Just hours after Hurricane Ike roared ashore over Galveston Island, American-Statesman journalists Tony Plohetski, Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon and Jay Janner sat in their rental car on the north side of the I-45 causeway looking at a scene they will likely never forget.
12 p.m. Sept. 13: We’re at the Causeway at Galveston Island. It’s a MESS. The southbound side is completely under water.
The short dispatch was from Plohetski, who was tapping away on his laptop keyboard. Thanks to a wireless signal, everything he typed was transmitted and published almost instantly onto Twitter, a funny-sounding Internet tool that has the power to change the way journalists — and everyone else — communicate.
Within minutes, Plohetski told me (and thousands of readers following us at twitter.com/trackingike) that his crew was going to be allowed to cross the causeway to Galveston by following a convoy of law-enforcement vehicles.
12:07 p.m.: Highway littered with refrigerators, boats, jetskis, coolers, you name it.
12:10 p.m.: Smoke billowing from fires all over Galveston.
12:10 p.m.: The bay side of the island is completely under water. It looks like an absolute war zone.
Plohetski gave several other reports of what he was seeing. Then, he typed this:
12:18 p.m.: Hoping we don’t lose wireless connection. Causeway is just littered. We are literally driving around boats. Seriously.
Six minutes later, Plohetski typed:
We’re at Broadway at 55th Street. The smell of smoke is everywhere. Galveston is burning.
Notice how short the dispatches are. Twitter is a free Web-based service that allows anyone to type short comments (maximum 140 characters per “Tweet”). You broadcast these to anyone who chooses to follow you, and you follow anyone who you think is interesting. The service has caught fire among early adopters and is starting to hit the mainstream.
So, who was seeing what Plohetski was writing? The Twitter account I set up for Hurricane Ike coverage had 1,280 “followers” at the time. The majority of them were Houston-area residents. Many had told me in messages through the service that our dispatches, which are easily viewable on mobile phones as well as on computers, were the only way they were getting news once the power went out. Many of these people were “retweeting” his posts — copying Plohetski’s words and sending them out to their followers, allowing his reports to reach thousands more.
The New York Times was quoting Plohetski’s dispatches on its Web site. The Los Angeles Times was also linking to our Twitter dispatches.
However, the real power of Twitter is the interaction it allows. Readers asked questions and got answers. Readers told us of areas of destruction through Twitter, and our reporters checked out those areas. And when we saw a good dispatch from a non-journalist Twitter user, we retweeted their posts so our followers could get the most comprehensive news possible.
Plohetski wasn’t the only journalist with the Statesman using Twitter during Ike. Sanhueza-Lyon, Marty Toohey and Patrick George also posted their observations in near real-time from the field throughout the weekend. I ran ground support here in Austin. Before the hurricane hit, I posted updates every three hours as the National Hurricane Center updated. I also posted links to our journalists’ blogs, videos and photos and retweeted others’ interesting posts.
By newspaper Web site standards, this was a success. We received a little more than 300,000 page views over the weekend directly from Twitter. And we received nearly 60 positive feedback comments from our followers.
Twitter, which is popular in Austin partly because it was introduced during the 2007 South by Southwest Interactive Festival, is growing quickly. Nielsen Online says Twitter had 2.3 million unique users in August, a 422 percent growth rate over the previous August.
I started using Twitter in June to get the news out in a new way. Using an official Statesman account (twitter.com/statesman), I send out a dozen or so daily dispatches, delivering the news with a personal voice. Our account has more than 1,400 followers, making it the fourth-most followed newspaper Twitter account in the nation. Our entertainment site also has an account (twitter.com/austin360) that Austin360.com editor Gary Dinges uses. It has nearly 900 followers.
The Statesman Twitter account has been well-received by an audience made up of people who most likely would never have read the paper, online or in print.
This weekend, we’re going to attack the Austin City Limits Music Festival by Twittering from the festival (and listening to your Tweets and posting them on our Web sites) using twitter.com/360acl. Come join us!
Robert Quigley is Internet editor for statesman.com and Austin360.com. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/statesman and twitter.com/robquig.