Tools of the Trade

Trying is a prerequisite of innovation

Thursday, April 9, 2009 14:21 - by

Joe Ruiz is the nightside Web editor for in San Antonio, Texas. You can find him on Twitter or at his blog. He is currently working as one of the new media track leaders for the upcoming National Association of Hispanic Journalists convention scheduled for June in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

With a smaller staff at my news organization, we’re at a disadvantage when it comes to covering some stories the way they deserve, but one of the strengths of our newsroom has been breaking news coverage. I have a few people who’ve taken to using social media tools for our work, and it’s actually helped us do our jobs better. One of our reporters and a few of our video journalists have started using Twitter and Qik to provide news coverage faster than our counterparts.

It’s been fairly simple with the technology and even more so because my coworkers believe it’s to our benefit as a news organization. Let’s face facts: No matter what technology is available, if you don’t have people willing to try, it means nothing. We’ve been lucky since more and more people in our newsroom have been willing to accept the benefits — or at the very least, try them out — of social media and its strengths.

One of my favorite examples has been our recent coverage of an apartment fire . One of our VJs carries a jailbroken iPhone loaded with Qik (he’s one of five VJs with Qik installed). Once the fire call came out, Sam Lerma headed to the scene and immediately began streaming with his iPhone. He had some extra scene video as well as an interview with the fire department spokesman. But here’s where we did better than every other news organization in town: We had it live. Using Qik’s embed code and adding it to our story, we streamed Sam’s interview and had promotion from our breaking news coverage to give us a nice boost on our page views and time spent on our site.

Of course, our story’s no Hudson River plane ditching, but it’s one of the ways we bring breaking news to our readers. I know we’ve done a good job because when news breaks, our numbers spike. We’ve earned the respect of our readers by offering them another way to get news as fast as we can provide. One of our reporters keeps his iPhone ready to do video and send photos so we can show images without having to wait for videos to be fed.

While most of our guys have iPhones, two have Samsung phones that also work with Qik, so it’s not necessarily that you need the latest, most expensive technology. You have to be, however, willing to try with whatever you have or can afford. Social media is a wonderful tool when used correctly, but as I wrote above, you have to be willing to try what’s available.

The best tools mean nothing if you’re not willing to try.

Tracking shortened URL links with

Wednesday, April 8, 2009 14:58 - by


There are many URL shortening options on the Web, but our current favorite is, due to its tracking and analytics capabilities. allows us to track links we share with a surprisingly level of detail. It’s really the perfect compliment to our link journalism efforts on social networks like Twitter. We of course use Google Analytics to track BeatBlogging.Org, but until came around, it wasn’t easy to track how well our efforts were doing on Twitter, Facebook, etc. doesn’t just track how many people click on your links, it also tracks:

  • Time — How many people click on links by minute, hour, day, week and all-time. It allows you to see the longevity of your links and what times are the best to release links.
  • Location — breaks down who is clicking on your links by country.
  • Referrers — How are people finding your links? Via TweetDeck?
  • Aggregate view — also shows you how many people have clicked on the aggregate link. Let’s say I share a link about a new beatblogging trend. I can see how many people clicked on my shortened version of that link, and I can also see how many people clicked on the aggregate of all the shortened versions of that link. This is a handy way to see how popular the content I am linking to is.

bitly_aggregate is the perfect compliment to Twitter. We’re hoping that one of the premium features that Twitter offers is advanced analytics, but until that happens does a pretty nice job. If you’re going to engage in link journalism on social networks, you owe it to yourself to track the success of the links you share.

And if you’re intrigued by that provactive link bait that is in both images, you can find it here:

Just a little link-bait case study. :)

The different styles of live blogging

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 13:26 - by

Live blogging has helped transform how journalists — particularly print journalists who had to report yesterday’s news tomorrow — cover events and give commentary in real time.

A live blog is a live, online update of an event, via a microblogging service like Twitter or a dedicated live blogging service like CoveritLive. We’ve been researching live blogging habits and trends, and live blogs tend to cover standard fare: breaking news, politics, sports, entertainment and business events. Beyond that though, live blogs on the web are so varied that it’s hard to see them all as one style of journalism.

