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@Twitter Is Where J-School Students Need to Be

‘It was fun following journalism professionals online because they often tweeted about how to use Twitter for journalism.’

By Sue Burzynski Bullard
Digital Media
When I told students in my beginning editing class they would be required to create Twitter accounts—and tweet, many were skeptical of the value of such an assignment. Like most 20-somethings, they live with Facebook, but they don’t use Twitter. What little they knew of this real-time, microblogging tool didn’t convince them of the merit of 140-character tweets. They think of Twitter as streams of narcissism revealing no journalistic value.

But my interest in Twitter as an essential tool for journalists was growing the more that I saw reporters using it to share links to news stories or search for sources or strengthen their interaction with readers. Producing a good tweet also meant employing good editing techniques, including finding the focus of a story and summarizing it concisely to entice others to read it.

By the end of the Twitter assignment, many students were believers; some let me know that it was one of their favorite parts of the course. With those who were more skeptical, most admitted that the experience opened their eyes to Twitter as a communication tool. And there were a few who told me that using Twitter made sure they were noticed during their internships.

Student Cory Dozier summarized his Twitter experience in this way:
During the assignment, I learned what a powerful journalistic tool Twitter has become. I realized thousands of journalists use it to their advantage to create communities, break news and distribute ideas. It’s an active, modern way of spreading news and connecting like-minded people through social media.
Introducing Twitter

Before students created Twitter accounts, I showed them a PowerPoint presentation (PDF) about how others use it. Its primary message: Twitter does not replace traditional journalism. It is simply one more tool to deliver information to an audience of “followers” and to find information about a particular topic that is in the news.

In preparing my class materials, I asked several editors how they use Twitter and shared with students the responses they tweeted. For example, @gerrrib (Gerri Berendzen, an editor at the Quincy Herald-Whig in Illinois) sent this message: “Use Twitter to keep track of breaking news. Usually see stories tweeted before you see anything on AP.” My students also spent some time exploring how reporters at the Austin American-Statesman used Twitter to gather information about a University of Texas shooting.

This was an editing class and so I showed students examples of Twitter feeds from copy editors or slot editors, who posted tweets about use of language or writing headlines. Bill Walsh of The Washington Post (@TheSlot) tweeted: “I’m not advocating the incorrect use of the word ‘comprise,’ but using it correctly strikes me as showing off. ‘Is made up of’ is more natural.” Those who follow Walsh’s tweets get editing insight from an experienced pro.

My students also listened to a YouTube interview with Jennifer Peebles an editor at, as she explained why Twitter is good headline practice. And I shared some tips on writing tweets—similar to tips for writing good headlines including using active voice, dropping unnecessary words and making one point at a time.

Of course, there are many ways to introduce Twitter to students, and some professors I know were willing to share their teaching techniques in making tweets an integral part of their class.

How the Assignment Worked

In my editing class, learning how to use Twitter was a graded assignment. My students created Twitter accounts and signed up to follow my tweets and each other’s, along with a mix of 10 people whose Twitter IDs I gave them. In the mix were a newspaper editor, several beat reporters and industry bloggers, a news organization, and a recent University of Nebraska-Lincoln student, now at The Washington Post as an overnight producer.

During three weeks, the students were asked to check their Twitter feeds daily. They also had to find three interesting stories about reporting or editing and tweet them since one of my goals with this assignment was to force them to read more about the industry. I had them create links to stories using a URL shortener and to write messages about them—really expanded headlines—in 140 characters or less.  I also required that they re-tweet and comment on at least three stories posted by people they followed.

As their Twitter experience approached its end, students wrote a one-page paper on what they’d learned.  It had to include a one-paragraph description of a story about journalism that they’d discovered through Twitter.

Students Reflect on Twitter

Students liked Twitter, and they responded positively to the assignment. One of them, Mitch Mattern, enjoyed the new connections Twitter gave him to journalists:
This assignment was interesting because while learning about the usefulness of Twitter, we also learned about journalism through the people we followed. Twitter has become a great tool for journalists to network and to post links to stories. It was fun following journalism professionals online because they often tweeted about how to use Twitter for journalism.
Lucy Fitzpatrick noted that getting guidelines on whom to follow was crucial:
By narrowing it down to news articles that relate to the journalism profession, it helped direct my focus to the professional side of Twitter. Twitter is used in so many beneficial ways. Breaking news has been given a whole other meaning.
Students appreciated the value of tweets as headline writing practice. Jeremy Hamann described what he’d learned in the three weeks of posting tweets:
This assignment coupled with learning how to write proper headlines was the perfect match. I have been learning these last few weeks that letter count does not constrain creativity, just the opposite. … You really do want your followers to be able to see a level of clarity in your tweets. Isn’t this just the same as writing headlines for a print publication?
Those who were new to Twitter were surprised by what they learned. Jessica Sluyter, who had been among the early skeptics, declared her intent to keep tweeting:
I am shocked to say I enjoyed this assignment. I intend to continue tweeting news stories and build my headline writing. Although many people use Twitter to reveal too much personal information to the world, I am happy I learned that it can also be used as a tool to inform the public.
Andrew Dickinson had tried Twitter before he was assigned to use it, but he had not been impressed with it. After the Twitter exercise, he wrote:
Since I have started looking at Twitter through a journalistic lens, I finally got the importance of it. … I got my news through Twitter for the past few weeks, and I got it faster than I would have anywhere else.
Career Skills

As more news outlets use social media to communicate with readers and listeners, mastering Twitter becomes an essential skill. Some of my former students use Twitter to link to stories they’ve written for the student newspaper or other news organizations. A few have been asked to tweet as part of their internships.

Last summer student Emily Giller sent me this e-mail:
I just wanted to let you know that at my internship this summer at the Jewish Press I was asked to make a Twitter account for a program that is happening in Omaha this summer. Apparently no one in the building knew how to use Twitter and asked me to do it for them. So I just wanted to say thank you for assigning us the Twitter homework and helping us learn Twitter because it really did help with my job.
Emily’s words—and the responses from these other students—make it abundantly clear that Twitter is a technology that we, as professors, need to master so that we can engage our students in using it.

Sue Burzynski Bullard is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She spent 30 years as a reporter and editor including 21 years at The Detroit News, serving as managing editor for three years. In 2010, she won a Promising Professor Award from the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.