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    Is Twitter the Newsroom of the Future?

    by Chris O'Brien
    July 30, 2008

    I was sitting at my desk at the San Jose Mercury News on Tuesday when I first heard about the Los Angeles earthquake through an inter-office message from a colleague. My next instinct was to click over to my Twitter account to see what was going on.

    Like a lot of folks who have developed a cultish appreciation for the microblogging service, I’ve increasingly found that Twitter has become the place get breaking news before it hits online news sites or television.

    I follow Twitter through a desktop application called Twhirl. Since I only follow a limited number of folks who are in Los Angeles, I switched over to Summize, a Twitter search service that was recently acquired by Twitter. I typed in “earthquake” and Summize pulled up a list of all tweets containing the word earthquake.

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    To get a sense of the volume of tweets, here’s a graph of earthquake tweets by minute compiled by tweetip.com:

    tweetip

    The focus of my work here, The Next Newsroom Project, is to try to think about the newsroom of the future. What’s exciting about the era we’re entering is that there will be many next newsrooms. The beauty of Twitter is that it enabled one version of that: An instant, virtual, citizen journalism newsroom that immediately posted thousands of updates.

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    On Twitter’s blog, co-founder Biz Stone discussed the notion that Twitter was becoming the new newswire, noting the first tweet came nine minutes before the Associated Press pushed out its first story on the quake.

    How much does that nine minutes really matter? This has always been a fundamental, unanswerable question, whether we’re talking about TV news and which cable station has a 30 second head start on a story, or which wire service is first with new financial news. Over time, though, it builds a reputation and a mindset among members of certain communities and trains them where to get news first. So if it happens consistently, then it will matter over time.

    That said, Twitter remains the tool of a narrow, very connected set and has a long way to go before it gets the attention of the mainstream.

    Still, as Twitter evolves into this role and gains a wider audience, it’s worth understanding what’s good about this development, and what limitations exist.

    As I attempted to follow the tweets, there were often more than 100 coming in every minute. So there’s an overwhelming volume that can be hard to process at times. I was mentally trying to stitch together the larger picture of what was happening but was left wondering what gaps existed. For instance, I’m guessing the Twitter demographic has not penetrated as deeply into low-income and minority neighborhoods. If Compton was burning, would there be someone there tweeting it?

    And because the tweets are uncurated, you get the good, with, well, updates likes this:

    ijustine

    On the other hand, there was an instant army of civilians that emerged to cover the event. It’s the kind of crowd that other organizations could only dream of organizing.

    As the tweets flew by, I asked my followers if there was a way to know who had the first tweet on the earthquake? In other words, who broke the news? This turns out to be more difficult to track down than you’d think. There were so many tweets at that point, that flipping back through a search engine like Summize meant plowing back through hundreds and hundreds of pages of search results.

    Stone himself tweeted that the first earthquake tweet this one:

    firsttweet1

    (I’m not posting the actual tweet from Nicholas Hawkins since it includes profanity, but you can find it here.)

    But on his blog post Tuesday, Stone later said the first tweet was actually this one:

    firsttweet2

    Does it matter who gets credit? Not really in the larger scheme of things.

    For some perspective on this Twitter posse, I also began checking the Los Angeles Times website. Initially, it was inaccessible, most likely due to a flood of traffic. In fact, executive editor Meredith Artley said in an email that latimes.com had 5.6 million page views Tuesday, up from the usual 4 million. And the forum question, “did you feel it?” attracted more than 1,000 comments.

    Ideally, latimes.com would have had more provisions for such events, but this apparently only knocked them down for a few minutes. It appears their first official post about the event came at 11:56 a.m., just 14 minutes after the first tweet. Also, very quickly, the L.A. Times site had maps, live video feeds, and hundreds of comments. It’s an impressive performance, and it’s a reminder that when big news breaks, people still turn to their local newspaper web site for the story.

    Of course, if were up to me, I would have placed a Twitter feed on the front of latimes.com, though as noted above, that’s not without some risk given the lack of filtering. And I would have created an earthquake tag and had someone trying to aggregate all the other media people were probably loading at places like YouTube, flickr, etc.

    Fortunately, it appears the quake was not catastrophic, certainly not approaching anything on the scale of the China quake earlier this year. But still, the other limitation of Twitter’s newsroom is that it’s got a short attention span. It’s unlikely that Twitter posse could be expected to do follow ups on victims, watchdog pieces on the work of emergency responses, and any other broader issues that might be raised.

