Category Archives: Journalism

How do you teach Twitter?

I’ve spent a lot of time this past week trying to find ways to show people how Twitter can make their work life easier/simpler/more fun. I’m not sure how succesful I’ve been. Social Media is a drip drip process that has to be worked on. You can’t become an aficionado overnight. But here are a few thoughts.

The Social Tweeter


I got the first year undergraduate students in my Digital Journalism class to create their Social Media portraits so I could get a better idea of how they use different platforms – if at all.

The vast majority use Social Media a lot, mainly Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But they’re using it almost exclusively to keep in touch with friends and follow celebrity news (it’s not called SOCIAL media for nothing.)

A few of them are blogging or following other people’s blogs.

Soundcloud is quite popular for sharing music they’ve made and finding other people’s music. There were one or two Pinterest users who said they liked finding cute DIY ideas they’ll never use!! There was also one Reddit fan.

There were a few who didn’t have a Twitter account or who did have one “but then realised they didn’t need it.”

So the task is to get these students to realise they already have the skills and experience (in most cases) to use social media like a real journalist. What they now need to do is crank it up a bit and find out how they can use social media in a more sophisticated, more professional way. But it’s hard getting people to turn their favourite social platforms into yet another work thing!

I decided to try to amaze them with the power of Twitter as a search tool! Don’t just google “Salford” when you want a story idea or an interviewee. See how much deeper you can get with a really well filtered Twitter search! So I started by showing them a few of my favourites – Followerwonk which is a great way to search Twitter bios, Listorious, a useful people search and list directory and Trendsmap which is a fun way to search local Twitter trends. Then I hit them with the big one – search operators! This was totally new information for every single one of them. They had no idea you could interrogate twitter so closely. I handed out copies of the list of operators (one between two to encourage collaboration) and then gave them some Twitter Tasks to perform. It’s based loosely on Sarah Marshall’s MozFest social media training session but I’ve simplified it into a bite-sized chunk which I think works better with students who may need a bit of convincing about all this kind of stuff.

•Find 2 Manchester Evening News journalists on Twitter
•Find people talking in a positive way about the film Django Unchained.
•What are people tweeting about in Cape Town, South Africa?
•Find three people near Birmingham talking about the High Speed Rail link (HS2)
•Find a very recent photo or video from MediaCityUK.
The last question was a bit of a trick. I “planted” a photo on Twitter for them to find. Well, it got a few smiles….

The tasks gave the more advanced Twitter users plenty to keep them busy whilst I went round to each individual student (I had about 17 in each class) starting with the ones who were less experienced. The social media self-portraits were really useful in finding out who might need a bit more support early on and who would be able to work through the tasks independently. I was able to spend a few minutes with each student getting them started, answering specific questions, gently encouraging. I made sure to explain to them how these techniques could help in real journalistic scenarios and, crucially, help them get their assessments done.

Interrogating Twitter in this way really was a revelation to them so it was great fun for me to be able to share this stuff.

My colleague, Alex Fenton, who shares the teaching on this module, used another approach with the class the following week.  He got them all to send out one tweet using our module hashtag #DigiJourno. Even this was new to some of the students. They were encouraged to retweet the most interesting/relevant ones. Again, it was a nice, bite-sized chunk of Twitter that slotted into the theme of the session without overloading anyone. It’s very easy to put people off Twitter for life by drowning them in information! I’d tried to introduce lists and Tweetdeck but that was probably a step too far at this stage and was definitely off-putting to some in the class – although the more adept twitter users immediately saw the benefits.

And it was a revelation to the students to find themselves in a university class where you were actively encouraged to spend time tweeting!!

The Reluctant Tweeter

Away from university, I found myself discussing twitter on two separate occasions last week with friends who work in the media making radio programmes (not news programmes so they wouldn’t describe themselves as journalists). Both had had bad experiences with twitter.  One had been ordered to tweet by a manager but there was no thought-out strategy to this so the producer was left confused about the aim of the tweeting. She’d missed the one training session available. The other friend had been on a training session but it had seemed boring and irrelevant. Unsurprisingly, they both felt very negative about twitter and saw it as an extra workload being imposed on them.

The upshot of these conversations is that one of the friends is coming round for coffee one evening next week and I’m going to try to persuade her that it’s worth giving Twitter a second chance. Again, I think advanced search is the way to her heart. Show her how Twitter can help her find fantastic programme guests then all the rest will follow! You’ve got to make it relevant to people’s work life otherwise they just see it as an extra, time-consuming task they just don’t want to do.

I am genuinely excited by this challenge! I’ll let you know if I win her over. Then I’ll use that success story to work on Friend #2. Ideally, I want to spend a day at work with her putting her favourite contacts into Twitter lists…..

