Is Twitter the true return of citizen journalism?

The short and quick answer to the question posed above is yes. There is no digitally based service that provides a better forum for quickly reporting and analyzing a situation based on the opportunity for a community to collectively report on a situation. But if you want a more detailed case for this argument, keep on reading…

2010 Chevy Volt

I spent the bulk of my day today at the North American International Auto Show. In the process I became a reporter again. It was far from my first time at Detroit’s annual auto extravaganza as a member of the media, but it was the first time I’ve been to the show armed with so many devices, my iPhone and an array of social networking services that are followed by a reasonably sizable audience.

What happened was pretty inspiring. My coverage of the show Tuesday was truly a collaborative effort – an exercise in citizen journalism. During the course of the day, I had conversations about vehicles and the show with PR professionals (Scott Monty), Bloggers (Andrew Mrozinski at RideStory), Gearheads and interested non-auto professionals (Shelli Gutholm), both via Twitter and in real-time.

For the first time in quite a while, I was a journalist again. I snapped photos, shot video and immediately began transmitting short snippets and thoughts about the show via my Twitter feed, launching into conversations with fellow journalists, PR folks and gearheads. After my initial tweets began, I began talking about NAIAS with journalists and enthusiasts who couldn’t attend and was able to provide several of them with photos and information that they wanted to see on specific models. The photo below, for example, was requested by a Ford fan in Austin.

The 2010 Ford Taurus

In short, the community at large shaped my story and the way I approached this year’s show. I didn’t explore and tweet about the show in the way I would have covered it. Instead, the tweets and brightkite posts I made were made about certain the vehicles were shaped by my audience.

Chevy Orlando

What Twitter and microblogging services are providing us is a true citizen form of journalism, albeit a bit underutilized. Twitter needs to evolve to be a place where people go to for news other than just widely-discussed events like the North American International Auto Show. It’s here that traditional media outlets like @CNN, @FoxNews and @NYTimes have a real chance at involving their audience in the coverage of events and integrating it into all forms of media – print, digital and otherwise.

We need only look back to the attacks on Mumbai to see the true power of Twitter’s citizen journalism potential. According to New York Times research, at the peak of the violence, more than one message per second with the word “Mumbai” in it was being posted onto Twitter. But the traditional media outlets should create feeds of these tweets and help decipher, map and weave them into lengthier stories and microsites on their own Web sites to create a richer story. When the big media outlets truly empower the citizen reporter and make sense of the micro-blogosphere, truly powerful results can occur. Blogs have been doing this via commenting for years, but traditional media outlets have the unique perspective to use their credibility to empower truly passionate citizens. This is how newspapers in general began. It’s high time they returned to empowering the community and citizens that they serve.

What do you think? What’s standing in the way of Twitter becoming a truly amazing experiment in citizen journalism?

Why I redesigned

When people ask me what I do, I sometimes struggle to come up with a definition. During the course of my career, I’ve been a lot of different things. I’ve been a newspaper reporter, a Web designer, a programmer, a marketer, a strategist and probably a slew of other titles that I can’t recall. My favorite title is probably “husband.” While I wear this one full-time, I sometimes wonder if I’m cut out for the job. Thankfully, I have the best co-worker a man could ask for. But I digress.

Dan and Vita at BW3

Despite my career meanderings, the thing that has never changed is the fact that I’ve worked to produce engaging and meaningful content. It’s exactly for that reason I redesigned my Web site. The previous two versions of my site were creatively driven. I used this space to showcased my design skills, my creative portfolio and my love for music and art. I maintained a blog that largely came second.

As I have become more interested in social media and in developing content solutions for clients, I’ve realized it’s time to take my own medicine. It’s high time I start being more congruent – to practice what I preach – and to produce some quality, engaging content of my own. And with my redesigned site, powered by WordPress, I believe I have the right tools in place.

Hopefully, we’ll have some interesting conversations and we can learn from each other. I’m looking forward to a more frequently updated, more usable I’m open to your thoughts and suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Engaging content ALWAYS has an audience

One of the things I consistently hear from my clients (and friends for that matter) is that they don’t believe anyone will be interested in what they have to say.

