There is no doubt Twitter has altered the broadcast and news gathering culture of media organizations, but what is behind the 140 character system that aligns so well with ‘news’?
A reason for posing the question is noticing how some news papers and broadcasters are dedicating sections solely to Twitter trends and headlines, others incorporating #Hashtag streams into programming. Recently Maclean’s Magazine – a weekly Canadian print publication covering politics, business, and news – began a daily online article: Daily Headlines via Twitter using Storify to curate top headlines from a number of news organizations.
Next, take a look at a basic search for ‘Twitter’ on the Guardian UK newspaper website. For July 28th, almost all the top headline stories, from the latest Olympic updates to news from Syria, and the passing of actor Geoffrey Hughes have a direct reference to Twitter in the articles, clearly demonstrating the short message service has inordinate influence as a news gathering tool for journalists. Likely because it so quick and responsive, reporters can easily grab relevant content to boost just about any story: a quote, comments, updates etc.
It seems somewhat disproportionate as Twitter has around 150 million active users compared to Facebook’s 900+ million, yet Zuckerberg’s platform is nowhere near as mentioned as a source, or even as a news story itself unless discussing its share price. A news search on Google for “Twitter Olympics” shows 10800 news items compared to “Facebook Olympics” at 127.
Alan Rusbridger, Editor in Chief of the Guardian UK: posted fifteen points on “Why Twitter matters for media organisations” in November of 2010. Nearly two years later, are they still appropriate or actually reinforced, can others be added?
Point One: It’s an amazing form of distribution: No doubt, and even more so now as the user base has extended from around 60 million in 2010 to 150 million today. Twitter (and yes, Facebook and Youtube) have profoundly impacted, some even argue inspired, the Arab Spring and now a necessary communication tool for politicians.
Point Two: It’s where things happen first: Or, where news is reported at all. The now 18 month uprising in Syria illustrates how citizen media can equal, even trump, traditional journalism in places where accredited media are denied access by authorities.
Point Three: As a search engine, it rivals Google: Yes and no these days as even Google has given in to including Twitter profiles and sometimes tweets themselves into results. Social is becoming even more integrated into operating systems and search.
Point Four: It’s a formidable aggregation tool: Where Twitter excels over other search engines – even those within the likes of Facebook and Youtube – is that the aggregation itself is user generated. A #Hashtag can be created by anyone, used and posted to by anyone. It turns search on its head from the realm of mathematicians to a crowd sourced function.
Point Five: It’s a great reporting tool: Such an obvious statement it’s not even worth bothering to comment, except to say journalists and editors must be vigilant on specious tweets and deliberate misinformation.
Point Six: It’s a fantastic form of marketing: Yes, certainly with a growing user base news organizations can directly broadcast both breaking news and more nuanced opinion, to a far larger audience. The problem is twofold: journalists themselves, especially those who grabbed a Twitter user name before many organizations had a brand policy, are in a position to take their followers to another ‘brand’ – and – it is a flat platform. The audience decides who has authority on any given issue. Quite often the most re-tweeted posts are not from news organizations, but citizens directly involved in an issue or event.
Point Seven: It’s a series of common conversations. Or it can be: In fact, Twitter is about the conversation which is why chats surrounding a #hashtag are one the most popular and powerful features. This is where news organizations are getting it wrong, with only a few notable exceptions. Al Jazeera has daily open chats on topical issues, The Guardian has experimented with open editorial – ‘make your own newsroom’ idea, and CBC has a weekly Wednesday Politics chat. For the most part however, the majority of publications and broadcasters are not utilizing discussion features, to the detriment of their own organizations.
Mainly due to the fact no one in Greater Victoria BC had plugged into the concept of a regular Tweetchat, the group at Victoria Wave (of which I am a founder) decided to start our own. In many ways, #YYJchat is a news source on its own with weekly guests – politicians, community leaders, experts – and topical to the region. One wonders why news organizations are not taking advantage of chats and #Hashtags to reinforce their community credentials and brand image.
Point Eight: It’s more diverse: As with any social media platform the greater the number of users, the more diverse the opinions and focus. However, unlike Facebook which is the ultimate walled garden, Twitter does allow non user viewing through search apps and widgets – then again, you still require an account to participate.
Point Nine: It changes the tone of writing: Many would say to the detriment of any language, yet ultimately what Twitter has done to journalism and writing of any form is to highlight the necessity of brevity.
Point Ten: It’s a level playing field: Which goes back to my #7 point – a level playing field means news orgs have to take the initiative and not be afraid to experiment.
Point Eleven: It has different news values: This point from Alan Rusbridger was one of the most poignant. Twitter (and other platforms) highlight trending topics, which often are the goal for publicists, marketers and political parties. One could say ‘Twitter trends are the new SEO’. An open platform, where the crowd is determining what is topical, can force editors into ‘follow the audience’ to maintain online ratings – create a quick article or blog post that fits a trending topic simply for the retweet value is not uncommon.
Point Twelve: It has a long attention span: More so than most would think. In Canada the #Hashtags #TellVicEverything and #HarperHistory still resonate, and are searchable for an archive. This simple function, grouping messages around a tag, beats any searchable query on any other platform.
Point Thirteen: It creates communities: Yes, and relevant to many previous points, with an emphasis that news organizations are not taking advantage of this essential nature of Twitter. Editors and broadcast/publication owners might feel it is not their duty or function to create and maintain Twitter communities – yet they are broadcasting into them, and quite often seek comments on articles and opinion pieces (a blog is a community of sorts). Instead of complaining that social media is taking away an audience, while using published material, news organizations should be taking it on and creating the community – you can’t own a hashtag, but you can be the first to use it.
Point Fourteen: It changes notions of authority: In a much more problematic way now than in 2010. Certainly aggregators like Huffington Post filter and add to mainstream media posts – the bug bear of early social media to traditional media, and now largely discounted as an issue. What has occurred is a confluence of both highspeed mobile access to the web, and simple, equally high end, production. An iPhone, with the right apps, is a media production platform rivaling professional studio output from only a few years ago. Yes, it does take skill to create a video with appropriate context – a blog article with authority – an interview that hits the facts, but this is now in the hands of citizens, and as individuals gain audience, they gain authority. For better and worse.
Point Fifteen: It is an agent of change: Or an agent of the status quo, depending on who owns the trend at a particular time.
No doubt Twitter has radically altered ‘News’ as we know it – and it will become more profound as the platform gains more users. There needs to be a balance however between profit motive editors chasing trends for the potential audience value, vs allocating resources to reports that have community impact.
As always your thoughts and comments are valued and welcomed