It is impossible to sum up Twitter in one line. To some, it is a way of sending headlines to mobiles.

To others, it's a social networking tool for contacts and leads, a project management tool or a research tool for developing stories. In other words, it is what you make it - and the only way to figure it out is to start using it. The following is a guide to mastering Twitter as a journalist, and some of the things that can be done with it.

Twitter for newsgathering
Contacts are central to a journalist's work. Twitter makes it easier to find them. It's where blogging meets social networking. The more people you follow on Twitter, the more likely you are to come across a lead or a useful contact. News of the recent UK earthquake, for example, broke first on Twitter (http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/earthquake_in_uk_news_bro ken_on_twitter.php). And even as I type this, someone I know at St Pancras station has twittered that it is being evacuated (http://twitter.com/Cybersoc/statuses/791061095). Here's a simple ticklist to fill your Twitter contacts book: 1. Search Twitter for people you know, or know of, in your field. The Labour Party, Lib Dems and Conservatives all have their own Twitter accounts, for example, as do some politicians (http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/may/17/guardianweeklytechnolo gysection.socialnetworking). But beware of hoaxers. This isn't really Chuck Norris (http://twitter.com/chucknorris), for example. 2. Look at who they're following (entering someone's username on Gridjit (http://www.gridjit.com/) is a good way of seeing someone's contacts and what they're saying, or you can use Quotably (http://quotably.com/) to follow their conversations). 3. Try Twits Like Me (http://www.chrisfinke.com/twitslikeme/) to find people who twitter about the same things as you 4. and Twubble (http://www.crazybob.org/twubble/) (based on your friends) 5. and Tweetscan (http://www.tweetscan.com/) for key words (e.g. "NHS"). 6. Finally Twitterlocal (http://www.twitterlocal.net/) will help you find twitterers in your local area. Birmingham Post reporter Jo Geary has used the tool prolifically over the past few months. She says it's become a support network: “It moves into the crowdsourcing thing - if you want to do something you can put out questions and get answers." In short, it's all part of the wider move towards journalism becoming a conversation with readers with journalists using it to solicit information from readers (http://advice.cio.com/abbie_lundberg/the_business_value_of_twitter ), conduct interviews via text (http://150worte.ch/blog/?p=219), or create a traffic update based on by gathering together drivers’

‘tweets’ (http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/commuter_feed_twitter_mas hup.php).

Managing your Twitter feeds
Once you've set up enough contacts, it's useful to create some filters to help manage the incoming information. Desktop applications like Twhirl (http://www.twhirl.org/) and Snitter (http://getsnitter.com/) will give you an audio alert; the latter also allows you to filter your tweets (for key words for instance). You can also set up pages to organise tweets from 'crowds' of twitterers (for example, friends, colleagues, contacts) using Crowdstatus.com. You can - and should - set up Twitter to send updates to your mobile phone (click on 'add device' or look in settings). It's free, and is particularly useful for following what's happening while you're on the move. But pick your sources carefully - Twitter will only send 250 updates per week, and it's easy to hit that. The first thing you should do once you've set up Twitter to send text alerts is to text Twitter the word "track" followed by your username. This means Twitter will text you whenever anyone mentions your username on Twitter - very useful for picking up messages aimed at you. You can use the same trick to track mentions of key words in your area, such as a key employer or your own organisation. More tips on mobile commands can be found here (http://twitter.com/help/lingo).

Twitter for news publishing, distribution and creation
If you want an idea of what Twitter can do for news publishing check out BreakingNewsOn (http://twitter.com/breakingnewson). Headline alerts of breaking news that people can receive on their mobiles are the most obvious application, and used by dozens of organisations (http://red66.com/2008/02/a-list-of-news-organizations-usingtwitter/). Many newspapers have separate Twitter accounts for different sections, such as business, traffic and sports. Sky even had one for news about Madeleine McCann (http://twitter.com/MadeleineNews). Twitterfeed (http://twitterfeed.com/) will save you typing updates by pushing RSS feeds from your newspaper to a Twitter account, but this means you have to write the article first and risk missing the scoop. Instead it's better to 'tweet' (post to Twitter) before you write the article - ensuring you get to the top of Google quickly, as Birmingham Post editor Marc Reeves did with the arrest of Karren Brady (http://blogs.birminghampost.net/news/2008/04/how-thebirmingham-post-scoope.html).

Twitter is particularly useful for journalists reporting live: you simply send a text message to Twitter and it is published on your Twitter page. Sky’s Julia Reid recently used it to post her "minute-byminute" experiences at Heathrow's Terminal 5 (http://news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,30000-1310773,00.html). Robert LaHue used it "to semi-liveblog a board meeting via texting" (http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2008/04/02/twitter-what-are-youdoing-in-your-newsroom-what-would-you-like-to-do/) and it's often used at conferences (http://blog.abrenna.com/twitter-journalism/) and events. And it's not just limited to text - Tweetr (http://www.tweet-r.com/) is another Twitter reader whose USP is that it allows you to send files up to 10MB through Twitter. TwitPic (http://twitpic.com/) allows you to send images from your phone and not only posts links straight to your Twitter account but allows people to post comments that are then posted on their own Twitter page (with a link to the photo). Twiddeo (http://twiddeo.com/) allows you to do the same with video. But Twitter becomes really impressive when you tap into its social, conversational nature - or combine the RSS feeds from a number of twitterers. Shawn Smith used it to create the Michigan Twitter Network (http://www.mlive.com/twitter/), which "follows more than 1,300 Michigan twitterers. We’ve gained about 200+ followers and use [another] account to send breaking news alerts and also poll users." (I've created something similar for Birmingham twitterers (http://birminghambloggers.com/twitter/)). In Spain, ADN.es used it to follow voter reactions during a televised presidential candidate debate on TV (http://www.adn.es/politica/elecciones_2008/debate). What I've outlined here is just the start, and there are plenty of experiments being done (http://twitter.pbwiki.com/Apps). At the end of the day, Twitter is simply a platform - the really interesting stuff starts when you try something completely new... Paul Bradshaw’s page on Twitter is twitter.com/paulbradshaw – and he’s happy for you to follow him. He is a Senior Lecturer in Online Journalism and Magazines at Birmingham City University (UK) School of Media.

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