The Twitter interview has become a strange, somewhat mythical beast in digital journalism. Using a 140-characters-or-less platform can seem like a journalist’s heaven or hell, depending on how you like to gather your information, but there’s no doubt that the so-called “twinterview” has become de riugeur for journalists of all kinds.
However, it’s not the end-all-be-all of cutting edge techniques, and you should never settle for a “twinterview” unless it specifically fits for your story’s needs and goals. Here are a few quick tips to recognizing when and why reaching out to contacts and sources through Twitter can be useful, and how it can be a flop for other situations.
Have you conducted an interview over Twitter? Tell us about it in the comments.
DO: When Breaking Journalism Happens
If a major event happens, conducting a series of short interviews via Twitter can be the best way to find out what’s going on from people who are living it — especially if you can’t get there yourself. On Friday, BuzzFeed’s new LA bureau gathered information about a harrowing hostage situation at a Nordstrom Rack in a Westchester Mall and the related lockdown of a nearby movie theater by reaching out to those trapped inside on Twitter.
The result was an overwhelming success. BuzzFeed got an inside glimpse into the situation by those who were in lockdown, and received valuable, real-time information as it happened. A situation like this, where an outlet gains unprecedented access to an emergency, perhaps wouldn’t be executable without Twitter’s openness and quick information transfers. Don’t be afraid to use it when you’re looking for information on emergencies and other breaking news happenings, because it could lead you to the best sources out there.
DON’T: Just for the Novelty
Celebrity, lifestyle or feature interviews conducted over Twitter, whether to gain access to an otherwise unreachable person or to boost social media activities around your own account, does more harm than good. Twitter is not the best place to engage on important topics that might lead a subject to go into detail simply because there isn’t room for that kind of conversation. Instead, a lot of these interviews result in filler — fluffy words, phrases and statements that are ultimately useless in any kind of story.
If it’s an availability issue, patience is a virtue — go through a celebrity’s publicist or a luminary’s agency before attempting to contact them through Twitter. However, feel free to use the service to check-in on an interview request (“I sent your team an interview request for @newspaper. Looking forward to hearing from you!”) or ask a question (“I’d love to speak with you for an interview with @newspaper. What’s the best way to reach you?”). If you use it further, any quotes you get will be bunk.
DO: If you’re allowing a free-for-all
Opening up your interview to the public is a great way to involve your readership in your work, and one place you can do that successfully is on Twitter. By utilizing a hashtag for your conversation with a subject, you can track the questions that are coming in and moderate them — picking the smartest questions is a must. It’s important to stress that, unlike the above scenario, this activity cannot be spontaneous. The best (and, frankly, only) way to conduct a public Twitter interview is to market it as an event and encourage readers to log on and participate. If you try to do it off the cuff, you may find there’s no one interested.
When done successfully, a Twitter interview capitalizes on the emerging trend of public-as-interviewer (think about the successes of Reddit’s AMAs, and you’re on the right track) while also giving a publication a sense of control about what is asked and how the question is phrased. Plus, it’s great publicity — especially if the subject is very interesting!
DON’T: If You Need It Later
Twitter conversations are, well, tangled. Conversation threads can break at various points, depending on how it unfolds, and the speed of Twitter makes it challenging to even keep track of a discussion between two people. If you’re looking to use this interview in a feature or lengthy piece rather than a wrote Q&A or for “color,” then you may find yourself at your wit’s end trying to parse through the different tweets you exchange with your subject.
The blessing and the curse of Twitter is that it’s short. Communication is short. Time is short. Words are short. Because there are a bunch of these little interview pieces floating around in the ether (and more, as sometimes quotes are split among two tweets), it takes extra work to keep them organized and in order. In many ways, you’re better off just picking up the phone and writing an email — especially if you’re averse to tedious work just to get a good quote in edgewise.
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