If you have any tips for teaching Twitter, I’d love to hear from you.


A couple of months ago I wrote an article for Wannabehacks asking if it was time for journalism students to ditch short hand and learn to code instead.  I’m still keen to gather more responses (do take part in the survey below if you’re a student journalist or just starting out in journalism).  But in the meantime, here are a few follow-up thoughts and responses to questions people asked me.

cnorthwood left a comment on the article.  He’s a developer and is wondering if he should be doing more journalism (he’s already worked on some interesting-looking projects).  He raised a valid point about journalists learning to code:

It’s a very useful skill to have in their arsenal – making tools to help you do your job better, ability to analyse information in a new way (particularly large amounts of data coming available under the open data movement), but maybe the best way to do it is to team up with a developer and do it that way. It seems the way journalism is going is to make journos a jack of all trades – you’re now expected to have camera skills, editing skills, and lots of other things that would previously have been handled by specialists. Coding just seems another piece of that puzzle.

My response would be to say that some “trades” are in danger of becoming obsolete in newsrooms and are instead becoming “skills” that all journalists need to possess.  It’s an organic evolution.  A “jack-of-all-trades” is just a pejorative word for a multi skilled member of staff who’s a boon on any news team!  But I do agree that journalists – who understand a bit about what code does – working alongside developers is a good way to go.

One participant in my survey said they weren’t sure what programming could do for journalism.  A good way to answer that is to ask why would a programmer/developer want to work in a newsroom.  Daniel Sinker gives a great response to that question.  He leads the Knight-Mozilla OpenNews project for Mozilla.  From 2008-2011 he taught in the journalism department at Columbia College Chicago where he focused on entrepreneurial journalism and the mobile web.  He’s recorded some really interesting video testimony from developers working in newsrooms in New York in the “news apps community” as one of the interviewees describes it.  You can see all six videos here but here are a couple of examples I’ve pulled out.

I got these from Knight-Mozilla Open News which organisers Fellowships (the deadline for 2013 has just ended) which:

embed developers and technologists in newsrooms around the world to spend a year writing code in collaboration with reporters, designers, and newsroom developers. Fellows work in the open by sharing their code and their discoveries on the web, helping to strengthen and build journalism’s toolbox.

So I think the news apps community sounds like a pretty exciting place to be and one which the current batch of student journalists AND computer scientists should really think about.

Chris Hutchinson got in touch after reading my article on Wannabehacks.  He’s a student journalist at Birmingham University and online editor for the student news site, Redbrick.  He seems a really good example of a new generation of journocoders – self-taught because he understood the way journalism was going and the way code could really connect stories to their communities.  So he wrote this follow-up article on his own blog which develops some of the points I made but, more impressively, he describes his own experience and insight as a genuine journalist who codes (I’m just an impostor, remember)

lolitician got in touch to say she’d have LOVED to do a journalism/comp sci degree had such a thing existed –

Perfect vocational combination of arts and science, and I would have rocked at it! Currently doing distance NCTJ and CodeYear.

Good luck!

I’m still interested in hearing from student journalists and wannabe hacks about this subject so please comment or tweet me.  And, if you haven’t already done so, please take part in the survey!

If you answered yes, please describe your level of knowledge and where you learnt to code.

Should journalism students ditch shorthand and learn to code instead?

That was the slightly provocative question I posed in an article for the website WannabeHacks.  

“Coding is the new Latin”, says Alex Hope, the co-author of a report last year which urged the government to get British school children learning how to program.

But should coding become the new shorthand for journalism students? Most are currently required to spend hours practicing their shorthand to get up to the NCTJ-required 100 wpm. Would their time be better spent learning the basic logic of computer code?

It’s a hot debate at the moment, especially in the US, where several colleges are already offering a joint MSc in Journalism and Computer Science.  It makes sense to me because so much journalism these days relies on complex search engines and so much news is consumed on phones and tablets.  Surely new journalists should have some idea about the programming that goes into this in the same way that I had to answer questions about Ohms Law for my first radio traineeship at the BBC.

But most of the debate is amongst the academic community and experienced professionals.  I wanted to find out what new and aspiring journalists thought.  Do they want to be part of the new generation of journo-programmers?

Perhaps you’re already coding ninjas? Perhaps you think it’s a dangerous fad which will only create journalists who can’t write and computer scientists who can’t code. 

So, I’ve set up a quick survey to find out what journalism students and those just starting out think.  If you fall into that category, please take part!  If you don’t, perhaps you’d care to pass it on to someone who does.

Click here to take part in the survey.  Thank you!