How to use your interviewing skills to trend on Twitter

Journalists can be their own worst enemies when they try to interact with their audience online. If you think that the online medium somehow fundamentally changes the way that people interact, and that you need to adopt a new set of principles for interviewing and interacting with people online, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.

It’s like watching an actor psyche himself out before going on stage, or a golfer giving herself a harsh set of the yips when approaching the green. Journalists I’ve met and worked with too often talk themselves out of their natural state and familiar skills when they start thinking about online interactivity. And those fears of failure quickly become self-fulfilling.

Here’s a success story story for you to consider, instead. Not to get all hokey on you, but I do believe that if you’re thinking about success when you interact with your readers, you’re putting yourself in a better place than if you go into conversations with negative thoughts. The key take-away from this success story is that it happened by using good, old-fashioned, print-era, j-school techniques for doing interviews. No special “online” skills required.

Here we go: Last week, I decided to get more active on Twitter by hosting an afternoon “Twitter chat” each weekday. (Okay, I hear people freaking out now. “You said this didn’t require any special online skills, Robert!” Chill. Stay with me.)

I got the idea after stumbling into a couple fun back-and-forth chats with a few of my followers in recent weeks. One time I threw a question out there, and another I responded to someone else’s. In both cases, others joined in with their answers and we had a nice conversation for the better part of an hour.

While I love Twitter as an RSS replacement – a handy way to push headline feeds out to willing readers – the medium’s also a perfect one for this type of focused, real-time conversation. You don’t need a pay for some special chat tool, and the 140-character limit forces everyone to get to a point efficiently.

So I figured, why wait for these moments just to happen? Why not schedule some conversations, and let my readers know when to expect them? The trouble with these types of planned events, of course, is that they too often come across as too planned. It’s like going to a party where the host has overscripted every element of the event. Who wants to be told when the fun starts?

This isn’t some network broadcast interview, where advance work has squeezed all potential for spontaneity from the conversation. Instead of coming to each Twitter chat with a list of canned questions to ask, I kicked it off with a single question, then let the conversation evolve from there.

Listen, then react. Probe. Direct. Test. Challenge.


Eventually, something will click. C’mon – we’re all confident when doing an interview with a source. Don’t let a lack of comfort with Twitter or any other online medium rob you of that confidence. Interviewing is interviewing. If you can elicit insight, passion, and emotion from a source offline, you can do it online, too. And those reactions will help your conversation connect with a broader audience.

The interaction never starts right away. I’ve needed at least four tweets to get the conversation going. And more times than not, my original topic dies in just as many tweets after that. So what? Find what makes your interviewees come alive. Then go there. You’ve done this before.

By the third day of my Tweet chats, we trended nationwide in the United States.

Sure, it was silly. A conversation about travel planning mutated into a bunch of gags about theme park attraction names. But it was a perfect diversion for a late Friday afternoon, and the audience was looking for fun, so I helped a few leaders in the conversation steer it there. Yet it wouldn’t have happened if I’d stubbornly restricted the event to a pre-planned script. Or if I’d been too inexperienced with interviewing to pick up on the potential in what looked like a mistake from a reader with only a dozen or so followers. But it was there. And when we followed it, dozens of lurkers jumped in, brought their followers, and we were trending 20 minutes later. (Search for #disneybudgetcuts for the whole thing, if you must.)

Of course, the trend list shouldn’t be every publication’s goal. But better engagement should be. I’ve long said that journalists have the unique set of skills to succeed in social media. Engagement and communication are our business. So don’t let a change in medium psych you out. Try a regularly scheduled Twitter chat with your followers and let your interviewing skills shine. Talk about whatever. Just use it as an excuse to get together with your followers, and talk.

If you think you can do better than Patch, go ahead

Many online journalists have been clucking about AOL’s Patch this week, after Jim Romenesko posted on reported changes coming at the network of local news websites.

According to Romenesko’s source, Patch is asking its local editors to run additional formula stories (lists, best-of tournaments, etc.) to goose traffic while also implementing employee review procedures that will result in the dismissal of workers who don’t improve their performance (in the eyes of higher-ups) within 30 days.

Sorry, but – yawn.

Any journalist who believes that Patch is doing something here that newspapers never did before the Internet either (a) never worked at a newspaper before the Internet or (b) has developed a convenient case of amnesia about that era. Newsrooms have been creating and running gimmick stories to attract readers since, well, long before I was born. As they should.

If you want readers to develop a habit of reading you, you need to give them content that grabs them, whatever their mood. That means mixing longer, in-depth investigative pieces with shorter stories, news-you-can-use tips and a variety of other features, including comics, lists and yes, even ads and coupons. Online, it can mean shaking up your front page with polls, discussions, lists and infographics, as well as blog posts and links to longer stories. If Patch wants to change focus and go with easy, formula pieces for a while to pump up the traffic, so be it. They wouldn’t be the first site to do so and won’t be the last.

Newspaper managers have been cooking up excuses to ride reporters out of town for decades, too. I’m reminded of the urban legend about sharks that quit swimming will die. Our industry’s version? If a news editor doesn’t can a reporter every few weeks, he or she’s just gonna drop dead at a budget meeting.

