TOOLBOX: Social Media Tools for the Environment Beat

May 14, 2008

Publication date: May 14, 2008


Media aren't what - or where - they used to be, especially when it comes to news. For instance, on May 12, 2008, in the wee hours of the morning (by US reckoning) users of the popular social media service Twitter broke the news of a major earthquake centered in Chengdu, China, three minutes before the USGS earthquake reporting site posted its announcement.

How can journalists use social media and blogging tools to enhance coverage of local, national, or global environmental issues - as well as build stronger relationships with communities concerned with these issues? Here are a few ideas any environmental journalist (on their own, or with the support of a news org) can try out - using free or cheap online tools:


A "panel blog" is authored by a defined team of contributors: experts and/or community members, selected by the journalist or news org. Panel blogs seem to work best when focused on a beat (like the environment), rather than a single issue or story (like a local Superfund site). Contributors should represent diverse but complementary perspectives and expertise, and be drawn toward consensus (or at least civil disagreement), rather than conflict. Examples include:

  • Greenwash Brigade: Environmentally themed panel blog of experts, assembled through American Public Media's Public Insight Network.
  • On Faith: Blog is on faith, rather than environment, but offers a good example of the genre.

Tips for running a panel blog:

  • Find qualified contributors who are enthusiastic about participating. If they're already blogging, that's even better. Don't work with anyone you have to coax.
  • Rotate contributors in and out over time, for variety and so you don't burn out your volunteers. Allow would-be newcomers to try out via a "guest post."
  • Use a multi-author blogging tool that provides unique author bylines on each post. That's a nice perk for volunteers.
  • Coordinate behind-the-scenes with your team of contributors by conference call or private e-mail list. This is a good way to set expectations, style, rules, and tone; do editorial planning; etc.
  • Don't hold panel members to same standards as reporting staff. Transparency pays off here. For instance, if a writer works for a company involved in the issue being covered, that's OK as long as you disclose it and set expectations for fairness.
  • If authors have trouble coming up with writing ideas, toss out a question and let them each respond.
  • Allow readers to comment on the blog, and encourage your team to respond via public comments to readers and to each other.


Ning is a social media "platform" - a service that allows you to set up your own community site, complete with a set of customizable tools to allow members to interact and share content in potentially useful ways. Setting up a Ning community for your beat could be a constructive way to engage your community in its own environmental news.

At the San Jose Mercury News, reporter Matt Nauman has created a semi-public Ning community, Green Tech Beat, to support his coverage of alternative energy and green technology. Much of the content of that site is visible to the public, but access to the forum requires administrator approval. Nauman's project is part of's Beat Blogging initiative.

You can apply a domain name (like "") or subdomain name (like "") to a Ning community site, to help establish its identity. However, at this time it does not seem possible to actually embed a Ning community with an existing news site. Therefore, visual branding on the Ning site (graphics, links,etc.) is important to establish the connection with the journalist or news org.


As the China example cited earlier indicates, Twitter is fast becoming the online equivalent of a police scanner. Plus, it's helpful for building community relationships.

Twitter is a social media service that allows you to publish text-only posts of 140 characters or less. You can post to Twitter, and receive posts from it, via SMS (text messaging via cell phone), making it a strong tool for mobile community connectivity. You can choose to "follow" (receive updates from) specific individuals (such as a local environmental activist, community leader, student, etc.) - and they can also choose to follow you. You can also reply publicly to specific posts, and contact people who follow you on Twitter via private direct message.

The key value-adds for Twitter are instant engagement, under your control and at your convenience. This is where you can form your "posse" to add depth or insight to your beat. It's also where you'll probably hear first about emerging issues and breaking news.

Twitter played a supporting role in the recent launch of a U.K. environmental news site, Environmental News Online (ENO). Details.


  • Pick a short Twitter ID: Characters count in this medium.
  • Find and follow local Twitter users, via TwitterLocal. Enter a city and state, and/or a zip code, and specify a radius to identify local Twitter users. Follow a lot of them at first, then weed out ("unfollow" the ones who are least relevant or interesting).
  • Lurk (listen silently) first, for a few days, to get a sense for how conversation works in this medium. Then start posting. Try not to be boring, stiff, or overly trivial. Replying to others' posts is a good way to start.
  • Don't sign up to receive text messages right away. You could quickly get overwhelmed with messages and SMS charges. Use Twitter for a month or two first, then decide who (if anyone) you want to get text messages from.
  • Invite people to follow you on Twitter. Include your Twitter ID on your e-mail signature, your business card, your online bio, and maybe even your byline. Cultivate your "posse" from among people you already interact with.
  • Remember that anything you post to Twitter is public, and can be linked to directly (except for private direct messages). Use discretion where warranted, but don't be overly paranoid about competitive concerns. Twitter is a low-overhead way to explore what a journalist can gain by participating directly in public conversation.
  • Use Twitter to publicize your latest stories, by adding links to them in your Twitter posts.
  • Third-party applications can vastly improve your Twitter experience, since is a very bare-bones site. A great free Twitter application is Twhirl. It's available for Mac and Windows. You must have the free Adobe AIR platform installed first.

SEJ TipSheet contributor Amy Gahran (agahran on Twitter) is an avid Twitter user. If you're not sure where to start or what to do once you sign up on Twitter, follow Amy and ask her questions on Twitter.

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