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The Tale of Two Twitterers

Twitter was the first digital phenomenon that made me feel old, in that “my VCR is always blinking 12:00” way.

I started using the microblogging service — with its 140-character answers to the question, “What are you doing?” — in February, along with several of my colleagues at EidosMedia. As I hunted for people to follow and mulled what to tell the world that anyone would care about, I had two thoughts:

1. I don’t have the slightest idea what I’m supposed to be doing.

2. It’s kind of fun that I don’t have the slightest idea what I’m supposed to be doing.

Twitter seemed like a throwback to an earlier, simpler time on the Web – the long-gone era of rudimentary search and Web pages with matte gray backgrounds. But while Twitter made me feel nostalgic, it didn’t seem particularly useful at first. It felt like the telegraph version of blogging, with the narcissism magnified. I kept playing with it largely out of duty, and only by accident did I figure out what a powerful tool it was.

I had followed a few dozen people based on my own oddball mix of interests: the New York Mets, online journalism and Star Wars. (Make a Venn diagram of those three and I might be the only person in the world at the intersection.) After a couple of weeks, I discovered that the tweets and links from people I followed were an excellent substitute for searching my usual network of sites dedicated to my interests. I’d accidentally constructed an extremely effective news feed tailored just for me and assembled from what my peers were saying.

Twitter soon surprised me again. My Mets, digital-newspaper and Star Wars sources had no interest in each other’s preoccupations, but many of them were interested in general news, and would tweet about big stories. Sometime in the spring I noticed that I was increasingly learning about breaking news from my Twitter feed. Sometime after that I noticed that I’d stopped jumping around various newspaper sites looking for that breaking news. I’d learned it would reach me on Twitter.

I’d become an avid consumer of information from Twitter, but I was more tentative about becoming a producer of information. I wondered if I should create separate Twitter identities for my three interests, thereby sparing Mets followers updates about Wookiees. (I ultimately decided not to bother.) I tried to strike the right balance between promoting my journalism and Mets blogs and offering more-personal material. I trained myself to “retweet” other people’s interesting thoughts and links, even though at first this seemed like I was just adding more noise to the mix.

Part of the learning process has been watching how sportswriters use Twitter. Happily, professional sportswriters seem to operate on Twitter with more freedom and fun than they do on, say, blogs. Too many newspaper sports blogs still feel either like obligation or like an emptying of the notebook. But sportswriters are funnier and looser on Twitter. Their personalities shine through better. And perhaps because Twitter is still so new, they’ve made the service whatever they wish, rather than fitting themselves into it.

The results can be very different – but equally compelling.

For example, Ralph Vacchiano covers the New York Giants for the New York Daily News and is a Twitter whirlwind, offering a constant stream of Giants-related news and observations to more than 3,000 people who follow him at  http://twitter.com/TheBlueScreen. Besides being an invaluable news source, he also regularly responds to followers, as too few other sportswriters do.

Then there’s Dan Jenkins, who made his Twitter debut in June at the U.S. Open, his 200th major. The story was sometimes played for novelty — 79-year-old sportswriting legend does Twitter – but Jenkins immediately proved as good in 140-character doses as he is in magazine columns and novels, turning out a pitch-perfect mix of updates, historical context and one-liners. Jenkins, whom you can follow at http://twitter.com/danjenkinsgd, is now closing in on 6,000 followers. If you doubt Twitter can be a vehicle for great writing, follow Jenkins for a while.

“It’s fun,” Jenkins says via email. “It’s quick. Your hands don’t get tired. Your back doesn’t ache. But mainly you get to say all the things you couldn’t get into a magazine piece because (1) they wouldn’t fit the theme, and (2) they might not be humorous in another form.”

Vacchiano told me via email that he uses Twitter for “strictly media purposes. It’s another way for me (and, by extension, the Daily News) to communicate with readers. When something happens with the New York Giants, the 2 million readers of the Daily News have to wait until the next day to find out. The half-million readers of nydailynews.com have to wait many hours until I’m able to write a story for the Web. The hundred thousand or so who read my blog have to wait at least a half-hour, sometimes longer, for me to write up a blog entry. But my 3,000 Twitter followers get instant access.”

Vacchiano is a Twitter consumer, too, noting that every NFL writer he knows uses Twitter, and all feed their blogs into it. “Instead of spending an hour every morning searching blogs and newspapers all across the country to see if I’ve missed anything important, now I just peruse Twitter and I’m done in minutes,” he says.

