April 15, 2009
As I write this column, I''m switching back and forth to a program called TweetDeck. Its dark, businesslike interface fills my entire laptop screen with several columns of updates, each one chiming as new information comes in.
It looks like you should be able to trade stocks from this thing. Or launch missiles. Or land jetliners.
It looks complex, but it really isn''t. It''s a social networking platform. Coming in: Twitter feeds and keyword searches, and Facebook updates. Going out: My own updates, and replies to messages. It''s taking this stuff that many people find a fad, or useless, or a waste of time, or even dangerous to the future of journalism, and turning it into something useful and insightful.
The Dispatch started a Twitter feed this week. We''re sending out alerts to our online stories with it; eventually we''ll be breaking more news through it, and using it for other things.
Another tool to deliver news
For the uninitiated, Twitter is a message board with millions of users, in which you are able to choose whose messages you see. Other users can choose to see your messages. It''s also an archive of sorts -- what you post remains indefinitely.
That sums it up pretty simply. Many detractors in my business criticize Twitter for what they perceive as limited usefulness. But that misses the point -- Twitter is a tool with its uses limited only by the user''s creativity.
We can all agree that mankind''s two greatest tools are hammers and duct tape. These are used for much more than driving nails and sealing pipes. The last time I used a hammer, nails weren''t part of the equation. And I''ve never used duct tape on a pipe. But if I were stuck on a desert island, I''d want a roll.
Twitter is also a simple tool, with many uses.
In Mississippi alone, several papers use Twitter, those in Jackson, Hattiesburg, Natchez and Oxford among them. The state Department of Transportation uses it to alert coast residents to hurricane evacuation routes. Bloggers alert users to their latest posts.
Gov. Haley Barbour uses it. "Toured the King Edward Hotel. It opens at the end of Oct. and it''s gonna be great. Apartments and a new Hilton," reads his post from Jackson Tuesday afternoon. (Lots of things I didn''t know in this short post: Barbour toured the King Edward; the King Edward opens in October; Hilton is running the hotel part.)
The Dispatch is using Twitter simply now, linking to our stories online. But we''ll get more creative.
Part of our future
We have a few dozen followers so far. Some may ask: Why waste time on something with so few readers? To them, I say you''re missing the point, and the big picture. First, the number will grow over time. Second, and most importantly, users of social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are the newspaper hawkers of today. When they like what they see, they share it. And those they shared it with, share it with others. And so on, and so on. It''s exponential. So a great story in The Dispatch could reach many thousands more people than those who have access to the printed paper, or who check our Web site regularly.
In fact, without social media, the entire Web would be far less effective than it is today.
When I read the doom-and-gloom stories of the decline of newspapers and Western journalism, I''m reminded of the U.S. steel industry. I''m not the first person to make this comparison, but it fits. Remember the decline of the Rust Belt in the ''80s? Everyone was predicting the end of American steel manufacturing. Indeed, many plants closed, and many lost their jobs.
And today? Today, the U.S. has more steel-producing capacity than ever. Other countries no longer have an import advantage. Yes, there are fewer people and plants making it, but they''re making more of it. The whole industry is more efficient.
As Americans tend to do, we figured it out.
We''ll figure out journalism''s future too, and The Dispatch will be part of it. We''ll print a newspaper, but we''ll also meet future readers where they want to be found.
Back to TweetDeck. As I''m writing, it''s chiming in, alerting me to updates. I have it searching Twitter''s millions of users for keywords in messages -- among them, the word "newspaper." The alerts are ringing off the hook, and the gist of the messages aren''t all anti-"mainstream media." In fact, many messages link to stories produced by traditional journalists. The twitterers are hawking.
Traditional media still drives the conversation, and will for a long time to come.
To follow The Dispatch on Twitter, go to www.twitter.com/CDispatch.
Steve Mullen is Managing Editor of The Dispatch.
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