When a building exploded in Bozeman, Montana, last spring, leveling half a block of downtown and throwing debris as far as 200 feet, neither NewWest.Net—a Missoula-based online network covering the Rocky Mountain West—nor any local news organization had a reporter at the scene. But there were plenty of “reporters” there, ready and willing to broadcast via Twitter what was happening.

Within moments of the explosion, Bozeman “tweeps” had posted photos, described in detail the scene, and shared vital emergency information. A few hours later, those on Twitter were offering coverage of the city’s press conference and acting as a larger reporting team than any individual news organization in the community could have mustered.

Michael Becker, a Bozeman-based journalist who organized the explosion tweets into the now locally famous #bozexplode hashtag, wrote this on his blog:

For a long time, people have been talking about the potential of Twitter as a news source. Today, Twitter earned its stripes.

Since that day in Bozeman, Twitter’s ability—and agility—as a tool to gather and distribute breaking news has been exhibited throughout the world, in Iran and China most notably. Here in Montana, this explosion was our “aha” moment in experiencing how social media, Twitter, in particular, opens up new possibilities in journalism.

Before that day, we’d used Twitter to push our stories, viewing it as another channel by which to market our content. The Bozeman explosion demonstrated that its potential is much greater.

NewWest.Net, an online-only publication based in Missoula, Montana, relied extensively on first-person news accounts when half a block of downtown Bozeman was leveled by an explosion last spring, and it had no reporters on the scene.

Our Learning Curve

At NewWest.Net we began using Twitter and Facebook relatively early, although I can’t say we saw a clear path at the beginning. We made some rookie mistakes, the first being using our personal Twitter and Facebook accounts to post NewWest.Net stories, which created a weird intermingling of the personal and professional. Our next one was to link our Twitter account to our Facebook account that, as we learned, is not the point of Facebook.

One of our worst mistakes, and one many news organizations are still making, was to automate. To alleviate the time crunch of having to continually Tweet, we thought: Automation! There must be a way to automate this. And so we created a feed from our pages that on our instruction would post scheduled headlines and links to our Twitter account. That did not go well. If people wanted to subscribe to our headline feed, they’d do so via RSS or just go to our Web site.

Gradually we began to figure it out. First, we created and ramped up our NewWest.Net Twitter and Facebook accounts. Then, and this is no small task, our CEO and Editor in Chief Jonathan Weber and I carved out the time to use them.

We saw that Twitter is about personality—about adding value to your stories by pulling important information, soliciting feedback and, in general, acting like a human, not like a robot. When we turned off the Twitter link to the Facebook page, one of our readers wrote: “tweets are not fb status posts. glad you got it.” Loud and clear.

We started thinking about our Twitter feed as a separate product, another platform not just to push our journalism, but to do it as well. We used Twitter to do live coverage of stories of our choice. There’s an emphasis here on “choice.” Live-tweeting school board meetings might not quite work. Live-tweeting a high-profile court case, on the other hand, might. It’s all about listening to readers and applying news judgment in deciding which stories lend themselves to which medium.

Our most popular Twitter coverage turned out to be a court case: the bankruptcy trial of the ritzy Yellowstone Club resort. It got so much attention, in fact, that the court banned Weber from tweeting in the courtroom. As it turned out, witnesses and counsel were following our Twitter feed both inside and outside the courtroom. The judge disapproved, even after Weber gave him a personal lesson on what exactly Twitter was.

We’ve also used Twitter to help aggregate useful information for our readers by re-tweeting what others are saying, sending our followers to other interesting stories and, most importantly, making it a vehicle with which to converse with readers.

Since March, just after the Bozeman explosion, 600 people have become Twitter followers. We’re adding at least three new “friends” or fans on Facebook each day. In the past six months, traffic from Facebook to NewWest.Net has increased by more than 350 percent from the previous six months. It’s now No. 4 on our list of referring sites, up from 26. Traffic from Twitter is up by a bit more than 800 percent and is now our No. 8 means of referral, up from No. 74.

What Happens Next?

While the traffic boost is certainly good news, the value of using any social media application is found in its ability to facilitate meaningful conversation with users. This is something traditional news entities struggle with and even we—as an online-only publication—haven’t quite figured out how to do yet.

The Bozeman explosion served as a perfect example of how social media and mass media can lean on each other to create a new form of journalism. Throughout the coverage, I observed a fascinating symbiotic relationship forming. On-site observers used Twitter to cover the event in a way that we, as a small newsroom, could not. On the other hand, only a handful of people, especially in remote Montana, even knew at the time what Twitter was. So as good as the coverage was on Twitter, for the average Montanan, it was inaccessible until news organizations started using the information and pushing it to the broader public. The local radio station went live shortly after the explosion, took calls from people on the scene, and repeated what the anchor was finding out from Twitter.

NewWest.Net and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle both quoted from the Twitter feed, and we directed readers to those people tweeting from the site of the explosion. But we also performed another very important function: We filtered the information and confirmed facts. In most cases, the Twitter community was self-policing, but in one case, a tweet named an unconfirmed casualty and, while the Twitter community acted quickly to quash it, the name had already made the rounds. I don’t think this information made it into the mass media.

Again, Becker summed it up quite well on his blog:

Will this sort of thing ever replace those journalists who went into the blast zone this morning, the ones who stood at the press conferences and asked questions? No. Not at all. But Twitter did a job that traditional journalism could not possibly do in a city of this size. It informed the people as quickly as events happened and let people know what they needed to know right away.

Just like every other news organization—online and offline—we’re still assessing just how and when to use social media. There are still a lot of unanswered, even unasked, questions. But it’s here to stay—and it’s here to help us, if we can get past seeing it as a marketing vehicle and learn how to use it to create community by developing a relationship with our readers.

A few months ago, I was given an additional duty in my job description: “Spend meaningful time on Twitter and Facebook.” That’s something I never thought I’d see.

Courtney Lowery is the editor of NewWest.Net.

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