Former Student Wins Pulitzer Prize With Tweets Even Without J-School Instruction on Twitter

Even without formal instruction from my multimedia journalism course, Tuscaloosa News’ Wayne Grayson figured out how to make Twitter a critical part of breaking news coverage, which won the news organization a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting.

Something happened on Monday that has never happened in my nine-year career as a full-time journalism instructor:  a former student of not one, but two of my journalism classes won a Pulitzer Prize for his role on a news staff recognized for covering breaking news.

When I saw the announcement Monday, the first thing I could think to do was to send out a congratulatory tweet on Twitter.

In his Gadgetron newspaper column in today’s Tuscaloosa News, Wayne Grayson, credited his use of that microblogging service with helping him and his fellow staff members secure the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting.

Wayne Grayson in 2008 when he was a student in my Reporting and Writing Across Media class. This month he is part of the news team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting.

Four years ago this week, Wayne Grayson completed my Reporting and Writing Across Media course here at the University of Alabama in the Spring 2008 semester.  Little did he know that three years later, he would be covering  Alabama’s worst natural disaster, the EF-4 tornado that destroyed multiple communities here in Tuscaloosa alone.


I would never take credit for Grayson’s preparation to produce Pulitzer prize-winning work.     But, positioning our students to be able to cover a story like last April’s deadly tornado outbreak is what it’s all about, right?

Isn’t that why we journalists leave the newsroom and assume second careers full-time in the college classroom?    Often on days like last April 27, 2011, many of us long to be back in the thick of producing breaking news coverage.

Instead, we’re on the sidelines consuming and commenting on the great work that our graduates like Grayson are able to produce.

Social Media Required of a Pulitzer Winner

From Grayson’s newspaper column, I learned that this was the first year that the Pulitzer committee stressed the inclusion of social media as a part of submission for the Breaking News Reporting award.

“I am proud that it played a part in our winning,” Grayson wrote. “If you had told me that would happen a few months prior to the tornado, I would have laughed,” a reference to the Twitter skeptics in the T-News newsroom.

We all know about those skeptics of Twitter and other social media outlets, especially among the faculty teaching journalism and mass communication today.

Unlike my cross-media reporting class today,  Grayson’s class in 2008 did not have to use social media to meet course requirements.   His French Fry Filosophy blog was what Grayson used in conjunction with a multimedia reporting package and team-reporting experience to finish the course.

Now I require every student in that JN 325 course to have a Twitter account and do news gathering exercises using 140-character tweets promoting their updates on their blogs.    But, how much do those exercises REALLY help in preparing them to do what Grayson did last April 27th?

The Limits of Formal Social Media Instruction

As I noted in an earlier post here last summer, requiring Twitter use in some media classes just doesn’t work as many students only do what is needed to pass the class.

Even now, I’m not certain undergraduate students take seriously the importance of learning how to use social media as a necessary reporting tool for either producing news or strategic communication messages.

Certainly, I could start by making Grayson’s column required reading in my basic reporting class this summer.  Also, there’s the piece by the Poynter Institute’s Jeff Sonderman on  “How The Tuscaloosa News’ post-tornado tweeting helped bring home a Pulitzer Prize.”

I could also let the students study the 21 pages of Tweets that were submitted as part of the T-News Pulitzer Prize submission.

Can we really simulate the “tweeting words and pictures incessantly” that Grayson recalled doing in the immediate aftermath of the tornado coming through this town a year ago?

In my basic reporting class this summer, I will have mostly students preparing for work in public relations.   But,  as Ellen East, a former journalist  who now works in PR told us earlier this year,  social media outlets are absolutely critical for PR practitioners to know how to use too.

But there’s only so much we can TEACH in a class, especially when there are as many students who never plan to step foot in a newsroom as there are students like Wayne Grayson.

The fact is the Dothan native, who was just 25 years old when he covered the April 27th tornado, arrived in my class in January 2008 already blogging.

He was a technology enthusiast then and leveraged that interest to start The Gadgetron blog, to which he posts several times a day.  His Gadgetron newspaper column is for Sunday print edition readers of  The Tuscaloosa News like me.

