Last month a piece in BuzzFeed mocked New York Times’ staffers resistance to using Twitter. “[T]he company,” Charlie Warzel wrote, “has struggled getting all of its staffers on board with ‘new media.’”
The observation made a large enough splash—mainly on Twitter—that when journalism blogger Steve Buttry called out Dean Baquet for being a prominent example of of the Gray Lady’s “Twitter Graveyard” (the Times executive editor has tweeted just twice), Baquet responded.
“I do think the fact that I have made so little use of Twitter is fair game for criticism,” he wrote. “But I can’t resist an observation. One of the biggest criticisms aimed at my generation of editors is that we created a priesthood, that we decided who was a journalist and who was not.” Baquet continued, “As I observe the criticism nowadays, you will forgive me for noting that it sounds like a new priesthood is being created, with new rules for entry.”
Which raises a question: Can you still be an effective journalist if you ignore Twitter?
A lot of journalists still view Twitter as a chore, not just those at the Times; it’s viewed as yet another task in a social-media laundry list of responsibilities that detract from the Practice of Journalism. Even the most ardent tweeters acknowledge that social media can be a time-suck, and I’ve written before about the perils of putting so much importance on Twitter that it guides editorial decisions.
Whether or not using Twitter is necessary depends on the journalist. You should consider getting comfortable with 140-character communication if:
You write about media. Only 19 percent of internet-using adults are on Twitter, whereas 59 percent of journalists are. I can’t imagine it’s possible to effectively cover the state of the industry—let alone its future—without keeping tabs on what’s happening on Twitter. It’s no wonder that here at CJR, with its target audience of journalists, a much larger portion of referral traffic comes from Twitter than is the industry norm for social.
You write about television, pop music, or digital culture. Twitter provides incredible insights into how different groups of fans and followers are watching a certain show or reacting to news about a certain artist. Even ratings monitor Nielsen is paying close attention to tweets. Times television critic Alessandra Stanley, who has never tweeted, “seemed to blame the Twitter culture” for misunderstanding the enraged reaction to her review of Shonda Rhimes’ new show, in which Stanley called the television showrunner an “angry black woman.” It’s hard to credibly fault “the Twitter culture” when it’s clear that you completely ignore it. BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Peterson recently wrote about how television criticism has exploded in the internet era: “Over the last 10 years, that nascent critical culture has expanded, deepened, and migrated to Twitter, where fans, showrunners, and critics regularly interact.” Ignoring that interaction creates a critical blind spot.
You want to provide an additional way for readers to contact you directly with feedback. Sure, there are general email inboxes and comments sections. But there is additional accountability in making yourself available to receive readers’ thoughts on a platform like Twitter. It allows for a public back-and-forth conversation—and if you’re a journalist who both cares about getting the details right and is interested in hearing ideas for follow-up stories, Twitter is a great place to hang out.
You think you might one day be job-hunting. That’s right: If you’re a journalist, chiming in on Twitter is in your professional self-interest. I have countless relationships with fellow journalists that were cultivated on Twitter, rather than in a newsroom or at a conference. Those relationships have led to jobs and freelance work for me. And I’m certainly not the only one. Twitter, as the media’s social network of choice, serves as an industry job board and water cooler. It’s where I find out about hires and layoffs, where I circulate job postings, and the first place I turn when there’s an industry dustup. It allows me to live 3,000 miles from New York and still feel plugged into the magazine industry. Sure, if you don’t expect to ever be job-hunting again, then it’s probably fine to ignore Twitter. But if you want other journalists to notice you and your work—and perhaps hire you someday—it’s not optional.
You love words. Twitter is all about economy of language, which is part of what makes it fun for me. Now that I’m a writer and not an editor, it also helps me keep my headline-writing skills sharp. The 140-character limit forces me to think about the most attention-grabbing detail or quote in an article I’ve written, which is a useful exercise with benefits beyond baiting your followers into a click.
Conversely, keep that egg avatar and ignore Twitter if:
You have a completely secure job at one of the world’s largest print publications and don’t see a need to network with other journalists. And don’t care if they see your work.
You are content to let readers contact you via your personal email or an email to your publication’s general inbox, and don’t feel a need to respond immediately.
You don’t enjoy playing around with words.
Twitter may not be important to your beat or included in your job description. It may not be important to any journalists in the future. But even if (or, more likely, when) Twitter disappears, newer new-media platforms will continue to crop up. Learning how to communicate with different audiences—and your fellow journalists—in new ways, and adapting to use new platforms to inform your reporting, is a lifelong professional skill. It’s best to start practicing now.
Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles