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Tweeting the Education News, Minute by Minute

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Nashville, Tenn.

For reporters who cover big (or even small) school systems, the board of education meeting is a necessary, though often mind-numbing, duty.

Boards of education are supposed to be the pillars of local representative democracy, bringing high-minded citizens together to set policies for educating the young. They are often driven by other goals.

If you cover the Philadelphia public schools, as Kristen Graham does for The Philadelphia Inquirer, or the Jefferson County, Ky., school system, as Toni Konz does for The Louisville Courier-Journal, there's no way around covering board meetings that can last five hours or more.

But as both those reporters described in a session this week at the Education Writers Association national conference at Vanderbilt University here, you can make the time pass faster, and more usefully, with Twitter.

Graham, whose Twitter handle is @newskag, said she started tweeting during meetings of the School Reform Commission (a state-appointed body that oversees the 72,000-student district) "because I was really bored."

But Twitter "has dramatically changed the way I cover my beat."

Graham began tweeting comments made by board members at those lengthy meetings. She soon built a Twitter following among parents and others in the school community.

"I have sources I only talk to through Twitter," she said. "There's just this really rich engagement."

She may learn about, say, a fight at a high school through Twitter that she might not have otherwise.

Graham made clear that writing her stories for the Inquirer, whether for a print edition or a Web deadline, remained the top priority. But even while writing those stories, she keeps tweeting, especially if she is at the board meeting. A few jaws dropped in her session when she said that while writing stories for the paper, she may tweet only once every four minutes instead of about once a minute when she isn't on deadline.

Konz, of the Courier-Journal, said she was also finding herself bored at school board meetings of the 100,000-student district, so she started tweeting board member comments. 

"I really use Twitter as my notebook," said Konz, whose handle is @tkonz. When it comes time to write her story for the paper, she goes back over her tweets to grab quotes.

Twitter also helped her report stories much faster. After she received word about a controversy over which high school bathroom a transgendered student would use, she  turned to her Twitter followers for help. She soon learned that the principal had sent home a letter to parents, and within two minutes, someone had e-mailed her the letter. Within five minutes, she had heard from parents and other interested parties, and she had a story about the controversy for the next day's paper. 

One thing that surprised Konz was that she believes that most of her nearly 5,000 followers on Twitter are students. She sees social media as a way for traditional print media to engage a generation of young people that it might not otherwise reach.

"I see social media as a way to interact with these young people," Konz said.

Because of the harsh winter this year, Konz became known among some of her student followers as "the snow day lady," the person from whom they learned whether schools would be closed due to weather. She has also arrived at a school to report a story and seen student tweets go out that say, "tkonz is in the building!"

Both Graham and Konz noted that Twitter reporting brought potential ethical pitfalls. Both take steps to verify identities before using tweeted comments in a print story.

And Graham noted that she "would never tweet something that I wouldn't put in a print story," meaning such output is held up to the Inquirer's same high standards as other content.

"Twitter is definitely more informal, but your ethics are still the same," Graham said.

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