So I think that’s enough proof my JN 325 had nothing to do with what he did April 27, 2012.

As journalism professors, we have to acknowledge the limited role of  our formal instruction, which has to focus on the journalism basics.  In 15 weeks, we  provide nuts and bolts learning experiences on which a graduate can build when he or she gets out there in the real world.

Even for a Pulitzer Prize-winning news staff, sometimes typographical errors can make it onto one's web site (I'm sure there are some on this blog). I wonder how long "EXLPORING" has been on the Gadgetron site. As journalism instructors, we probably give more attention to these kinds of basics than we do how to tweet on breaking story.

What Now?

Even if it doesn’t mean incessant tweeting or posting, my social media requirement is designed to help students crawl before they walk, especially when they’re still learning how to produce an accurate, complete news narrative on multiple platforms.

Wayne Grayson and his colleagues at the T-News winning journalism’s top prize, in part because of their use of social media, makes arguing for WHY we require social media of our students a little bit easier.

Twitter, Wiggio Expand Scope of 2012 Gulf South Summit Beyond Hattiesburg

Twitter and Wiggio each make a contribution to the 2012 Gulf South Summit. Glad we’re using these tools to take the conference beyond the Lake Terrace Convention Center.

HATTIESBURG, Miss–  A few days before the conference, I contacted one of the organizers to find out what our Twitter hashtag would be for this 2012 Gulf South Summit, my first such gathering.

The reply I received was “We’re using Wiggio and you should have gotten an invitation to join,”

I thought “Wiggio” What’s that?  Thankfully a YouTube video explained to me.

Even though I created my account before coming here to Hattiesburg, I was still a little fuzzy on how Wiggio could compete with Twitter in the social media arena,

It can’t.

Groups are not the same thing as social networks.  Each has a place at a conference like this.

Thankfully, someone had posted fliers around the Lake Terrace Convention Center notifying conference attendees to follow up on Twitter using the hashtag #GSS2012

The bigger point here is this gathering is using electronic means of sharing presentations, videos, handouts AND building community online, one that will last long after we leave Hattiesburg.

Patti Clayton facilitated a service learning seminar I attended at IUPUI last summer.

Today’s luncheon keynote with my friend Patti Clayton, involved a Tweet N’ Talk where people could respond to some of the prompts from Clayton either by talking to those at their tables on communicating in 140-character updates.

It was a real neat way to integrate social media into our deliberations.

While most at my table were not on Twitter (and I found myself educating them about this social media platform), it was encouraging how many service learning educators are there– communicating in the Twitterverse.

This afternoon, there were some presentations on social media and service learning.  I hate that I missed them.

But, thanks to Wiggio, I might be able to at least review the slides before the week is out.

Times Writer, Movie Star Brian Stelter to Appear at AEJMC Conference Wednesday

New York Times Media Reporter Brian Stelter will appear on an 1:30 p.m. AEJMC Panel Discussion on “Social Media on Crisis Coverage and Crisis Management During ​a Natural Disaster.”

ST. LOUIS– Even though I haven’t yet seen his performance in the new Page One film, Brian Stelter will be making an appearance Wednesday here at the AEJMC Annual Conference.   So I’ll at least get to hear the New York Times media reporter in person.

You may remember earlier this summer I did an analysis of Stelter’s tweets during the Joplin, MO tornado.

On Wednesday, he talks about the “Impact of Social Media on Crisis Coverage and Crisis Management During a Natural Disaster.”  The 1:30 p.m. session occurs exactly 24 hours before I lead a session on the teaching aspect of extreme weather.

In an interview published by last month, Stelter  said Twitter  is:

  1. An early warning system for breaking news
  2. A tool for interacting with readers
  3. A great way to promote and improve our work.
We’ll look to see WHAT ELSE he says about this particular social media outlet on Wednesday.

Twitter Does Not Always Work As A Class Requirement

Using Twitter as a required tool in a Race, Gender and Media class this summer taught me some lessons about the limits of social media in a mass communications classroom.

Just posted my final grades for the Race, Gender and Media class I taught at the University of Alabama this summer.

Most all of the students did well– very well!

