5 Steps to Bridging the Online Newspaper/Twitter Divide

These last couple of weeks, there have been a lot of Tweets flowing about the US healthcare debate.

When I go to the Politics section of my online newspaper, why do I not see these flowing real time sentiments? Chloe Sladden, Twitter’s Director of Media Partnerships, was recently quoted as saying that she “can’t imagine a major event where the audience doesn’t become part of the story itself.” Indeed, Twitter’s own 2008 Election site (election.twitter.com, now defunct) — wherein Tweets from the masses about the competing candidates streamed by in real time during the televised debates — proved to be a perfect first example of this interactive TV experience.

Why, when there’s

  • a political debate or
  • a world disaster (Haiti, Chili) or
  • a major sporting event (Canada vs. US in hockey) or
  • a foreign election punctuated with gross human rights violations (Iran)

…are there no pages on these news sites devoted to the Tweets from the masses?

The answer is fear. Fear of lost readership (and, hand-in-hand, lost ad revenue) or a lawsuit stemming from the off-color, off-topic, and inflammatory Tweets that are sure to show. Most large professional publications and F-bombs do not mix. So what’s an online news organization to do? Today, they fall somewhere on this evolutionary scale:

Avoid Twitter altogether
“It’s a cesspool. I’m not jumping in.”

Promote the following of journalists and summary accounts (@cnnbrk, @msnbc_politics, etc.)
“We’ll Tweet the headlines. Follow us, then click through to our site.” By far, most large news organizations fall into this camp.

Embed unfiltered Twitter Search widgets
This is very rare, considering the naturally unfiltered nature of the search results. Huffington Post has been doing this recently for many articles:

Embed Twitter List widgets on a particular topic
Many news sites have created topical Twitter Lists in an attempt to capture the best tweeting voices on a topic. For example:

The problem is that Twitter Lists are horrible mechanisms for curating content. These are collections of Twitter accounts, not Tweets. As such, they are generally good indicators of experts/authorities on a specific topic, but the Tweets generated from this list are not ever guaranteed to be on-topic. Example:

At the very best, the status quo for integrating Twitter into online newspaper sites today is unsatisfying. It’s time to change the status quo. Here’s how to do it.

Step 1: SEARCH

We have to start with Twitter search. This casts a wide net to pull in our set of ‘candidate’ Tweets. These are the Tweets that we *might* end up displaying on our website.

Step 2: FILTER

There’s a good first pass that we can take to clean up this list:

  • remove spam (keyword-based, young accounts, trending topic riders, etc.)
  • remove retweets
  • remove replies
  • remove autofeeds (TwitterFeed) and TwitLonger (because the content is naturally going to flow outside of 140 characters)

With this cleaner list, we’re searching for the quality Tweets. To be sure, quality is subjective, and is informed by the policies/stance of your specific organization. To support this flexible qualitative search, we should score the Tweet based on its content and its author as part of Twitter moderation.

Consider:

  • Does it contain links? To photos? To videos? On my site, or a different site?
  • Do I consider the Tweet author an authority on this topic? A list of topical authorities may very well come from a Twitter List, or ad-hoc based on your browsing of the search stream.
  • Does it contain one or more hashtags? One or more @mentions?
  • Is the Tweet very short (4 words or less)? Tweets this short tend to be of lesser quality/value.
  • Has this Tweet been retweeted? How many times, and by whom?

Weighting each of the above and scoring a Tweet based on your weightings should begin to separate the wheat from the chaff. Specify a score threshold, and then keep only those Tweets that satisfy it.

Step 3: MODERATE

Even after all of this filtering, manual human Twitter moderation of the remaining (substantially smaller set of) Tweets is a good idea. For those news sites with a biased view, it often requires a human intellect to select the most appropriate ones for that specific website. Also, if a moderator sees that, after the above filtering techniques, a separate (but keyword-related) topic is polluting the search stream, they can tweak search and filter settings to fine-tune the results.

Once this social moderation step is complete, we’ll have finally whittled down the set of Tweets to exactly those which will be visible on the website.

Step 4: TRANSFORM

Now that we have this set of Tweets, we need to consider certain presentation-level details to stay in compliance with site policies:

  • Are we ok displaying all author profile images as-is? Do we need to provide different/custom avatars? Should they be completely removed?
  • Are author names, @mentions, and #hashtags hyperlinked? Where do they go? Directly to Twitter? In the same page or a new page/tab?

The Twitter widget we plan on embedding should support configuration of each of the above attributes.

Step 5: EMBED

We should now be able to easily embed this curated and moderated set of Tweets into some page on our website. Ideally, the integration of these Tweets is aesthetically seamless. That is, it should look just like a first-class part of the website. Which…finally…it is.

Ok, now what?

The above 5 steps are critical to news organizations as they consider tapping into Twitter for true real time reporting. The ecosystem of Twitter moderation tools to support these steps is growing, and it will be incumbent upon news organizations to seek out the best solutions. Listorious and TLISTS are growing into excellent resources for Twitter list discovery, and TweetRiver‘s filtering, moderation, and embedding capabilities are unparalleled. With the proper application of these powerful Twitter tools, we may finally see this vision of Twitter-powered news come to fruition.

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