How to build useful Twitter lists for news coverage

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When news breaks, Twitter becomes the de facto platform for gathering information and content in real time.  Twitter transforms into an ambient wire full of information, usually complimented with photos, audio and video. As more people join the platform, more content moves through the pipes, and this can be both exciting and overwhelming to anyone who is looking for a place to start.

I’ve wanted to write a guide on how to build awesome Twitter lists for a while but, up until recently, I didn’t have any good examples of lists that worked. Then came Hurricane Sandy, a weather phenomenon that would strike at the heart of the global media capital with a kind of force that hadn’t been experienced in nearly 100 years by some accounts. While the hurricane was still in its early stages, days away from threatening the coast of the U.S., I carefully crafted a Twitter list that proved to be a hit. My colleagues at Reuters subscribed to it for the latest information, as did journalists at other news organizations. It was even featured by the Huffington Post and the Guardian as a resource for their readers to follow (in the end, almost 300 people subscribed to it, which is pretty good for a Twitter list).

Putting together a Twitter list that works is a lot like putting together a meal from a recipe, with Twitter users being the ingredients and the content they push being the taste. Some ingredients work, others don’t. Here’s a list of accounts (ingredients) worth considering when putting together your list (meal):

1. Tap into local news organizations:

  • If you happen to know the names of the television stations, newspapers and news radio stations in a particular area where a news event is happening, great! Look up their Twitter account and add them to the list.
  • If you don’t, here’s a trick: Google “[city name]ABC station” or “[city name]newspaper.” Generally, I’ll search Google five times: Four times to look for the affiliates of the big four TV stations (ABCNBCCBSFOX) in a city, and a fifth time to look for a local paper. Some major cities, like New York, San Francisco and Minneapolis, also have all news radio stations, so it’s worth looking for those too.
  • Many large cities have dedicated news channels on cable that also move news on social platforms. Examples include New York 1News12 New JerseyVerizon Fios 1 and YNN Austin.
  • Most local news websites have links to their social media accounts — often on their front page, sometimes buried on their “Contact Us” page.
  • Consider adding the branded accounts of alternative newspapers and local blogs. Also consider whether or not these alternative papers and local blogs have a “voice” that may interfere with objective news coverage of an event.

2. Tap into journalists/reporters covering the event/beat:

  • For breaking news events, local television and newspaper reporters often offer the best rolling coverage of a breaking news event.  Often local journalists will tap into their local sources to get information way ahead of anyone else. As they are usually the first journalists with boots on the ground at an event, they will often have some of the earliest photos, videos and eyewitness accounts.
  • The “News Team,” “Bios” or “About Us” pages of most local news websites will often include the Twitter accounts of journalists who are active on social media accounts. Branded accounts for most local news organizations will also re-tweet their reporters, so keep an eye out for that too.
  • For national/international events, consider broadening out to include network reporters or international correspondents, depending on the event.

3. Include law enforcement, government officials, community leaders:

  • Over the past several years, law enforcement agencies throughout the world (notably in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom) have come to embrace Twitter as a platform for moving urgent information to reach the masses. Look for city, county and state agencies on Twitter, as well as their spokespeople (often called public information officers or “PIO”).
  • Government officials are often known to make remarks or offer guidance following a large news event (like a crime that has a communal impact or a severe weather event). Depending on the event, you may want to consider adding the Twitter accounts of local mayors, city councilmembers, congressmen and governors. (Example: During Hurricane Sandy, the Twitter accounts of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie offered valuable information on gas rationing, mass transit, where to find shelter, what numbers to call in both emergencies and non-emergencies, and so on).
  • Some FBI field offices are on social media platforms and may offer information on developing news events (one example would be the FBI field office for Washington, which moves news releases).

4. Seek out local, county, state and federal agencies and charities:

  • Many local, county, state and federal agencies are also embracing social platforms to push out near-real-time information. The National Weather Service has several “experimental” Twitter accounts, broken down by region, that move urgent weather information and forecasts for a particular area (one example would be @NWSBayArea, the Twitter account for the San Francisco Bay Area in California). The US Geological Survey has a Twitter account, @USGS, that tweets major earthquakes when they happen.
  • Charities can also offer good information following a news event (and often beforehand, if the event is planned or expected). For example, the American Red Cross will often tweet information during times of crisis and disaster relief; local branches of the American Red Cross are also excellent resources for on-the-ground content and information gathering. Local charities, non-profits and churches should also be considered.

5. Embrace eyewitnesses and “citizen journalists,” but be cautious:

  • Some of the first bits of information come from eyewitnesses at the scene of a news event tweeting from their laptops and smartphones. Often, these eyewitnesses will move compelling content, including some of the earliest photos and videos from an event (or, in some cases, the only photos or video).  Occasionally, eyewitnesses will move into the role of a citizen journalist by not just bearing witness to an event and reacting on social, but providing rolling coverage of an event as it takes place.
  • Choosing citizen journalists for news lists can be tricky. Often, citizen journalists lack the kind of news judgment needed to objectively report on a news event, but that doesn’t mean citizen journalists are inherently biased or inaccurate. I tend to use eyewitnesses and citizen journalists sparingly in my own Twitter lists, but I have discovered some who produce truly compelling content and are objective in the broadcasting of their information. Be picky when adding eyewitnesses and citizen journalists to lists, but make a mental note of one or two individuals if they’re producing good content (and always remember to credit them if you use their information or content in your product).

Last, be sure to do regular maintenance on your Twitter lists:

  • Use the above five steps as a base for forming your lists.
  • Add and remove accounts as the situation warrants. For example, during Hurricane Sandy, I added several journalists who were suggested to me, including Eric Holthaus who reports on weather for the Wall Street Journal. I also removed people from the list who were grossly tweeting nonsense, opinion or were going off-topic.
  • Promote your list: One way I do this is to include both the shortlink for TweetDeck and other clients (“@username/list-name-here”) as well as a direct link to the list on Twitter.com. An example:

If you have any suggestions, tips or tricks on building Twitter lists, feel free to email me or comment below.