But, I need to grade the new tool that we used– Twitter. For this class, it gets a “C”

With just eight 4-hour class meetings,  this Race, Gender and Media  course was heavily based on screening media projects that emphasize issues of race and issues of gender in the mass media.

I’ve been posting summaries of their tweets here.

Most recently, students tweeted on Spike Lee’s film, Bamboozled.

Last week, they tweeted on Media Education Foundation’s “Further Off the Straight and Narrow.”

And earlier in the term, they shared on Twitter their reactions to Part 1 of  CNN’s 2009 documentary, Latino in America.

Educational Tweets

I laughed each time the students would use the term “educational tweets”  when announcing to their followers that they were about to send comments about a movie, film or documentary we were watching in class.

I think it was a signal that their educational work was crossing over into a social space.

The enthusiasm was not especially high as I was asked “Do we have to Tweet about this?”

After all, microblogging is occurring on a social networking platform.

I’m NOT sure this activity works as a required classroom activity

It’s Different From Journalism and Public Relations

With any course, you have to establish specific expectations in order for a requirement to be taken seriously.

The expectation over the five media projects on which we Tweeted was that EACH student would send at least 2 tweets per project.   That’s a total of 8 tweets for the whole term.

Most students didn’t have a problem doing that.

While in a course like newswriting and reporting, we are teaching students how to use social media as a tool for research, building reputation and relationships, those same skill expectations don’t necessarily transfer in a conceptual course such as Race, Gender and Media.

For those used to using social media to socialize, they may not be building much of  a reputation by commenting briefly on things their followers haven’t seen.

More importantly, “forced Tweeting” doesn’t result in the profound insights that add much to our classroom dialogue and discussion– a goal I had for this component of the class.

We Did Get Feedback

Another goal I had was for those outside in our class to engage students on some of the things they were saying about the projects we screened.

Using Twitter handles of some of the principles in the projects was one strategy to encourage such engagement.

We did have one producer of one of the projects DIRECT MESSAGE me inquiring about the project.

I pointed him to the posting using STORIFY  summarizing the tweets.

Another student tweeted to a professor in a previous class that he was watching a particular film.  The professor re-tweeted his post.

So I guess these count as feedback and interaction.

The Bottomline on Requiring Twitter

One of the biggest reasons I like teaching courses in the summer is the chance to experiment with different, unconventional ways of teaching and learning.

This was the second time I required students in a class to have a Twitter account and use it.   The results were, at best, mixed.

Here’s what we learned:

1.  The best Twitter usage in a classroom environment comes from those who are already used to the tool and know how to engage followers

Forcing students to do something like this as we would a written assignment doesn’t make them any more prepared for the workplace.  The motivation has to come from within. A grade is not enough.

2. Online interaction via social networking is NO SUBSTITUTE for face-to-face classroom interaction.

Our best classroom discussion came in the last 30 minutes of  the last class meeting this past Tuesday.  No Twitter needed– just students comfortable sharing their feelings and plenty of time, which we didn’t have at 8:30 Tuesday night.

3. STORIFY is NOT the best tool for context

On my syllabus I noted that I would be summarizing tweets using the STORIFY tool.  It had a limited amount of space for contextualizing the tweets.   So it didn’t quite meet my need in this setting.   STORIFY works best if the 140-character missives are pithy, memorable often with links take the reader somewhere.

4. Teaching Twitter really requires time

Before putting an assignment like this into the class, the instructor needs to build in time for students to “lurk a little”– see what other Twitter users said about something similar to the topic on which they’ll be tweeting.  This means more classtime is necessary.

5. Twitter works best in a skills-oriented class

I think a course that is showing students to how to use Twitter as a tool for engagement in an advertising or public relations campaign or to find information for a story or engagement a readership or viewership on a news item is one thing.  Requiring students to contribute via Twitter is an entirely different story,  where the skills and importance of using the medium  are not as clearcut.

So, I won’t use Twitter again in this class, but I will take that effort and roll it back into the face-to-face classroom discussions.    Lesson Learned!

What Does It Mean to Have 500 Quality Twitter Followers?

Reaching the 500-follower threshold on Twitter providers an occasion to reflect on this particular social media journey from January 2008 to July 2011.

