Everyone is hopping onto the social networking train and social networks are fast becoming not only outlets for news but also sources of news. Making the most of social networks as a journalist is not as simple as creating an account and tweeting away. It takes a little bit of work to really turn them into useful tools. What follows are some ideas of how we, as journalists, can best use Twitter. It’s not an exhaustive list and the ideas here may apply equally well to other social networks but for simplicity’s sake I’ve focused on Twitter.

Expand your network
Don’t just follow the people you know and work with. Reach out to new people, search for experts in your beat and add them to your following list. Similarly, look for people that live in your community or work in the areas you cover. Twitter is not just about broadcasting your news, it’s also a powerful tool for gathering news. Limiting your following list to people you know personally limits the information you can discover.

Embrace readers
As journalists we write for readers. They are our audience. Twitter gives journalists a special opportunity to connect with readers. Make the most of it. Even if it is as simple as welcoming new followers, make an effort to talk directly to the people that follow you. Avoid doing this in an arrogant or automated way and make readers feel comfortable talking to you. And recognise followers when they post something interesting or help out with a question.

Encourage conversation
Twitter is a two-way medium. If you see something interesting, ask your followers about it. Chances are at least one of them knows more than you do. Or ask them for ideas. This comes hard for those of us in print where reader interaction has always been limited to irate letters after publication. Asking followers for ideas, more information or help doesn’t make us bad journalists. If anything it makes us more informed and able to produce a better final result. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, or even offer help where appropriate.

Avoid rumours. Provide clarity
The internet is fertile ground for rumour. Nothing spreads faster than a juicy rumour on Twitter. But, being on Twitter doesn’t mean you should lower your guard. Never simply forward tweets that sound like breaking news without checking them out. Many of your followers view you as a professional news source. Re-tweeting rumours reinforces the rumours as true. And ultimately, when the rumours are proved to be baseless, your reputation will suffer. Similarly, if you see a rumour being spread through social networks and you know it to not be true, inform your followers.

Twitter is more than just a constantly scrolling timeline. Learning to use Twitter’s search features properly is a valuable skill for journalists. Using Twitter Search journalists can find people that are close the scene of an event, people that are witnesses, or even links to videos, pictures and commentary around events. The recent killing of Osama bin Laden is a prime example where a Twitter user tweeted events as they unfolded. Take a look at Media Hack’s guide to using Twitter search for tips on advanced searches.

No-one likes a loudmouth. The same is true on Twitter. While it’s important to post regular updates (else why would people bother following you?) it’s equally important not to flood everyone’s timeline with minute-by-minute updates on your life. There’s probably no perfect number of tweets to post per day (although this study claims 22 is exactly that) so you need to feel out how many your followers can handle. If you’re reporting from a breaking news story frequent updates are probably in order. If you’re posting pictures of your pets then err of the side of fewer updates.

Don’t post everything
This requires judgement. Tweeting about a story that you’re working on puts it into the public domain. If the story is already public knowledge it’s probably not a problem. But if it’s an exclusive story it probably won’t be exclusive for much longer. It’s also worth checking on your publication’s social networking policy (see below) as far as breaking news on Twitter goes. Some organisations encourage breaking news in this way. Others frown on it.

Not just links
This is the opposite of encouraging conversation. If you’re only posting links to articles then you’re probably wasting your time. In fact you’d be better off finding someone to automate Twitter for you so you don’t have to bother to update your timeline at all. Seriously though, no matter how good your links are, simply posting links doesn’t give your followers any sense of who is behind the account, which for many is a major put-off. Don’t go overboard on personal updates, but a little bit of personality can go a long way.

Company policy
Before firing up your Twitter account it’s worth checking if your news organisation has a policy on social media. Some may demand that you post a disclaimer to distance your tweets from them. Others may encourage you to tweet on their behalf but set guidelines as to what you can and can’t do online. Rather check this out before you forge ahead and tweet about your wild weekend.

Forever public
Always assume that what you posts on Twitter, or any other social network, will remain public forever. They may not but it’s better to assume it will. What you post today could come back to haunt you in weeks, months or even years to come.

This list is a work in progress. Agree? Disagree? Think I’ve left something out? Your thoughts and additions are most welcome. alastair@mediahack.co.za or @alastairotter