The differences in live blogs can be narrowed down to three main areas:

  • Style
  • Frequency and length of updates
  • Level of interactivity with readers

A live blogger’s writing style can vary from straight-laced news reporter, to snarky know-it-all commentator or rapid-fire text messenger. When Kate Phillips covered the State of the Union for the New York Times, she did so as a straight-up reporter at the event, with knowledgeable entries that covered all the bases. When “Political Doctor” covered the same event from her TV, her writing went with a dose of sarcasm. Meanwhile, when covering the Independent Spirit Awards, Spout just sent in Twitter messages of 140 characters, essentially fun blips to her audience.

Live blogggers vary widely as to how often they check in during an event. While most announce major developments, some take it to the extreme: When FiredogLake covered the Scooter Libby trial, it read like a transcript of the entire trial. Their team of bloggers rotated simultaneous blogging in the courtroom and hardly missed a beat. On the other extreme, there are live bloggers who just contribute when they feel like it, regardless of the event, like this casual Oscar live blog from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

Then there’s how the blogger uses the readers’ feedback. In that Oscar blog from Florida, comments were in their own separate section below the blog post. In other blogs, comments are mixed right in with the bloggers’ writing, which makes it more of a conversation than a report. Some bloggers use their position to act as a voice of authority to readers asking questions: The Sioux City Journal’s live blog of Lawrence Harris’ trial read like a radio call-in show. In contrast, when The Uptake covers the Coleman-Franken hearings, everybody’s got an opinion, and the hosts tend to fade to the background.

Some live blogs use tools like instant polls to interact with readers Though perhaps gimmicky, the polls at least make participants feel valued. Other live blogs utilize links, which can be helpful to provide more info. But in the case of a fast-breaking story, who has time to be reading other links?

Underlying every one of these questions is how the blogger conceives of the audience. If they think their readers are watching along with them, as with the Oscars or the State of the Union, then the blogger can afford to miss details and chime in at will. In other events though, especially court cases, the live blogger is the only eyes and ears for their audience.

The bloggers also have to decide if they’re writing for insiders or the general public. Newcomers to The Uptake’s coverage of Coleman-Franken may feel lost at first, because essentially the blog is an ongoing chat room. It’s great for insiders but hard to navigate if you don’t have the background. In contrast, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s coverage of the Vincent Fumo trial gave constant updates but was also written to be accessible to readers with only a passing awareness of the case.

In the end, these questions of the audience are far more important than the event is in deciding a live blog’s content. The blogger who stops and thinks about their audience, tone and the other issues we’ve raised will probably create far better and more popular content.

In our research we noticed a few trends in live blogs. We hope these sites broaden your understanding of this fun and evolving reporting style.


All journalists can learn from tech bloggers

Monday, April 6, 2009 10:09 - by

David Cohn is the founder of Spot.Us, a nonprofit project trying to pioneer “community funded reporting.” He believes in the future beatbloggers could be  funding through small donations from readers and hopes to write about that for in the future.

When I was working on Beat Blogging and the original batch of 13 guinea pig reporters one piece of advice I gave them was to start reading tech bloggers. I stand by that advice.

Not only because every reporter needs to know tools like Twitter, RSS and more — but because tech reporters at VentureBeat, GigaOm and others were already “Beat Blogging.”

They cover technology and then end up using the tools to help aid and abed their reporting. So when I ran into two reporters from ReadWriteWeb, I decided to flip the camera on them and find out what tools they use to make their reporting easier and perhaps more interactive.

Funny enough, it looks as though Jay Rosen also uses the FriendFeed approach.

While neither of these tips relate back to the interactivity of a beat blog – you can start to see how these reporters use technology to enable their reporting. These aren’t just social networks – they are tools!

What tools do you use to listen? RSS, FriendFeed, Technorati?
What tools do you use to talk? Twitter, blogs, YouTube?
What tools do you use to collaborate? Wikis, polls?

Save Twitter searches to help with research and reporting

Thursday, April 2, 2009 13:24 - by


Twitter now allows users to save searches via its Web interface.

Twitter’s integration of (formerly Summize) into its Web interface is nearly complete. With this integration comes more features, flexibility and power. It has made the Web interface of Twitter a much more usable tool for content producers.

