Databases are actually an excellent example that I was planning to cite before Nick tweeted that.
Journalists and newsrooms have not embraced data journalism as thoroughly as they should have. A decade or so ago, I would have been making the same argument about databases, advising top editors to develop at least some hands-on fluency in databases. Back then, data was sort of a line of demarcation in the evolution of digital journalism: If you were learning how to analyze data, you were moving forward; if you were making excuses or regarding data as someone else's job, you were falling behind. The top editor didn't need to be the data geek, but the more hands-on experience the top editor had, the more likely that editor was to support data training for more staff members, to set high expectations for data skills by staff, to commit resources to data acquisition, to commit time to database reporting and to avoid the trap of treating data as a specialty, rather than an essential skill.
I still advise that top editors (and all journalists) learn some first-hand understanding of data and lead their newsrooms in smart use of databases. (Full disclosure: My own data skills are outdated, though I wrote a 2008 report on databases for the American Press Institute's Newspaper Next project.)
Blogging provided another line of demarcation for a while. Newsrooms needed to aggressively embrace the challenges and opportunities of blogging. And editors needed to lead the way.
Twitter is that kind of test now (actually, two or three years ago, but if editors haven't jumped into Twitter yet, now is the time).
I'm not saying that editors who use Twitter are doing everything they should be doing to lead a digital newsroom. And I'm not saying editors who don't use Twitter can't lead significant innovative steps. They may even be leading their newsrooms in effective use of Twitter and other social media. But we all lead better by example than by order or exhortation.
I have worked full-time in seven different newsrooms and have been a visiting coach, consultant or colleague in dozens more. I have seen first-hand dozens of times the impact a top editor has by embracing or resisting innovation. I have no doubt that an editor who uses Twitter sets an important example for his or her staff. And an editor who isn't using Twitter provides an excuse for staff members who are dragging their heels.
In a direct message which she gave me permission to quote, Melanie Sill, former editor of the Sacramento Bee and now executive in residence at the University of Southern California, asked: "Curious, is Twitter the only measure of editor's engagement with readers/public? Others?" In a follow-up message, she added: "I'm not disagreeing with you to be clear, just thinking of the many ways
I engaged with public in the role (joined twitter in 2007)."
Absolutely, Twitter is just one of many ways that an editor engages with the public. You also need to field phone calls, attend community meetings, meet with readers who visit your office, answer emails, respond to comments on your blog, join Facebook discussions, host live chats and engage in creative ways that I haven't thought of yet. Twitter reaches only a slice of the public. But it's a slice that is spending less time with the print product.
And the editor needs to use Twitter as an example to the staff. The staff needs to be using Twitter to connect with sources, stay on top of breaking news, listen to the community conversation and engage with the public. And if the editor is lazy, timid or arrogant in using or shunning Twitter, the staff will be more likely to be lazy, timid or arrogant in using or shunning Twitter.
A quick note here on Twitter use at the Journal Register Co., a significant part of my current responsibilities: All our editors are on Twitter, at varying levels of engagement, enthusiasm and effectiveness. Lots of our staff members are making great use of Twitter. Others have a long way to go, but we're working on them.