If you follow many working journalists on Twitter, chances are you also see a fair number of requests for sources. But is that a problem?
Earlier this month, I wrote about the Indy Star testing the #myassignment hashtag to share openly what the newsroom is working on at any given time. I was reminded of that when I read Dan Reimold’s post about Twitter interview requests over at MediaShift. But his complaint isn’t that journalists are broadcasting the story they’re working on, but rather many are being lazy and seeking sources openly and blatantly on Twitter. They’re using it as a crutch not a tool.
His entry focuses largely on student journalists, but the points and practice is similar — if hopefully more polished — for professionals:
Due to their brevity, tweet greets tend to contain the same four characteristics: 1) A very, very quick note of welcome (“Hi”); 2) an extremely abbreviated identifier (“I’m a journalism student.”); 3) an uber-short explanation for the tweet (“I’m working on a story”); and 4) a request for an interview (“Up for a chat?”).
Of course, these are the basic attributes involved in an interview request … They just happen very rapidly once whittled into single tweets, often lacking context (students with job titles and outlet affiliations become just “a student journalist”), a polite easing-in or even proper spelling (“Im a j-student plz hlp”).
He goes on to propose 10 rules of etiquette for such entreaties. Some of them I agree with more than others, but it’s worth reading the whole list, which includes such “duh” rules as keep your Twitter feed public and be aware of what your other tweets say about you. Those are just good general practices for any social-media savvy journalist.
So back to my question… Is this practice of openly soliciting sources a problem? I see it both ways, but I’m coming down in favor of using everything in your arsenal.
I found sources and story ideas through social media, often with a blanket, “I’m working on a story about [topic]. Got an opinion? DM, XXX-XXXX, email@example.com.” Keep in mind, this tweet was aimed at an audience of Twitter followers I’d work to build. The people responding were folks who knew me. I didn’t just take from Twitter, either. I’d also give people background information not included in stories, and I’d give them the opportunity to suggest questions when I had interviews with important people and solicited story ideas I was missing. I worked to build my community of locals and interact with local/beat-specific followers who knew me and my work.
On very rare occasions, I was guilty of what Reimold is advocating against. I’d find someone with a connection to a person or news event I was covering, and I couldn’t quickly find another way to contact them. They weren’t following me, so I couldn’t DM them. If I could find them amid 100 others with the same name, I preferred to send Facebook messages, which are at least one-on-one and allow me more than 140 characters. But sometimes, all you have is a username. Lots of people don’t have websites and don’t have publicly available email addresses or phone numbers. People in my generation aren’t in the phone book.
So, is it OK for journalists, or student journalists, to blanket Twitter with interview requests? I say yes. I mean, why not? On the other hand, they should be judicious. As pointed out in the post, potential sources likely won’t reply if a) your only entire twitter stream consists of similar interview requests (you get what you give!), or b) your recent tweets sound like spam, with the same/similar messages aimed at several different users.
If you do use Twitter to find sources, follow this tweetiquette form, which is modified from the posts he made fun of above, but less vague.
- Post a message before your tweets so other followers can a) give you tips, b) know what’s going on with these out-of-nowhere tweets. Bonus points if you link directly to the piece your work is related to, such as the current online update about an event or the blog post you’re reacting to/seeking reaction about. “I’m working on a story about [topic] and looking for sources. Got any recommendations or thoughts?”
- Introduce yourself briefly. “@PotentialSource I’m Meranda, blogger @10000words,”
- Explain what you’re looking for, and be honest if you’re seeking other sources. “working on a post about [topic], surveying users/listeners/bloggers/whatever”
- Give them your contact information! Life, and the Internet especially, moves too fast to be bogged down working to help someone who didn’t bother helping themselves. Make it easy for people to connect or they won’t. “DM, xxx-xxxx or firstname.lastname@example.org”
- Tell them why you’re singling them out. “I’d like to talk re: your post/story/tweet/photo/whatever. It sounds [intriguing, interesting, whatever].”
Yep, that’s more than 140 characters. Post two Tweets. It’s OK. They’re not a scarce resource.
All of that said, here’s the thing about Twitter that all journalists, especially students, should be wary of. It’s not lazy so much as a crap shoot. It doesn’t always or even often work when you want something or someone specific. (But then again, neither does email or phone calls or showing up in person — though I’ve found the last one is pretty hard for people to ignore.) I never built a story or my reporting for such around a single person, especially if that person was just an avatar and username tied to me by a long-shot tweet. However, the potential to find better sources for your work is so great, it’s hard to entirely leave this method of connection off the table. Just be smart and considerate. Don’t spam folks, and don’t over-rely on one tool.