I reached what I consider to be an important milestone this past week-  500 followers on Twitter.

I like to say that really means 500 people or at least 500 Twitter accounts that are registered to track what I have to say.

No, I don’t use any automated techniques (that I know of) to attract followers.  So I believe these are 500 QUALITY followers– mostly people I know and have met.

Should I be excited?

Well, I am happy that I have an audience of those who actually care about what I have to say.   Unlike my fellow broadcast journalists who occupy anchor chairs and never tweet but yet have double the number of followers, I actually do use the resource once in a while.

While I do occasionally post updates on Facebook, I am far more likely to provide useful information on Twitter with a 140-character tweet.

This picture shows University of Florida's Julie Dodd, who here in January 2008 introduced me to Twitter. Today I have more than 500 followers on Twitter.

The Lady Who Made It Happen

I credit University of Florida Journalism Professor Julie Dodd with my being on Twitter.

It was her  “Staying on Top of Technology” session at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Midwinter Meeting of the Scholastic Journalism Division where she introduced the concept of microblogging and the Twitter tool.

After that introduction at The Poynter Institute  in January 2008, I came back to Alabama and started my account.  Three-and-a-half years later, I finally know how to use Twitter and people are following me.

Tightening Up on Twitter as You Teach It

I frequently quote my colleague, Sybril Bennett (Belmont University) who says Twitter is about research, relationships and reputation.

Dr. Syb (as she’s known in the Twitterverse) is right on!

This summer, I’ve strengthened my understanding of Twitter thanks to people like Robin Ware of  The Ware Agency, who showed me how those in the faith-based community are using Twitter.

In 2011, I’ve been sending more direct messages and engaging in exchanges with followers.

After a project earlier this year where I tracked Brian Stelter’s tweets in the aftermath of the Joplin tornado, I learned how a very busy media reporter for The New York Times takes the time to respond to Tweets.

He and National Public Radio’s David Folkenflik have taken the time to respond.

If they can respond, so can I.

An Ambitious Twitter Class Project

This week we’re going to another level with Twitter as my University of Alabama students in a short summer course on  Race, Gender and Media class are forming a network on Twitter to engage in the Twitterverse.

I suggested that we all follow each other.  (No, that’s now why I’m at 500 followers.)   To date, I can only count two of my 500 followers from this particular class exercise.

We’re hoping that in addition to extending class discussion, we can engage some of those who have created the documentaries and news products we’re screening in the class.

Researching  Tweets

I just learned today that there’s some interest in a research project I’m doing to look at how we as mass media researchers MEASURE our tweets.

An abstract on that topic has been accepted for presentation at an academic conference in October.

I’ll be re-linking with my colleague, Natalie Brown, to look at one of those measures.

So, 500 Followers– just an indication of what is to come for me in this medium.

Readers Learn a Lot From Brian Stelter’s Joplin Tweets

Reading the New York Times’ Brian Stelter’s tweets from Joplin, Missouri helps one really see how this social media outlet can give reporters a very useful outlet for breaking news.

As one who is pretty immersed in and enamored with how Twitter is used by journalists, I was especially intrigued by the New York Times’ Brian Stelter’s retrospective  last week on his experience covering the aftermath of the Joplin tornado.

Brian Stelter's BusinessInsider Photo

“My best reporting was on Twitter,” Stelter said. “But only up until a certain point on Monday.”

When I saw this, I thought – WELL, the only way to really judge what’s better and what’s best is to look at the tweets themselves.

While Stelter provided an archive of his own tweets,  they don’t tell the full story of this reporter who actually was tweeting on the Joplin, Tornado many hours before he arrived in Joplin.

Also, to truly understand the chronological context for the tweets, one has to see the time stamp.    After a few days, the time stamp is only visible with a mouseover in Twitter.

One of my colleagues here at the University of Alabama, Natalie Brown, has become an expert at analyzing tweets. She and I have an ongoing research project that involves looking back at tweets over a series of months.

I thought perhaps reading through Brian Stelter’s 140-character missives for just a day would help me become at least half as adept at analyzing tweets as Brown.