For journalists and people who frequently search for certain terms, this new feature can make life a lot easier and make for a great research tool. I have some topics saved so that I can monitor what people are saying about the practices of beatblogging and link journalism, for instance. TweetDeck and some other Twitter applications have already allowed users to save searches, but the saved search has some advantages.

The most obvious is that you can save searches on and view them from any Web browser. Maybe one day saved searches will become part of the Twitter API and be portable across any application. Also, I find it very easy to go between numerous saved searches in the Web interface, whereas it can be a bit clunky using TweetDeck with a lot of saved searches.

Saving searches can also make writing a post easier. If I’m writing a post about crowdsourcing, for instance, I can go create custom searches for “crowd sourcing” and crowdsourcing and monitor them for a few hours.

One of the most power parts of the new search functionality on Twitter is that it supports the same advanced operators as If you aren’t familiar with everything that can do (and it really takes Twitter to a new level for journalists and content producers), check out our screencast on the


MixedInk: collaborative writing made really easy

Wednesday, March 25, 2009 13:00 - by


Obama’s inaugural address sounded pretty familiar to frequent readers of Perhaps that’s because 455 of them wrote it.

Well, not quite “it,” but something surprisingly similar in many ways. There was no huge meeting; no conference of the politically-minded, Obama-loving Slate readers. Rather, there was a website, and a fairly new one at that. The site is and the collaborative writing service it offers is powerful.


Here’s how it works: decide what you’re going to write about and allow hundreds or even thousands of interested participants to submit their two cents and comment on others’ contributions. As content comes in, contributors vote for the best, build off one another and end up with a cohesive piece of writing that takes the collective good stuff and leaves the bad behind.

MixedInk’s two most impressive projects thus far — the Slate collaboration and nearly 200 online activists who used the service to create a democratic platform, a small part of which ended up on the actual platform — have been political. But the MixedInk method is also incredibly applicable to beatblogs with active and opinionated readerships.

“It’s not good for five, 10 people collaborating,” acknowledged co-founder David Stern. “But there can be some pretty big niches for beatblogs. As long as it’s a big enough group, I think MixedInk is relevant.”

So if your “beatblog” is you and your sister interviewing your best friends about relationships, MixedInk probably isn’t for you. But if you’re a member of a community — online or otherwise — looking for a way to harness the creativity of the group, it’s your one stop shop.

David called it “a way to process news and summarize what’s happened, analyze it and say what it all means, to opine and take a position as a community.” As far as beatblogs are concerned, MixedInk offers a means of bringing reader interaction beyond comments, forums and Twitter responses. It offers the possibility of a site moderator posing a question and readers’ responses coming together as more than a group of remarks largely isolated from one another.

The site has been up and running since April 2007, but the MixedInk team is currently working to make it more widely accessible. They’ll do this by turning MixedInk into a free widget for smaller sites and a white label service for larger companies who want it fully integrated into the look and functionality of their sites. The widget should be available within the next couple weeks and David says its best for small publishers “who just want to figure out where their community stands — do something more engaging.”

Check out a video demo of the site below. For more specific “how to” info, click here.

MixedInk Demo from MixedInk on Vimeo.

How do you use RSS for journalism?

Friday, February 27, 2009 10:48 - by

Reporters and editors, we need your help.

Please share your stories on how you use RSS and RSS feed readers (Google Reader, NetNewsWire, Bloglines, etc) for journalism. Has RSS become a valuable reporting tool for you? Does RSS allow you to keep tabs on beats and topics?

If you’d like to learn more about RSS and journalism, check out our screencast on how RSS and Google Reader can be fantastic reporting tool.

Please share your experiences in the comments section after this post or e-mail us at connect [at] patthorntonfiles [dot] com.

What’s in it for journalists on Twitter?

Friday, February 6, 2009 16:56 - by


Do I really want to find out what someone is eating for lunch? Won’t Twitter just increase the noise in my life? How can anything meaningful be said in 140 characters or less?

These are all questions I’ve heard. My response: avoid Twitter at your own peril. Twitter and other social networks are helping to redefine beat reporting. 