Vacchiano says he got started on Twitter this spring, when he noticed player agent Drew Rosenhaus was using the service to announce client signings. Vacchiano says Rosenhaus doesn’t return reporters’ calls, so he felt obligated to follow him on Twitter. When he did, he noticed that many other people – from reporters to other agents and players – were on Twitter. “So I discussed the phenomenon with my Daily News Web editors, and TheBlueScreen was born,” he says.

Jenkins calls his Twitter debut an accident: Golf Digest’s closing didn’t coincide with the end of the U.S. Open, so he couldn’t do his usual monthly column.

“The editors asked me if I wanted to tweet,” he says. “I said sure, ‘I’m a team player, but I might need an electrician to sit with me and make sure I know what I’m doing.’ One did, and off we went. Digest liked it so much I did it again at the British Open and then at the PGA.” 

Asked about how he got used to Twitter’s rhythms and character limit, Jenkins says that “Twitter makes you think and form impressions quickly, which is good — I learned it on newspapers anyhow — but I would often like to have a few more characters than 140 to get it said right. I haven’t had to adapt anything. It’s kind of like talking to pals in a bar and playing top banana as you make general observations on the events of the day and have a built-in attitude about life, love, divorce, politics, and sports going in.”

That 140-character limit hasn’t been a problem for Vacchiano, who sees tweets as a form of headline writing.

“If Eli Manning breaks his leg I could write 1,000 words on the subject, its ramifications, player reaction, etc., etc.,” he says. “But for Twitter purposes people just want instant news. So ‘Uh-oh. Eli’s leg snaps in two. Giants season over.’ is all you need. Plus a link to my blog, of course, which would then provide more information.”

Vacchiano says he mostly links just to his own stuff, saying that “my Twitter account is a Daily News account. We’re into building our own readership, not someone else’s readership.” He admits that deciding what to tweet and what to save for a story or blog post isn’t always straightforward.

“Rule No. 1, I guess, is that it’s definitely tweetable if other reporters are present,” he says. “If we’re all around Eli Manning and he says ‘I’m quitting football,’ I’d be crazy to hold it even the hour it takes me to write up something for my blog. By then, it would be everywhere. So I’d tweet it. The area is more gray if I think I have something to myself. If Eli whispers to me, ‘I’m quitting football’ and no one else hears it, I probably wouldn’t tweet it. That would just alert other members of the media. I certainly wouldn’t tweet it until I had a full story written and ready to go onto the Web site.”

Asked about responding to followers, Vacchiano says he answers tweets when he has time – though sometimes it’s a couple of days before he can respond, and he just can’t reply to everything.

“I think that’s the least I can do for my readers,” he says. “Plus, I think it’s good for my newspaper. It makes readers feel more engaged. It builds a fan base. And, quite frankly, it helps me to know what my readers are thinking and are interested in. I think more reporters should be responsive to readers, and not just over Twitter.”

Vacchiano’s advice to Twitter newcomers?

“Use it as a tool to complement your daily job,” he says. “Follow relevant people, and consider it part of your reporting. And use it to engage your readership. But don’t overuse it, either. There are some sports reporters I follow who love telling everyone how they’re out in their garden planting tomatoes, or how they’re having oatmeal for breakfast. I don’t care, and I can’t imagine most of their followers care. If you’re using this as a business tool, then people are probably following you for news and insight into whatever you cover. Use it for that.”

Jenkins says that “my advice to young sportswriters doesn’t change with electricity. Be accurate first, then entertain if it comes natural. Never sell out a fact for a gag. Your job is to inform above all else. Don’t try to force-feed an anecdote if it doesn’t fit your piece, no matter how much it amuses you. Save it for another time. Have a conviction about what you cover.”

He adds that, “I think I can say in all honesty that I’ve never written a sentence I didn’t believe, even it happened to be funny. The best humor is always grounded in truth, as one of those Mark Twains said.”

Jason Fry spent more than 12 years at The Wall Street Journal Online, serving as a writer, columnist, editor and projects guy, and is now the Web evangelist for EidosMedia, a maker of editing-and-publishing software for newspapers and other publishers. While at WSJ.com he edited and co-wrote The Daily Fix, a daily roundup of the best sportswriting online. He blogs about the Mets at Faith and Fear in Flushing (www.faithandfearinflushing.com), and about the newspaper industry at Reinventing the Newsroom (www.reinventingthenewsroom.com). Write to him at  jason.fry@gmail.com, visit him on Facebook at  www.facebook.com/jason.fry, or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jasoncfry.

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