How we produce product x isn’t exactly exciting bedtime reading, they’ll say. For you and I, it may not be, but believe me, there’s something for everyone out there. l know this, simply from the wealth of custom publications that come across my desk each month. Take  Potato Grower as an example. While the science of spuds means absolutely nothing to me, it’s probably incredibly engaging for people who’s lives revolve around these little brown bombs.

Sure, it’s no Esquire, but the copy is well written, and the photography is interesting (Read as: not just pictures of roots and dirt.). Best of all, Potato Grower asks for and takes part in -get this- discussions! The magazine focuses on both individual growers and products. It lifts up the common potato farmer onto a pedistal, sounding off on their issues and telling their stories in a very compelling way. Best of all, the magazine embraces the flaws of the industry as well as the successes. That content has kept spud enthusiasts coming back for 38-years.

If potatoes can grab eyeballs and start conversations, it shouldn’t be that difficult for you (or your brand) to strike up a few discussions of your own. How do I do it you ask? In my humble opinion these are the five absolute musts for creating engaging content.

1. Be Human

People read your content, so it follows that you should be able to act and write  like a person as well. If you’re writing a blog, whether it’s corporate or not, the authors should present themselves as human beings. If it seems like a strange concept, it shouldn’t be. There are faces behind everything, whether those faces are running a business, government or a household (my wife Vita, for instance, is pretty much the loudest voice behind this particular geek’s domain). Tell me something. Don’t focus on the masses. If you make it personal and human, I’m more likely to comment and a lot more likely to become engaged with your message, your brand and the people that make it special.

2. Ask me what the hell I think!

This applies for anything in life, not just custom content. Whether you’re publishing a magazine, blog or telling a story, you have to ask your audience what it thinks at some point. If you never pose the question, you’re simply an orator, and eventually you’ll lose your audience. Everyone, I mean EVERYONE, has a threshold at which they’ll no longer want to listen to a talking head. If you ask people for input, you’ll get it. It’s a simple concept, but one that is far too often ignored by content providers (especially brands) that think they know what their consumers are thinking.

3. Empower the right voices

I can’t stress the importance of  having a strong voice for your content. If you’re launching a new vehicle, I don’t want the message via canned press release, or your graying CEO struggling to climb out of the car. I want the enthusiastic gearhead, an articulate designer or a fanboy presenting it to me and to the world. If your executive set is engaging (Think Steve Jobs of Apple), by all means, let them do their thing. But if you have a boring voice, chances are pretty strong that no one will be paying attention to what you’re saying. Personally, I think Ford Motor Company has done a fantastic job of empowering some amazing voices to help create content and engage both their fans and critics. Yep, I’m talking about Scott Monty. (Eds note: If you don’t read or follow Scott, you’re missing out on a true Social Media/Content soldier).

4. Be topical, but don’t grandstand

I don’t want to read only about your company, your product or you. I want your take on things within your greater industry or organization. I want to know what you think about current issues that may factor into your business or your product. If you’re only talking about what you do, you’re not growing and you’re no longer being a source of information. Remember, we already said we were going to be human in rule number one. Last time I checked, humans were citizens of earth and thus, should reflect the world around them.

5. Have a strategy

So, you have the engagement, you’re a better steward in the fight to keep your customers informed, but that’s really not enough. Make sure you develop a theme or message, one that goes beyond your corporate or personal tagline. Keep your strategy consistent with your vision or the vision of the organization. Again Scott Monty does this incredibly well. On his Twitter feed he keeps his messages personal, but always frames his message with Ford’s vision and tagline in mind. After you read a few of Scott’s tweets, you’ll realize he’s being entirely congruent with Ford’s turnaround plan and really does embody the “Drive One” mentality of today’s Ford Motor Company.

Finally, just remember that once you get the engagement, respond. It’s great that you have a lot of comments, but if you don’t talk back, it’s no longer engagement and it’s certainly not a conversation. Have fun out there.