Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to Twitter referrals to Post Local stories being up 165 percent. The figure was for all Post stories online.

July 1, 2011

A sign of the times is that Vernon Loeb, Post Local editor, has begun mandatory social media training for the reporters and editors on the Metro staff. This means that most editors and reporters, if they haven’t already, will be setting up Twitter and Facebook accounts and using other social media tools to monitor, report and convey the news from around the Beltway.

In terms of keeping up on a beat, Twitter can be hugely helpful. This week, for example, by following two of The Post’s leading Twitter stars, bloggers Chris Cillizza at The Fix (82,000 Twitter followers, according to the Web site Muckrack), and Ezra Klein at Wonkbook (78,000 followers), I learned on Thursday afternoon that Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner might resign after a debt ceiling agreement is reached, if it ever is.

I didn’t learn that from monitoring Bloomberg News, which first reported the story around 4:45 p.m., I learned it from Klein and Cillizza, who both tweeted links to it minutes later. By 5 p.m., Klein had a blog post up speculating on possible candidates to replace Geithner and whether the Senate could confirm any of them. Klein also quickly tweeted questions to his followers asking whether they had ideas for candidates, and they did.

The Post newsroom, meanwhile, put one of its economics reporters, Zachary Goldfarb, on the story. He put out a breaking-news alert via e-mail at 5:54 p.m. And he updated that with a fuller story online around midnight, which also appeared on the front page of the newspaper on Friday morning.

If you’re a print reader, you probably read about Geithner’s possible departure over your Friday morning coffee. But if you’re an online reader, you knew about it about 14 hours earlier. And that could be important if you’re an investor in New York, Tokyo, or Shanghai or if you’re a Senate staffer thinking about confirmation hearings or a Republican staffer planning on how to counter President Obama’s eventual nominee.

So that’s how Twitter can benefit you as a journalist or as one of the players inside this city’s 24-hour news cycle. Twitter and Facebook are like personal wire services that filter the constant flow of information across the Web.

“Social media are not really optional anymore,” says Loeb. “You can’t do your job without them. Social media are where news often breaks first. They’re a great way to cultivate sources, track events, find experts, and to drive audiences to our journalism. . . . You can’t be a good reporter unless you are involved in the social media realm.”

Indeed, Twitter followers of The Post are up 210 percent from May 2010 to May 2011, and Twitter referrals to Post stories are up 165 percent in the same period.

Loeb notes that you don’t have to have 80,000 followers to be successful on Twitter; nor do you have to be age 25. Jura Koncius, 56, writes about home design for The Post; she has 1,300 Twitter followers, which is plenty for her more specialized field, and she tweets maybe six times a day. She uses it to call attention to her own stories, find sources in the design field, comment on Michelle Obama’s decorating taste, and find houses to write about, such as a Dewey Beach house that was the subject of a recent feature.

Part of being on Twitter is “shameless self-promotion,” Koncius says; “you are your own public relations person” in journalism today. But another part is to engage in a conversation with sources and readers, showing them what interests you and what might interest them. And they respond in kind, showing her things she didn’t know before, Koncius says. “It enhances my day, it provides a smile.”

This is what “engagement” — the buzzword of media theorists and marketers — is all about. It’s using Twitter and Facebook to build a tribe or family of followers, even disciples, who will keep reading you.

The potential downside here is a diminution of quality. If reporters are setting aside a portion of their days for social media, that leaves less time for thinking and traditional reporting. And if the chase in journalism becomes one for the greatest number of page views, Twitter followers and Facebook friends, instead of the great story, we all lose.

Even social media advocates say that where the line is drawn is important. “Everybody knows they can drive traffic with the titillating or trivial,” says Dan Gillmor, founding director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University. “Web traffic is important and engagement is important. But if the entire mission is dictated by that, it’s hard for me to see why people would want to bother with The Post. Can The Post ever be as deep into this as say, the celebrity site TMZ? The answer is no, or if it’s yes, it wouldn’t be The Post.”

Patrick B. Pexton can be reached at 202-334-7582 or at ombudsman@washpost.com. For daily updates, read the omblog at voices.washingtonpost. com/ombudsman-blog/.