Sure, the humor’s dark, but if you don’t want to live under the constant threat of layoffs, you need to either start publishing for yourself or finding another field in which to work. Arbitrary dismissals are now part of corporate journalism’s DNA.

Hey, I’m no fan of Patch. As I’ve written before, Patch’s corporate overhead puts the network as a huge cost disadvantage versus locally owned and operated hyperlocal websites. It wouldn’t surprise me if what Romenesko wrote about this week didn’t turn out to be the first step toward Patch’s inevitable collapse.

But don’t think for a minute that many of those locally-owned and operated hyperlocals Patch competes with aren’t trying many of those same cookie-cutter, gimmick, formula stories in an effort to boost their own traffic. (Full disclosure: I’m running my annual “best theme park attraction” tournament right now.) Heck, like Romenesko, I think that the “what’s happening with the vacant storefront?” feature is a brilliant idea. That’s an excellent example of the type of local news people want to read from their neighborhood.

And the local publishers I know are even tougher than corporate publishers in holding the line on labor costs. I’ve paid for freelancers, but am much more parsimonious about handing out assignments than the newspaper editors I know. You get extra tight with expenses when it’s your money that’s getting spent.

If you want to attack Patch, hit ’em for attempts to gag their reporters after Romenesko ran his piece. Hit ’em for the futility of running hyperlocal sites through a top-down, national network. But spare me the “holier than thou” stuff.

Do you want journalism to succeed? Do want to see more money for more investigative reporting? Do you want to see more attention paid to good work from skilled reporters?

Then you’d better get working on building a community of engaged readers – with whatever tools or gimmicks you need. Patch will live or die on its own. If you think you can do better – do it. Then Patch can either step up its game and compete with better content, or die the death that so many of us have predicted for it.

You've got to know the truth to tell it

Inherent within the whole “truth vigilante” meme lies a tough question for many journalists:

“What if I don’t feel qualified to decide who’s telling the truth?”

If you’ve ever asked yourself that question, give yourself a well-earned point for honesty. The best journalists remain ever skeptical, not just of their data and sources, but of their own biases, roles and decision-making in reporting a story. But even as journalists challenge themselves, they must be able to meet those challenges.

Stenography isn’t journalism. “He said, she said” isn’t journalism. Throwing your reporting at the page and hoping that the reader figures it all out isn’t journalism. Journalism demands judgment – decisions whether a story is newsworthy, and judgments about the truth of information included within that story.

So, yeah, if you’re going to do this job effectively, you’ve got to be able to tell who’s telling the truth – and have the confidence in that decision to make it public in your reports.

Why is this even an issue? Why would journalists be working on beats where they didn’t have the deep knowledge and experience they’d need to be able to make consistent calls on the truthfulness of the information they collect?

As usual, the answer is “money.”

For more than a generation, newspapers have been going cheap on newsroom talent – laying off experienced (and relatively expensive) reporters in favor of inexpensive rookies to keep profit margins fat. And it’s not like many newsrooms have been bringing in people with law degrees to cover the courts or physicians to cover health, either. That’d cost money, of course.

But readers can find those experts online now – people with advanced degrees and years of professional experience reporting on their fields. Think that people lose their “objectivity” if they report upon a field in which they’ve trained and worked? Well, ask yourself how “objective” it is to be played by a source because you didn’t know any better. In readers’ eyes, experts beat stenographers, every time.

Sure, it’s tough to write a story with the detail that will satisfy fellow experts and the simplicity that will engage a broader audience. But it’s the news industry’s failure to do that consistently over the years that left the market open for many start-up blogs and online communities to exploit.

So now the industry’s years of going cheap on newsroom recruitment and retention comes back to haunt it. Not only don’t we have enough experts in newsrooms, we’ve developed an industry culture where we’re second-guessing when, or even whether, journalists ought to be making expert judgments.

I can’t lay this on journalism educators. I’ve taught in a j-school, and have seen first-hand how students sculpt their school experience in anticipation of what they believe future employers will want. If they see employers demanding deep knowledge and experience in specific subject areas, trust me, students will respond. But even if every journalism student loaded up with a second major and relevant work experience, the more they see other employers paying more for that same education and experience, the fewer of them will choose life in a newsroom.

Of course news organizations need to stay in the black. That’s why online start-ups without multiple layers of middle management and corporate profit requirements will continue to enjoy cost advantages over the major newspaper chains. If newspaper chains are to get leaner, they can’t continue to try doing that at the cost of newsroom expertise. That decision just drives away readers, as they look elsewhere for the truth vigilantes who can help them make sense of their daily information overload.

The days of general assignment reporters and rotating beats are over. The level of competition online simply won’t allow them anymore. Journalism is no longer a field unto itself, practiced by people who have no substantial experience in other fields. Journalism is now a skill practiced by experts in many fields, for the benefit of readers throughout their community and around the world. The news business that understand that change, and adapt to it, will be the ones that survive and profit in the years to come.