When Robert Scoble took the stage for his September 13 keynote speech at the Online News Association conference with a broadcast of his Twitter stream displayed behind him, the message was clear: Twitter is taking on an increasingly prominent role in the media universe.
Scoble, a technology evangelist, blogger and former Microsoft employee, also broadcast his speech live on Kite.tv and took questions from his stream as attendees "tweeted" (posted on Twitter) to and about him.
Conference Social Media Subcommittee Chair Chrys Wu called the event's Twitter stream its "control tower." Users labeled their tweets with Twitter shorthand called a hashtag. (The conference tag is #ONA08.) They shared messages about everything from session content to cocktail party updates to just what was Tina Brown's business plan for the Daily Beast, anyway?
The ONA focus on Twitter underscored how important the 140-character-limit messaging service has become to some journalists, who use it not only to track trends but also to break stories.
To get started with Twitter, users choose a handle, sign up with a valid e-mail address, and post from their handheld devices or personal computers. Users communicate by typing messages of 140 characters or less to people who choose to follow their Twitter feeds.
Reporters and editors are tweeting and responding to others on the Twitter site and in a growing number of mobile applications. They use it to find story ideas, develop sources, connect with local communities, network, and share and break news.
While Scoble spoke, messages poured into Twitter about the bombings that morning in New Delhi that hadn't yet been covered on major news Web sites.
The Democratic and Republican national conventions were Twittered by news outlets like C-SPAN and countless professional journalists who communicated with each other through the service and read some of the messages on air.
Newspapers and magazines tweet their breaking news and updates to their RSS feeds, and reporters increasingly use Twitter as a means of connecting with their communities.
CNN commentator Rick Sanchez maintains a dialogue with viewers via Twitter, trolling the site for the #ricksanchezcnn hashtag and broadcasting tweets on his show.
The Houston Chronicle (@chronhurricane) and Austin American-Statesman (@Trackingike) started new Twitter accounts to give updates on Hurricane Ike as it tore through Texas.
Daniel Victor (@bydanielvictor), a reporter at the Harrisburg Patriot-News, says he was originally a Twitter skeptic, but is now a major fan. One of the more prolific tweeters at the ONA conference, he says he uses the service routinely to find stories.
"I use a combination of TwitterLocal and Tweetscan to find people from Harrisburg/Hershey," he says, referring to third-party applications that allow searches of Twitter by topic and geographic location.
Victor never asks Twitter users he finds through these applications for story ideas. Instead, he finds them in their "normal conversation."
"The key is, I don't treat my Twitter account like I'm a reporter-bot," he says. "I'm a full member of the community who goes to bars and tweets about the Eagles' game just like them."
Erica Smith, a news designer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who believes that newspapers can and should participate in social media, keeps a monthly count of newspapers on Twitter on her personal blog, graphicdesignr.net. The New York Times is currently in the lead with 6,600 followers, more than double its closest competitor USA Today's @popcandy twitterstream, which is maintained by columnist Whitney Matheson.
Eric Janssen, who came to the ONA conference a skeptic about the usefulness of Twitter, says he learned that Twitter is best "when you hit some critical mass point in the number of followers you have."
Scoble has 34,463 following his pronouncements on Twitter, and that number is growing by the minute. In turn, he follows the tweets of 20,005 as of this writing.
Third-party applications like Tweetdeck and Twitterberry increase the value of Twitter as a tool for journalists. They allow users to access the messages on mobile devices and in various desktop configurations that allow searching and filing of tweets into categories.
Leslie Ann Bradshaw, president of the Jess3 creative agency and project and community manager at New Media Strategies in Washington, told attendees at her ONA workshop that if they weren't using the service already they needed to--because bloggers are.
"Bloggers are everywhere," she said, calling them media watchdogs who are using tools like Twitter to keep an eye on journalists. "They're getting credentialed and competitive."
Bradshaw should know. A blogger herself, she tweeted nonstop through the 2008 Republican and Democratic national conventions for her client, C-SPAN's Convention Hub. She kept track of Twitter members using the hashtags for each event--#DNC08 and #RNC08 and selected comments for live broadcast after the speeches.
Bradshaw says that Twitter is a natural extension of short-form communication that humans have always used to get their points across, like psalms, Haiku, hieroglyphics, graffiti, slang and text messaging.
Journalists need to "adopt or be left behind," she says, "to stay competitive, get information and distill it down for your news."
Some editors are finding Twitter useful for connecting with a younger, more tech-savvy audience. Chris Krewson, executive editor for online news at the Philadelphia Inquirer, says tweeting for the paper has helped him keep in touch with what he calls the "digital literati" in his city.
"I can't tell you how many have thanked me for 'using Twitter the right way,' " he says. "Many of them had largely given up on the Inquirer doing anything groundbreaking or even talking with those who have." His use of Twitter conveys that "we're interested in covering them and having them as our audience again."
White is a reporter for Maryland Newsline and a contributing editor at BlogHer.