Journalists are obsessed with Twitter. Obsessed. They use it, talk about it, analyze it, deconstruct it, reconstruct it, love it, hate it, capitalize on it, become experts on it, monetize it, argue about it, and become micro-famous on it. They are mesmerized with what it is and they are as giddy as Tom Cruise on Oprah just thinking about what it could be.

Last Wednesday, MediaBistro held a panel discussion titled, “Journalists and Social Media: Sources, Skills, and the Writer.” The panelists included NYU professor and PressThink author Jay Rosen, NPR senior strategist Andy Carvin, BusinessWeek.com community editor Shirley Brady, and Daily Beast columnist Rachel Sklar. The four journalists discussed which social networks they liked best, their top concerns for the industry, and what they saw as the future of journalism. The main topic of conversation, however, was (of course) Twitter.

Twitter is popular not just because it allows journalists to crowdsource with thousands of people or because it’s a fun way of amassing followers and inflating egos. It also gives reporters a chance to create a new system of reporting. In the past, journalists were confined to their words and research methods, all dictated by traditional routines. Now they can create new strategies, use different tools, brand themselves differently, and propose new ideas. Twitter has given them hope and direction to do this because it has given them a public forum in which to loudly speak their ideas.

Twitter is hope for the future. It is promise of change. Twitter is journalism’s Obama.

Geo-locating Sources Helps Niche Reporting

“Journalists need to start seeing the public not just as audience members, but as sources,” said Andy Carvin as he held his cell phone tightly in his hand. While he explained the concept of Twitter to the audience, he was also sending out tweets in real time. In some places it could be interpreted as rude for Carvin to be immersed in his gadget while in front of an audience, but most likely the audience was doing the exact same thing.

And is it really all that weird for Carvin to be passionate about the one tool that has proven most promising for the future of journalism? Of course not. He has good reason to be in love with Twitter. Working at NPR’s Social Media Desk has allowed him to focus on new ways of interacting with the public to improve the quality of journalism.

i-1c58944519905b390cbd52bef84cda9a-Picture 6.png
Andy Carvin

Carvin highlighted this year’s presidential election as a perfect example of how Twitter could be used for journalism by capitalizing on niche topics and using location-based tools. “Twitter can be used to to report on, specifically, voting irregularities,” he explained.

NPR collaborated with the creators of Twitter Vision to create TwitterVoteReport.com, a site where people could use tweets, text messages, or voicemail to report any strange or bothersome experiences at voting locations. The site was a success, with around 10,000 people participating and numerous volunteers monitoring the stories.

It’s no wonder that an established organization like NPR was able to reach this level of response. Beat reporters, too, would benefit immensely from monitoring key words and hashtags on a micro-blogging platform, but it would require the public to be aware of such a platform and how to participate on each beat.

Twitter is a good starting point for monitoring conversations, but the real feat will be when someone figures out a way to create a community where the participants are knowingly and actively contributing their first-hand information to the reporter rather than the reporter taking the “overheard” information from the public.

Twitter Impossible to Avoid?

“These days you can’t hide behind your byline,” says Shirley Brady, agreeing that Twitter serves a role as a mediator between reporter and reader. “No matter what your specialty is, these days you are forced into the public arena. You have to really engage with your readers and you can’t just publish your story and move on to the next one. You have to keep the conversation going…which can be a pain when you’re done and on to a new assignment.”

i-b766b19262c84c192bbf6bfd3df5a0c3-Shirley_Brady-thumb-140x175.jpg

Brady’s efforts at BusinessWeek have been focused on getting journalists to interact with the public and getting staff comfortable online. These days there are 33 BusinessWeek blogs, with about 90 staff bloggers. It has become common practice for reporters to pick up interesting stories suggested by readers. “The economy is tough, but in a strange way, it’s actually a great time for journalists,” says Brady.

Indeed, it’s a great time for journalists — mostly because the Internet can now help them find credible sources of information. In the days of early AOL chat rooms, the public saw the Internet as a strange, “Lord of the Flies”-type society, where anonymous creeps could not be trusted. Now, not only has the Internet become a place where people can trust each other, but professionals are actually learning to take it seriously. Twitter has proven to be a credible source for breaking news, real time, and it can help build a future where the reader and the reporter can trust each other again.

Good Journalism Still Deserves Praise

For Rachel Sklar, Twitter is a place where she can be herself and be open about her urges for sharing everything. She admits that it may have even saved her life. However, the thing she resents about the mobilization of citizen journalism is that many have lost respect for the actual means of production — and have little appreciation for the work required to create a piece of good journalism.

i-ab1caf4628ba5b1844ed1b71e223ea03-rachel-sklar.jpg
Rachel Sklar

“It’s not just about ‘What I had for lunch,’” said Sklar. “It’s the actual time it takes to research context and [get] all the important elements that go into a story.” Sklar, who (like Carvin) sent out tweets during the panel, finds herself more and more concerned by the fact that the pendulum of interest has swung toward more “fun, sassy content” and away from “long, boring, investigative stuff.”

According to her, people are now used to getting content for free, making them progressively more apathetic to the people who created that content. Sure, Sklar loves tweeting just as much as the next “SNL”-loving journo, but as a self-described “ink-stained wretch,” Sklar hopes that long-form investigative journalism lives on to get the recognition it deserves.

Show Me the Money!

“Right now there is no business model in news,” said Jay Rosen. “We are between platforms. We understand the factors that are ending the current model, but nothing has changed yet.” Rosen says that no one has yet found an answer to the problem of monetizing journalism online, but he does not sound too worried. He uses Twitter as a “giant tipster network” and his vision is one of intelligent filters that focus and tighten information through the human social network.

i-c0e236869470c973c71eb96fbdfa90af-Picture 8-thumb-140x135.png
Jay Rosen

Undoubtedly, our press is at a very important moment — moving to a new platform, a new form of news. For Rosen, it was the open source revolution, the birth of Wikipedia, that made him realize how people could collaborate to produce journalism online. “Right now, the way you make yourself valuable on the Internet is you edit the f***ing web for people,” he exclaimed. Rosen doesn’t just study journalists; he actually tries to make change himself by running projects such as NewAssignment.net and BeatBlogging.org.

“It’s the simple idea that we ask a lot of people to help us with a task, and because the web has cut the costs to reach a lot of people, and cut the costs for those people to find each other and share information, we now have the resources to make things, build things, discover new opportunities,” Rosen said.

For now, the most obvious, the most accessible, and the most exciting tool to accomplish those things — or at least discuss them en masse — has been Twitter. It’s a place where journalists can think out loud. It’s a place for journalists to live and breathe journalism. It’s a breeding ground for new ideas. All it needs is seeds, water, and sunlight. Then wait.

*To watch what the panelists had to say over after-party drinks at the bar, check out this video:

(Video via MediaBistro)

Alana Taylor is a junior at New York University, double-majoring in journalism and history with a strong interest in film, entertainment, new media and technology. She currently manages her own blog, and works part-time as both a freelance social media consultant and a correspondent for Mashable, the world’s most popular social networking blog.