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Journalists Adapt to Twitter World

Political correspondents Karen Tumulty and Jake Tapper take up tweeting.

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Twitter allots 160 characters to “bio” on its profile pages, but Time national political correspondent Karen Tumulty didn’t need that many for hers. “Trying to adapt,” she wrote.

Coming to Time in 1994 from the Los Angeles Times, Tumulty says, was “moving backwards in terms of immediacy” — that is, until Time’s big online effort in 2007. “They pushed me into blogging,” Tumulty admits. “I didn’t read blogs. I didn’t understand blogs.”

These days, Tumulty juggles traditional Time magazine responsibilities — this week, a cover story with an Oval Office interview on health care — with her posts on Time’s Swampland blog and on Twitter, where she follows relevant sources on politics and health care reform. “Trying to adapt” means adjusting to the expectation that everything be backed up by a link to direct evidence, that posts are organic and can be updated with more information — and that absolutely everything she reports on will be second-guessed. She often addresses criticisms directly in a post’s comments, mixing it up with her Twitter followers on everything from the Congressional Budget Office to the fit of Sonia Sotomayor’s jacket.

“It’s almost like the Socratic method of journalism,” Tumulty says. “If you approach it the right way, it makes you a better reporter, and it makes you a sharper thinker.”

The days of journalism as a one-way broadcast have long been over. It no longer matters if you buy ink by the barrel, as the old saying goes — anyone on the Internet can pick a fight, or start a conversation, with a journalist, and increasingly journalists are talking back.

Nowhere is this truer than on Twitter, with its speed and current zeitgeist credibility. If the Internet is already an intimidatingly (or thrillingly) informal and unhierarchical place for some old-line media folks, Twitter takes unfiltered accessibility to the next level.

Take ABC Senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper, no slouch on television or his blog, but who has taken to Twitter with almost manic productivity. Like many of his colleagues, he updates on breaking news, plugs his appearances and blog posts and jokes around with fellow reporters. He has had extensive exchanges with Sen. John McCain (also a devoted user) about the issues. And he holds conversations with a broad range of “regular” people with whom he otherwise might never interact, defending his coverage. “I have plenty of people following me who don’t seem to care for the media or for ABC News, and every day what I do as a journalist is being questioned. And that’s all great, because otherwise there’s no way to hear that kind of feedback,” he says. Twitter, he says, takes him outside “the elite chattering class.”

The White House press corps are often accused of insularity, but as its ranks enthusiastically adopt the form, they arguably increase transparency and accountability. And so far, many of them like it.

“In 30 years of radio I would get an occasional letter, almost never a phone call,” says longtime CBS Radio White House correspondent Mark Knoller. “It was hard to track me down — the CBS phone in the White House isn’t listed. But on Twitter everybody feels totally at ease telling me what they think.” He has responded to followers who, for example, accuse him of being too easy or too hard on the president, or who ask him questions drawing on his institutional memory of the White House since Gerald Ford.

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