Creating Journalists at Emmanuel College

A guide for ENGL 2501 and ENGL 3801

Why I make my journalism students follow me on Twitter

lowellshootingOn an average night in my job at the Lowell Sun, I keep a virtual eye on the reporters. The city hall reporter may be covering City Council, the town reporters may be chattering about the happenings at selectmen or school committee. In a feed I try to keep clear of other writers, there’s our police reporter. He’s in and out of the newsroom all night, chasing accidents and gunshots,  and, should he end up in a crowd, he’ll probably wind up in someone’s selfie.

Robert Mills, Lowell Sun police reporter, is Twitter famous in our area — 8,000+ followers, more than the combined total of Twitter users who follow local police departments — and photographing him out in the field is everyone’s hobby. Rob gets stopped at fires and shootings by people in the crowd; if there’s snow in the forecast, every kid in the Merrimack Valley pesters him on Twitter until he announces whether or not there’s school the next day. If his followers see a car crash, they Tweet a photo his way. If they see flashing blue lights, they demand to know when he’s going to tell them what’s happening.

His Police Line blog is probably the most widely read on the site (we have several) — he uses it to file stories after the editors go home for the night or post smaller things that might not get in the paper. Sometimes he shares his thoughts on covering crime. The weekend I prepped for my job interview, I got so caught up in his posts about the Merrimack Valley Bandit, a serial bank robber, that I ended up reading the entire blog.

Rob Tweets frequently throughout the night: oddities from the police scanner, reports of gunfire (in the summer, the nightly game is “fireworks or gunshots?”), accidents, traffic warnings, random thoughts. When he grumbled that he didn’t get an “I voted” sticker during the election, a fan ordered him an entire roll off Amazon. He Tweets out descriptions of suspects and license plate numbers. People have turned themselves in after seeing themselves on his Twitter feed. You cannot hide from his followers.

Rob’s an extreme case of how the Sun reporters use Twitter. We encourage reporters to live-Tweet from meetings and events and often collect those Tweets on our website using Storify and ScribbleLive, to provide non-Tweeting readers with live coverage. The reporters share a little bit of their personalities as they go about their day — a love of alpacas, pictures of things they spot while out and about, favorite restaurants. They chat online with the people who live in the towns they cover and often answer questions about events as they cover them.

New reporters are encouraged to look for Twitter users in their towns, starting with the town accounts. Their Twitter handles are at the bottom of every story. The chattier we are, the more likely we’re seen as a friendly news source — and that means more news tips and more people responding when we’re looking for specific sources.

In the classroom at Emmanuel College, I’ve asked my students to follow me on Twitter. Most of them are already on it — and a lot of them are set to private. They probably spent high school hearing about the dangers of social media. I’m trying to show them how to actually use it as a tool to find and share news (“You want me to interview a guy you only know through Twitter?” one asked me last semester in disbelief), even if it does mean creating a brand new account so the professor doesn’t end up eavesdropping on their personal business. Intro students will learn Storify. Feature Writing and Intro students may end up crowdsourcing on social media for sources.
Social media, however, plays a huge role in a modern journalist’s life. I’d be remiss in their education if I didn’t include it.
I’ve met a number of Sun Twitter followers in real life and they all say the same thing — they love to follow the reporters on Twitter, especially when we all joke with readers and each other.
“Everyone seems to love what they’re doing and it just seems like a fun place to work,” one woman told me at the Lowell Folk Festival.


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This entry was posted on September 6, 2014 by in Covering Crime, Digital Tools, Twitter and tagged , , , , .

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