You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying new tools like Twitter. I’m going to try to convince you to give Twitter the old, college try. 

Here is what Twitter can help journalists and content creators with:

  • Find sources – Twitter is a great place to meet potential sources. The more public and accessible a person is, the more likely a potential source is to volunteer information. Dave Levinthal of The Dallas Morning New said this about beat blogging and social media, “all the sudden you’re a conduit for information and tips.” You do want information and tips, don’t you?
  • Discover stories – I’m always discovering people to interview for stories. How? I only follow journalists and people writing about social media and Web tools with the @MsBeat Twitter account. I get a constant stream of information that helps me do my job. I also have a search of “beat blogging” in my Tweetdeck and Summizer programs. This allows me to track every time “beat blogging” is mentioned. In fact, is an incredible tool for searching on a topic or event. It’s great for getting people’s thoughts in real time.
  • Connect with people — Twitter is not just all about finding sources and discovering stories. It’s also about connecting with people. Twitter is home to some very thoughtful conversations. #hashtags are a good warning that something bigger is going on. Twitter can help you think about new topics and get mental juices flowing while you discuss and debate topics in real time. 
  • Crowd source — Because I’ve connected with people and built a good network on Twitter, I am able to ask questions like, “Does your newsroom offer social media training?” and get meaningful answers. These answers directly lead to content. Oh, and more content

Don’t just take my word for it. Michelle Nicolosi on Print to Online answers the question, “Why bother with Twitter,” with some convincing arguments:

One payoff, if you respond to people’s tweets and get to know them, is that you get to meet cool people you might not have met before, and you get to be a part of important local and national conversations you never could have otherwise been a part of.

If it wasn’t for Twitter, I can’t imagine how I would have ended up exchanging notes with King County executive Ron Sims. Mark’s been chatting with Mavis Staples’ recording label about what a rip off it is that she didn’t perform at the inaugural.

In ways you can’t imagine until you start to use it, Twitter opens doors, helps you make new connections, and keep track of conversations in new ways. If you haven’t tried it, I encourage you to give it a month. No, it’s not for everyone, and in the end you might decide you don’t like it. But then again, you might be surprised at the unexpected coolness of it.

Twitter’s been great on a professional front too. I’ve met a bunch of people in the journalism and blogging community I never would have met, and keep up with what they’re all thinking and saying to each other. Sure, I could read their blogs, but my Google Reader is maxed out, and who has the time to read lengthy essays? This is the ultimate in MTV-generation short attention span theater — every thought is an elevator pitch, just 140 characters in length. Who doesn’t have time to read two sentences?

True, as you note, you can follow many people on their blogs, but not everyone. Many non-bloggers are on Twitter, so Twitter is the only place you’re going to hear their thoughts. 

Calling all journalists on Twitter

Thursday, January 29, 2009 15:17 - by

If you’re a journalist and you use Twitter to help report, find sources, ask questions and more, please let us know.

We’re trying to compile a list of journalists on Twitter, and we’re trying to find more journalists to follow. So, if you use Twitter for journalistic purposes (not just notifying us when your new content is up), please leave a comment with your Twitter name and how you use Twitter for journalism.

Thank you.

Help us in our latest networked journalism effort

Wednesday, January 14, 2009 21:57 - by

We’ve started our second Publish2 group, and we’d love for you to help us to identify the tools, tips and tricks of social media.

Our first Publish2 group is for highlighting innovative beat reporters with social media, blogging and other Web tools. It is for acknowledging both individual beat reporters and their individual actions that help lead to better reporting or stories being broken. We use it on a weekly basis to form our Leaderboard, by taking the best examples from the past week.

Help us inform people by joining our groups and sharing your links.

About BeatBlogging.Org was a grant-funded journalism project that studied how journalists used social media and other Web tools to improve beat reporting. It ran for about two years, ending in the fall of 2009.

New content is occasionally produced here by the this project's former editor Patrick Thornton. The site is still up and will remain so because many journalists and professors still use and link to the content. offers a fascinating glimpse into the former stages of journalism and social media. Today it's expected that journalists and journalism organization use social media, but just a few years ago that wasn't the case.