Social Media Icons: @ColonelTribune on the evolution of Twitter

He has more than 800,000 followers on Twitter, has been written about many times and was even named by Twitter as a user to follow. We recently spoke via email with @ColonelTribune about Twitter, how far it’s come in three years and some  previously undisclosed personal information.

Why did you decide to join Twitter?

It was brought to my attention that 1) people were using this “Twitter” business, and 2) that many people were of the assumption that the Chicago Tribune was actually a public utility, like People’s Gas Light and Coke Co. An impersonal monolith with little connection to our readers. It was a shocking way to interrupt a yachting trip. Nevertheless, I flew back to Chicago. There was a meeting of some of our top minds in the newsroom, including Bill Adee and Daniel Honigman, and it was decided fourteen minutes thereafter that the Chicago Tribune needed a face. A voice. Naturally, I took matters into my own hands, as I did in Bolivia in 1946.

You were a very early adopter. How has Twitter evolved over the past three years?

It’s true. In the beginning, there was @Bill80 – though back then he called himself “@Bill79” – and there was myself, along with 11,000 college students. I made up that number to make a point. It’s grown quantitatively; I’m not concerned with those details. Qualitatively, the beginning was very noisy and disorganized. Twitter clients like TweetDeck and, ultimately, Twitter’s own setup, cut through the noise. We could listen more effectively. And bully for us. Twitter is now one of the Chicago Tribune’s primary listening posts for the needs and concerns of our readers. (It is not representative of our entire audience – but it is an important and growing segment, to be sure.)

Yet here’s an interesting thing, Tracy: Twitter has become an instructive proving ground for how to be responsive and interactive. I don’t just share the news with our readers, I often discuss it with them. And now we have Trib Nation which branches out to all of our audiences to do preceisely this. When readers have problems with their print delivery, or spot an error – or, gods be praised – stumble across a breaking news story, they contact our newsroom via my Twitter account. This has been tremendous. We fix problems much more quickly. We zero in on developing stories much more quickly. We share experiences with them, such as the Obama election night rally in Grant Park with stunning rapidity.

When one of my reporters spotted Oprah at that rally using a port-a-john, I was able to alert everyone before the poor woman could finish. It was among the most re-tweeted items I’ve shared in these three years and it demonstrates the sort of command the Chicago Tribune brings to its news coverage (we know everything), and also the relationship we have with our readers (they want to know everything).

By now, I think in terms of guidelines. Twitter for the Chicago Tribune has been a means to provide:

  • Utility During Inconvenience (ex.: real-time #CTA delay information)
  • Observations During Collective Events (ex.: Oprah at the Obama rally),
  • Context and Insight on Daily News (ex.: my tweets to share news links throughout the day)
  • Reply Warmly on Behalf of Our August Organization.

You have more than 800,000 users. Why do you think people like you so much?

It didn’t hurt to become a Twitter suggested user. Many people begin following me shortly after they join Twitter. That’s dropped off since Twitter changed the way it suggests users. But it is a remarkable number. I’m glad to have them. A smaller – but vital – number are readers in and around Chicago. To these people, I am the face of their newspaper. And it is to them that I and all of us are accountable.

With so many followers, how do you manage the art of the @reply?

The same way I groom my moustache: With rigid discipline. I always DM people to thank them for following me. I usually respond to an @reply with a SINGLE @reply. (Do 800,000 other people want to listen to half of a conversation? No.) But conversations often continue beyond that. I use DMs for that. Occasionally telegrams. Once, a pigeon. A terrible mistake; I cherished that bird. Never mix falconry and carrier pigeons.

Here is something Twitter has taught me that is worth passing on: News is no longer a mass medium. It is a conglomeration of individual relationships.

What’s your own personal favorite tweet?

Recently? “I encourage you to vote tomorrow, and to be informed. Here is … everything: http://trib.in/cYI5SB Share it.” It was widely shared.

But it needn’t be serious. Three months ago, I tweeted: “Harumpf. Please RT.” And 15 people did. One mustn’t abuse authority like this. But one also shouldn’t wear an evening jacket before 6 p.m., so there we are. Sometimes rules are made to be broken.

Who are some of your closest friends online?

@SUEtheTRex, @Skilling, @ Oh, heavens, I love all my children. I’m still trying to get George Clooney to be more involved on Twitter but, like me, he is a private man. Unlike me, he doesn’t have a media empire and the responsibilities that carries. Sir Richard Branson can never find the time while we’re flying together. I do miss Ernie Hemmingway and Roosevelt – Teddy, I mean. [chuckles dryly] Once… ahem. Where were we?

What do you do when you’re not online?

My hobbies include world travel, study of the classics, personal transportation (roadster, yacht, biplane, etc.). I enjoy cliff diving, shark fishing and transcontinental road races, but who has the time? For two years, I’ve also been the personal life coach to the “World’s Most Interesting Man.” [proudly] He’s come a long way.

You have a unique sense of style. Who are you wearing?

Today? Gieves & Hawkes. But I’m also partial to Maurice Sedwell, Meyer and Mortimer, Sean O Flynn, Kashket’s (tremendous kilt-makers), Ede and Ravenscroft and (less so) Ralph Lauren and Brooks Brothers. And a folded broadsheet edition of Dec. 27th’s Chicago Tribune.

I can afford to be eccentric.

If you could choose one person to have follow you, who would it be and why?

You. You remind me of a young Marilu Henner.

When can we meet?

How soon can you get to Guam? I’ll send the float-plane.

Every Wednesday, we’ll post an interview with a leading social media icon. Have someone to suggest? Let us know via twitter @435digital.

  • http://the3six5.com Daniel Honigman

    I’ve seen the Colonel wearing Hart Schaffner Marx and Nicholas Joseph, myself. Can’t forget about two of Chicago’s most famous suitmakers!

  • http://the3six5.com Daniel Honigman

    Nice interview, by the way!

    • Tracy Samantha Schmidt

      I tip my hat to you, sir, for enlisting the Colonel in such a noble cause.