    But it’s okay if Twitter’s not great for everything. What matters is that by being exceedingly strong in one area – breaking news – it builds the larger news ecosystem, which hopefully improves the overall reporting and flow of information for everybody.

    Tagged: citizen journalism nextnewsroom sjcobrien twitter
    • Chris —

      As soon as the earthquake hit, I started tweeting information about Sprint’s network to our SoCal customers and to reporters who follow me.

      It helped us explain the details of the mass calling event and why all wireless carriers were impacted equally. It also helped me talk about how you can communicate in times of emergency (text messages, Nextel Direct Connect, email and yes, Tweets.)

      We got good feedback from customers and from reporters. One reporter who follows me blogged about my tips — how did he find me? Through Twitter.

      I don’t know if Twitter is the next newsroom, but I do know that social media is changing the way we deal with our customers and the way we work with the reporters who cover us.

      As I told a reporter at the Washington Post today, people are changing the way they get their news and reporters are changing how they gather it. (At the same time, we’re changing the way we sell phones — more and more of our sales are not taking place in our stores.)

      The challenge for our customers, your readers and our collective bosses is to figure out how to navigate that change and make it work for us.

      There are those among us who may not like that, but how we communicate with one another and how we do business is changing rapidly.

      The question is, are you on board or not.

      Count me in.

    • Sometimes Twitter can be used to report, but I see it more as a massively interconnected water cooler that can be mined for information. It’s significant for reporting in the same way that newsgroups were when they emerged.

      Like newsgroups, message boards, chat rooms, blogs and photo sharing sites, Twitter and microblogging in general provides a new way to check the pulse of the community about practically anything. Once I realized that you can use Summize / Twitter search to see what people are saying about a particular topic in a specific geographic area (here’s a post about how to do that: http://www.futureforecast.com/dansdiner/2008/07/aggregating-local-conversations-with.html), I decided that Twitter is something every journalist should be using on a daily basis.

      News is often what people are talking about, and Twitter is full of talk — as well as legitimate news. What’s harder to get through Twitter is detail and thoughful analysis, and that’s where longer-form writing / reporting still has a significant role to play. I think you could argue that the more people say online, the more important summary and analysis become.

    • The problem I’ve found with Twitter, as a beat reporter, is in separation. I have my personal Twitter account, which I use to follow my friends. I have a work Twitter account. But I only have one cell phone, which means I can only post to one from my phone.

      So putting Twitter to use as a reporting tool or a media tool for something other than OMFG EARTHQUAKE has been something I haven’t managed to do yet.

    • Twitter is already showing audience scale issues in regards to breaking news; imagine how it’ll become when 10 times more people use it.

      Or, imagine 300,000 New Yorkers posting tweets on 9/11 … how much of that river of data would have been actionable information?

    • Jane

      Good god, I hope not. Twitter is not real journalism. It’s crap for tweens. Why indulge the practice?

    • You’ve hit two important points here: first, that aggregating Twitter/YouTube/ETC for big events is a GREAT idea for papers during major events, it’s like having a camera simultaneously on thousands of “man on the street” interviews. I’m surprised (or am I?) that I haven’t seen a paper do that yet.

      second, that the tools built on top of the Twitter platform (Summize) can be great sources of data, statistics, etc, and there is nothing stopping newspapers from building on top of that API.

      What if the LATimes had an application build on the Twitter API that monitored for tweets with important keywords and looked for usage trends, then could easily track back to the first mention in a spike? You could build it.

      What if the LATimes had a system for people to suggest stories, tips, contribute quotes, etc that would be fed to editors via twitter? You could build it.

      I don’t think newsrooms have even begun to think about web services at platforms yet, and how new communications technology can be used to really bridge the gap not only between readers & reporters, but also between reporters & editors, editors & publishers, and everything else internal.

    • You’ve hit two important points here: first, that aggregating Twitter/YouTube/ETC for big events is a GREAT idea for papers during major events, it’s like having a camera simultaneously on thousands of “man on the street” interviews. I’m surprised (or am I?) that I haven’t seen a paper do that yet.

      second, that the tools built on top of the Twitter platform (Summize) can be great sources of data, statistics, etc, and there is nothing stopping newspapers from building on top of that API.

