ProPublica shows how to tweet

April 5, 2017

Journalists often agonize over how to tweet, and rightly so. For many of us, Twitter is the most personal point of contact with audiences. And there is a good argument to be had over whether the newsroom snark that plays out in broad tweet-light contributes to public skepticism of the press’ collective motives. Authenticity is key for gaining traction on the platform, even if day-to-day reporting requires more restraint.

This issue is often addressed in the context of journalists’ individual accounts. Many a prolific tweeter has been felled by overstepping the traditional bounds of media decorum. But news organizations also grapple with the balancing act of using conversational language without diminishing their institutional reputations.

Enter: ProPublica, a nonprofit with a long pedigree of high-impact journalism. The Trump administration would appear to be a target-rich environment for such an outfit, which boasts a stable of top investigative reporters. But it has also begun distinguishing itself with an aggressive social media presence that openly challenges power without getting bogged down in Twitter’s muck.

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Take Monday’s example. In response to a question about ProPublica’s report that Trump can in fact draw money from his businesses at any time, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer referred to the nonprofit as a “left-wing blog” (a go-to insult). The ProPublica social media team responded swiftly on Twitter:

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To recap: ProPublica defended its journalism without resorting to pettiness; it elevated its past work in the context of today’s news; and it directed new readers to its products in the process. Each tweet was re-shared thousands of times. Collectively, they served to explain the nonprofit’s motives, and they did so in a conversational language that felt native to Twitter. Not only is that a useful model for other media outlets, but it’s also a reminder that social media is central to news organizations’ missions.

The tête-à-tête also had an upside for ProPublica’s reach: It boosted its Twitter following by 10 percent in just one day, President Richard Tofel noted—in a tweet, of course.

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David Uberti is a writer in New York. He was previously a media reporter for Gizmodo Media Group and a staff writer for CJR. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.