicking “@Replies” in the right-hand sidebar.
    • If you want to test this out, type in a tweet that says: @agahran, I’m new to Twitter, please reply to me so I can see how this works. I’ll see that and will send you a reply as soon as I see it, and you’ll see that under your “@Replies” tab.
  7. Tell people you’re on Twitter. At first, just tell other Twitter users who are within your comfort zone — perhaps some of the people you’ve chosen to follow. But as you get used to this medium, you might want to post your Twitter ID on your personal blog (You have one, right? You should! More on that in another post), bio page on your employer’s site, with your byline, in your e-mail signature file, etc.

In a subsequent post, I’ll give journalists and other media folks some tips for how to use Twitter effectively — especially how to act like a real human being here in order to be truly engaging. But this is enough to get you started.

26 thoughts on Twitter Basics for Journalists & Recovering Journos

  1. Great post and perspective on using Twitter to promote your brand/company/platform. Found your site as a part of my Online Visibility class, and am now following you on Twitter.

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  3. Amy — Great step-by-step tutorial! I’d love to see another posting giving concrete examples of how Twitter can be a tool for environmental reporting (as opposed to reporting on an emergency situation). — Cheryl

  4. Thanks all!

    Cheryl, re: environmental reporting: Since I have a headcold this morning and am not operating on all thrusters yet, I asked my Twitter posse for examples. They provided some good ones. I’ll post that in Poynter’s Tidbits later today.

    – Amy

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  13. What concerns me is that this and other forms of digital communication assume a certain affluence for participation. Who are we leaving in the dark here?

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