      What if the LATimes had an application build on the Twitter API that monitored for tweets with important keywords and looked for usage trends, then could easily track back to the first mention in a spike? You could build it.

      What if the LATimes had a system for people to suggest stories, tips, contribute quotes, etc that would be fed to editors via twitter? You could build it.

      I don’t think newsrooms have even begun to think about web services at platforms yet, and how new communications technology can be used to really bridge the gap not only between readers & reporters, but also between reporters & editors, editors & publishers, and everything else internal.

    • Here’s an idea that newsrooms should consider for spotlighting local conversations, and it takes almost no work.

      If you have a Drupal site, you can use Twitter’s RSS feeds to automatically aggregate conversations about specific topics that are happening in your town. For example, this experimental aggregation — using Drupal’s Feed Aggregator module — pulls in anything that anyone in or near Broomfield, Colorado says about Obama and McCain:

      http://futureforecast.com/danlab/?q=aggregator/categories/6

      And here are individual results pages for just Obama and just McCain:

      Obama:
      http://futureforecast.com/danlab/?q=aggregator/sources/14

      McCain:
      http://futureforecast.com/danlab/?q=aggregator/sources/15

      Drupal makes it really easy to change feeds. It doesn’t take a programmer to do it.

    • I agree that Twitter can be a great aid to newsrooms, especially from an immediacy standpoint. But I should point out that you are among a very small minority of reporters and editors who actually use Twitter, or even know what it is. There is a big learning curve ahead and we have to hope that the naysayers who view Twitter as a toy or a waste of time don’t rule the day.

    • Thanks all for the comments…

      Dan, I like the visual metaphor of the water cooler. That’s how I think of Twitter, less a blogging tool and more of a continuous conversation. The question for newsrooms, I think, is how to mine it, participate in it, and learn from it.

      I like your Drupal idea, and I’m a fan of aggregating in general.

      One other idea I’d throw in is for a newsroom or news organization to create a twitter account, follow as many local twitter folks as possible, and then feed that into a high-def plasma screen TV in the newsroom. I think it would be a great way to create a visual sense of what people are talking about in the community. There are a number of visual tools to display tweets. We used something called Twitter Camp for our conference back in April, which is an Adobe Air client.

      Tom and Jane: I hear what you’re saying. But I’m always a bit nervous when someone starts putting a fence around “real journalism.” Again, I think of Twitter as something that’s extending and capturing the flow of information and conversation. But I still want someone doing enterprise, investigations, etc. And I wouldn’t promote Twitter as the best tool for that.

      James: I’m one of those folks who actually rarely tweets from my phone, though I do have a BlackBerry. I mostly have it running on my desktop or laptop. I have found it useful to send out tweets asking followers questions about something I’m working on, or to post links to blog posts. I even toyed with using it as a kind of live blogging tool, but I’ve found that’s less interesting to followers.

    • Re: “an application build on the Twitter API that monitored for tweets with important keywords and looked for usage trends, then could easily track back to the first mention in a spike? You could build it.”

      We already did :) and significantly more…

      btw, first socal earthquake tweet is this one: http://tweetip.us/lkot2

    • Paul Lamb

      Chris: Good job laying out some of the key issues and challenges relative to Twitter as a news tool. Your mention of the challenge of it only reaching a minority of the population (and more affluent and tech early adopter types) is a really important one, IMHO. As text messaging increases in popularity, including being used as a mass emergency alert tool, that is likely to change.

      One other on the horizon trend which may have relevance for the news biz is video microblogging. Check out 12 Seconds (http://12seconds.tv/) which has been described as a twitter tool for video.

    • AJ Marlow

      Chris,

      I like this subject that you have brought up. I have only recently been introduced to Twitter and the act of “Tweeting”. I first heard about Twitter while watching Sports Center on ESPN when Stuart Scott tells me about a an NBA player tweeting at halftime from his iPhone. Now the players team did end up winning and he scored the most points so its hard to get mad at him. I asked a friend what in the world Twitter was until he broke out his iPhone and showed me. Quite frankly I found the idea impressive at first. But as you mentioned the flow of over 100 tweets a minute in the hour flowing the EQ, we can see that this could get ugly and fast. Not so much ugly but more so “out of hand”. The application is still in an early stage but its sure to become more popular with time. I dont see this becoming the newsroom of the future, but why not create a newsroom of the future based on the same principles on twitter. One which could create a chatroom of only the “tweeters” or journalists involved in discussion

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