Here’s what I learned from analyzing Brian Stelter’s Tweets


Total Number of Tweets from Joplin: 97 (if you include just the ones that Stelter initiated)

Total Number of Exchanges While in Joplin with Readers: 3

GRAND Total of Tweets: 100

The hour of the day when Brian tweeted the most: 5 p.m. hour on Tuesday, May 23.

Overnight Tweets Help

While Brian seems to think that after 11 p.m., his best work was what he was filing to the New York Times Web site or preparing for A1 in next day’s edition, I think there was tremendous value in the tweets that came overnight.

Certainly, the opportunity for great photos diminishes in darkness and there aren’t as many great stories in those less-active hours of the day.

The late night hours were when Stelter had his most interesting exchanges with Twitter followers.

Two readers challenged him on his statements about his work on the stories for the site and his naming of a particular auto company in his tweets.

This is not unlike other media outlets that operate around the clock.

Full disclosure: I used to produce morning newscasts in a Top Ten media market and am very familiar with the viewers/audience members who are still up in the wee hours of the morning who will call to engage you on your news product both online and on the air.

Now, with Twitter, our audience engages with us more easily all day– 24/7.

Stelter Struck a Balance

The lack of a stable Internet connection (as we had here in Tuscaloosa in the first few hours after the April 27th tornado) forced Stelter to do storytelling on his iPhone– a mobile reporting device with which more and more of our journalism students are bringing to class.

  • He established a balance between telling what he’s seeing and SHOWING what he’s seeing.
  • He gave Twitter followers a glimpse of the sausage-making (as we like to call) that happens as we as journalists GATHER the news.
  • Sometimes making the reporting process visible as it’s happening is warranted and I would argue, even preferred.
  • We didn’t see was a lot of promotion of updates on the Web site.   (I fear that if there were a stable connection, we might have seen more of that self-promotion and less gathering and writing.)
  • It’s natural for us to use Twitter to share what we’ve posted online (I do it several times a day).   But, what we saw in these tweets was the value of the tweets as reporting product themselves.
  • Last, but not least, Stelter did not invest a lot of time in Re-tweeting what other folks were doing in the field. He was too busy gathering information and getting it out.

I DO Agree with Stelter that  it would be best if  there were a “Get Me Rewrite” kind of person like I’m told newspapers had years ago when reporters would phone in their stories.

The harsh reality

Most reporters have not figured out the balance between tweeting what you’re reporting and working on the writing of the core reporting product- a TV story, a story for the web or for the next day’s newspaper.

We want to bring our Twitter followers with us through the process, but we haven’t quite figured out how to do that.

OUR NEXT STEP: Compare some of tweets of others covering the Joplin Tornado to Stelter’s to see how their observations differed.  And for the academic researchers reading this post– that’s an opportunity for scholarly inquiry here when one compares the tweets to what’s ending up in the newspaper or on the next newscast.

Thanks to Brian’s hard work, we’re a little bit closer to understanding what to do in efforts to understand the link between Twitter and journalism.

Five Reasons George Uses Twitter in His Journalism Classroom

As I talk briefly at the UA System Scholars Institute this afternoon about using Twitter, here are the FIVE takeaways:

1. It’s a Requirement today for Breaking News
If we learned anything from the story of bin Laden’s death or the details of the Tuscaloosa Tornado, Twitter was a necessary conduit for information.

2.  Our Students are Beginning to Show Up There. 
More students than ever before are raising their hands when I ask “how many of you are already on Twitter?”  This has shifted dramatically in just 12 months’ time.

3. I’m always interested in Building New Relationships for New Information
Every event that I intend where there’ someone else on Twitter is an opportunity for a relationship that will benefit my students either with a new story or insight or bit of information that can influence either their career or my own career.

4. Journalists Have to Do Research, A Goal that is accomplished with Twitter. 
My colleague at Belmont University Sybril Bennett has the THREE R’s of Twitter- Research, Relationships and Reputation.   Will I prioritize the first “R” as the biggest for me.  When I read someone else’s tweets, I find so many information that may or may not be available in the library or a web site that I didn’t know exists.

5. I’m Building My Own Online Community To Which I Invite My Students. 
With 400+ followers whose work and tweets I follow, I have my own community with whom I can collaborate.