Covering Boston, tweet by tweet

Adam Gaffin covers news in Boston on his blog Universal Hub. Twitter is an important reporting tool that he uses for both gathering and distributing stories. For a slideshow about specific subjects Gaffin covers, click this image.

It hit Adam Gaffin when the lights went out on the T.

A few years ago, a maintenance crew tripped a breaker, cutting power to the four MBTA train lines in Boston. Gaffin, who covers the city in his news blog, Universal Hub, was not in a subway car when it happened. But he was the first person to get the story.

“I had the story first, not because I’m a genius,” Gaffin recounted. “It’s just I happened to be on Twitter at the time and I saw, oh my God, there’s four lines, there’s something going on here.”

For Gaffin, the outage was an epiphany. When the trolleys went dark, passengers tweeted about being trapped in cars on different lines — the Green, the Blue, the Red, the Orange. Gaffin, up until then a casual Twitter user at best, saw the microblogging platform in a new light: as a powerful reporting tool.

Fast-forward three years and Twitter is essential to Gaffin’s daily operation of Universal Hub. He has always blanketed Boston in his blogging about everything from picturesque sunsets to city council hearings, but he said Twitter has increased the reach and speed of his aggregation. Gaffin, who has a journalism background in newspapers and in creating news websites, makes some money off Universal Hub through advertising.

He posts about a few dozen tweets each day, and he maintains an ongoing conversation with his more than 14,000 followers, pulling in tips and answering questions about subjects like crime, politics and transit delays.

“Twitter’s made my job a lot easier, especially in terms of breaking news,” Gaffin said. He often works from behind a laptop in his Roslindale home.

Many of the thousands of people who follow Gaffin are like correspondents when news breaks in Boston, sharing witness accounts from the scene of a car crash, shooting or fire.

“Everybody now is walking around with a phone and everybody wants to know what’s going on and everyone wants to be a reporter, so you see something, and you immediately get on Twitter and you tweet it,” Gaffin said. “And then you ask, ‘What did I just see?’”

Gintautas Dumcius, news editor of a local paper called the Dorchester Reporter, said this sharing of information results in a useful network for Gaffin.

“It’s almost like he’s got this spider web,” said Dumcius, who has worked with Gaffin in the past. “I mean he already kind of had it with Universal Hub, but Twitter enhanced his spider web and he was able to detect things much quicker.”

Gaffin writes full-length blog posts for the Universal Hub website, but he said Twitter is another tool that works like a headline service — a description that Mark Leccese, a Boston-area media critic, agreed with.

“What Adam does from his dining room table down there in Roslindale is the best sort of up-to-the-minute local news headline stuff that anybody does in the city,” said Leccese, who also teaches journalism at Emerson College. He said Twitter provides a stream of updates like an RSS feed, but it is more effective because it works especially well on cellphones and other mobile devices.

“Somebody tweets, ‘Disabled car at Boylston, 30-minute delay on the Green Line.’ Adam retweets it,” Lecesse said. “So if I’m standing at Kenmore waiting for a Green Line train, I can look at my phone and get real-time information about what’s going on.”

The 140-character limit of Twitter forces the writer to be brief, so information comes in flurries that Gaffin said are like headlines. Though there is often no space for long analysis in a tweet, Gaffin said that does not matter to many readers.

“You’re not going to get a New York Times front-page story on Twitter,” he said. “But that’s OK, because all people really want to know is somebody just got shot at Forest Hills.”

When one of his followers sends a tweet, Gaffin said he tries to verify for accuracy by waiting for a second similar tweet from a different account, unless the first update is from a trusted source. He said the need to check for truth on Twitter is not much different from traditional reporting.

Gaffin’s use of Twitter — as a platform for quick news gathering and distribution — is in many ways representative of a general trend in the media. Joshua Benton, founding director of the Nieman Journalism Lab, said new technology like Twitter has supported the transition of journalism from institutions to individuals. The conventional large media organization, he said, works on an engine powered by hundreds of employees who gather and report the news.

“What Twitter enables is for some version of that to be readily available to someone sitting at his own computer,” Benton said. “It enables the work to get done without having the infrastructure around you.”

Even if a single person like Gaffin can cover much of the breaking news in Boston by using tools like Twitter, Leccese said this kind of effort will never fully replace traditional media outlets. Such a platform, he said, is a place to learn about some news, to converse with colleagues, friends, and even strangers, and to express a little personality. But it is not the new media model, he said.

“Twitter is not going to replace journalists — reporting, and writing stories, broadcast. It’s just not,” Leccese said. “It’s another tool for journalists and another way in which those news consumers can get their news. Also, let’s not leave this out, it’s fun.”

Gaffin, furthermore, feeds off large news organizations, aggregating content from newspapers like the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald. He, too, said conventional journalists still have a place in today’s media, and he provided an example to support this concept — that of the day the lights went out on the T. People across Boston were tweeting different perspectives of the same issue, he said, but they may not all have known it. It was the job of a journalist, Gaffin said, to pull these accounts together and figure out not just that there was no power, but why the electricity was cut.

“There’s still a role for journalists,” he said. “And this is what journalists have always done, they’ve filtered this mass of information into something that means something, that’s going on.”

Hear from journalists of the future about how they use Twitter: In the video posted below, students from Suffolk University who work for the campus newspaper, the Suffolk Journal, discuss their uses of the platform.

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