I recently began looking at how many of South Africa’s newspaper editors were on Twitter. The result was this list and, pleasingly, many of the country’s editors are already on Twitter, although activity levels vary significantly.

In the process of compiling the list I began thinking about why it was important for editors to be on Twitter. I took it for granted that there was inherent value for editors to be on Twitter but had not actually articulated why. To clarify these thoughts I compiled this list.

I know that many traditional print editors are nervous of this new technology. Others think that Twitter is a waste of time (“Who wants to know what somebody had for lunch?”) and see it as a toy for teenagers. Most of that, I suspect, comes from ignorance of the technology and an unwillingness to give Twitter a chance.

I truly believe that there is much value to be derived from Twitter. Here are some of the reasons editors should be considering Twitter.

It’s where readers are

Gone are the days when the only way readers could express their views on current events was in a letter to the editor. Love it or hate it Twitter is increasingly becoming the go-to place for discussing news issues and expressing opinions. Any editor wanting to gauge popular opinion on current issues today would be remiss in not keeping an eye on Twitter. It’s also worth remembering that news organisations reflect the community around them. If a growing part of that community is on Twitter then editors (and journalists) ought to be paying attention to it.

It’s about leadership

Many print editors proudly declare themselves to be “old school”. Which is fine, except that it ought not to be an excuse for not embracing change. Young reporters coming into the profession today are already equipped with a range of digital skills: they tote their iPads, Tweet on their BlackBerrys and express opinions on blogs. This is not something that is going to change. Editors owe it to their staff to be at least conversant with the technology that reporters are already starting to use in their day-to-day work.

As much as editors may not be pleased about the digital changes squeezing business there is no way to escape. This is no longer about what damage digital could do to traditional print business models. It is about what digital is already doing to media businesses. The biggest change facing print news organisations today is making the transition to a new, mostly digital, future. Editors need to be taking control of this transition and leading. This is not a change than can be navigated from a comfort zone.

It’s about engagement

Not everyone is a fan of your newspaper or website. Not everyone agrees with your interpretation of the news of the day. As journalists we ought to be engaging with all viewpoints and as editors even more so. If one of your reporters breaks a big story and it’s being debated on Twitter it’s important to be part of that discussion, to clarify issues, to lead the debate and (at worst) to fend off detractors. Twitter offers a unique opportunity to talk directly with your readers and to own the stories you write across all platforms.

It’s about authority

Newspaper producers have been accustomed in the past to setting and leading the news agenda. Today they no longer enjoy that privilege and blogs, Twitter, Facebook, radio, television are all laying claim to the right to lead news debates. Not being on Twitter means you offer up that privilege to competitors without a fight.

It’s about marketing

Marketing is not usually a welcome word in the world of journalism but for print newspapers battling to hold onto their territory it’s a role they’re going to have to become used to. This doesn’t mean they have to become marketing drones. In fact, Twitter offers newspapers a fantastic new avenue to promote their journalists and the excellent news coverage they’re producing. In fact, it’s something that all journalists should be encouraged to do: promote their work and the work of colleagues on social networks. You expend energy every night to produce street pole posters to promote your work. Twitter is yet another avenue to raise awareness, and it has the potential to drive traffic directly to your websites.

It will open your eyes

Twitter will surprise you if you give it time. And not in a bad way. If you take time to follow a good handful of people (and not just your staff to keep an eye on them) you’ll eventually be rewarded with insights into what people (your potential readers) are thinking about. You’re also likely to find people who don’t like what you’re doing but prefer what other papers are doing. At the very least you’ll find new ideas, insights and opinions. Twitter is a lot like going to a massive conference with every imaginable subject on the agenda. Many of the topics will be of no interest to you but with a little bit of time you’re bound to find something that makes sense.

Know your enemy

Time and time again we hear how print news is under sustained attack by digital news, how online media is “eating our lunch”, and how digital media is going to put us out of work. And it’s true. Digital media is a massive onslaught on traditional print business models. The crucial point though is that this cannot be wished away. Rather keep your enemy close and learn how this “beast” can be tamed, because it can be tamed if you’re willing to take the time.

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