Teaching Twitter

Sue Bullard | University of Nebraska-Lincoln

With this exercise, students learn how journalists can use Twitter as a communication tool. They learn how to use Twitter to improve headline writing, to gather information, to share content and to stay informed. Its 140-character limit forces students to write focused Tweets that get to the point quickly.

I provide an introduction to Twitter, using a PowerPoint (downloadable at left) that includes many examples of journalists using Twitter in a variety of ways. The presentation includes information on how a good Twitter post is similar to a good headline (tells the story in a few key words, makes the reader want to know more).

Students are asked to:

- create Twitter accounts and
- follow their classmates and 10 Twitter/journalism users that I provide.

Over the course of a week, they must create three Tweets (headlines and links) to stories they find interesting about journalism or editing. They also need to retweet an interesting post about journalism at least once during the assignment. They must write a one-page reflection paper, outlining their reaction to Twitter (after they’ve followed Twitter for a week and posted their links). The papers must also explain which industry story, posted by one of their classmates, they found most interesting and why.

Although students are Web savvy, they often are resistant to Twitter or any online communication tools beyond Facebook. Yet, more news outlets are using Twitter to break news, to promote content and to engage with readers. Students need a directed method for trying Twitter or other new media tools so they can see the potential value in journalism. Employers will expect them to understand Twitter. The assignment also reinforces traditional headline writing skills – summarizing a story clearly and cleverly in limited space.

When the assignment ended, one student told me she successfully pitched managing her employer’s fledgling Twitter feed during her summer internship. Other student reporters said they were using it to promote their work. Others were following experts – reporters, news organizations, industry pros – to stay informed.

And one student sent me this e-mail a few weeks ago: “I just wanted to let you know that at my internship this summer at the Jewish Press I was asked to make a Twitter account for a program that is happening in Omaha this summer. Apparently no one in the building knew how to use Twitter and asked me to do it for them. So I just wanted to say thank you for assigning us the Twitter homework and helping us learn Twitter because it really did help with my job. Along with writing and copy editing, I'm going to be in charge of the Twitter account! I also still have the Twitter account I made for your class and I've been following a lot of big news sources. I also use it to get story ideas for the Press.”

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