Recently, Twitter posted a job for a “head of news and journalism partnerships.” Oh my gosh! Was Twitter going to get into the news business and start its own newsroom with reporters and editors ferreting out what’s happening as news breaks? Despite hysteria that this might be happening (stoked by provocateur Michael Wolff), the reality is much less glamorous.
“No, Twitter doesn’t have ambitions to be a news operation,” Twitter’s Mark Luckie told me recently. “Because Twitter is so central to what a lot of newsrooms are doing, naturally there’s a lot of hype around this position. No, Twitter has no editorial team. We’re not out there curating news, or saying ‘here’s the source that you have to go to.’ We’re not writing stories. We’re simply providing a platform for other people to do so…The other thing is that Twitter had a ‘head of news’ previously. Adam Sharp was the head of news, politics and social good, and is currently leading politics and social good, and we have an interim head of news, Andrew Fitzgerald.”
Oh well. I spoke to Luckie recently to learn more about why he made the move from social media editor at the Washington Post to his current position as “creative content manager” at Twitter. He admits that he is sometimes tempted to jump in when news breaks, such as the Boston Marathon bombings, and start fact-checking and aggregating. But he downplays any notion that anyone at Twitter will start doing this anytime soon — though he admits they are doing experiments with news products.
Below is a lightly edited version of our Q&A over Skype, along with nearly the entire chat in audio posted to SoundCloud.
What brought you to Twitter? What made you decide to make the move there?
Mark Luckie: Well, with Twitter, it’s been such an integral part of journalism. Many journalists are using it and incorporating it into their work. It was just a natural extension of the work that I’ve already been doing, but from the other side of the fence, to really see how social media is affecting journalism. That drew me toward the position.
Tell me about your day-to-day job. How does it differ from what you were doing in the past? You say you’re now “on the other side of the fence.” You’re dealing with journalists still, but in a different way, right?
Luckie: Absolutely. In my previous position, I was social media editor for the Washington Post, responsible for a single newsroom, helping that newsroom grow in social, helping reporters understand how to use Twitter, how to come up with creative ways of using it. Now, I’m helping reporters around the world use Twitter. So instead of being focused on a single newsroom, you’re talking about newsrooms all over the place. So understanding not just how one newsroom uses it, but the variety of ways that Twitter can be used.
So my day-to-day is getting an understanding of not only what the needs are of journalists using Twitter but also the creative ways they’re using it, and taking that information and providing it back to the journalism community. And then saying, “here’s what works, here’s what we’re seeing, here’s how people are experimenting.” And I think people are pretty receptive to that.
What do you think is the biggest mistake that newsrooms make when it comes to Twitter?
Luckie: I think there are certainly many different ways of using Twitter. But I think one thing that newsrooms do is only use Twitter for promotion, to say, “hey, look at my story.” Because ultimately, if you are only talking about your own stories, you’re missing part of the equation, to talk with other people, to see what other people are saying, and using that as feedback or possible story ideas. You aren’t going to see the same follower growth, you’re not going to see the same engagement, retweets and things like that if you’re only concentrating on what you bring to Twitter.
Do you suggest a percentage of tweets when it comes to self-promotion on a feed?
Luckie: We did a study of how journalists use Twitter, and what are some of the ways that they drove follower growth. One of the things we found is that, on average, journalists who tweet 20% fewer links — either links to their own stories or to other online content — and 100% percent more mentions, including handles and @replies, that they actually grow their following by more than 17% over the long term. So what that means is that everyone has a baseline of followers that they get, and if you diversify your Twitter feed, you’re actually going to see above the baseline. You’re going to see your follower growth increase over the long term. And that increases the likelihood that people are going to engage with your stories because they see that you’re engaging with them.
You wrote “The Digital Journalist’s Handbook.” Have you considered writing a “Twitter Journalism Handbook?”
Luckie: I haven’t considered that, but day in and day out, I’m putting together resources along with the rest of the journalism team and that exists on the Twitter website, “Twitter for Newsrooms,” And at the @TwitterForNews handle, we’re putting a lot of resources out there.
Because Twitter is changing so fast, you’re seeing so many changes coming down the pipeline, the best way to find out about how to use Twitter is to actually be on Twitter.
Your job seems similar to what Vadim Lavrusik is doing at Facebook, and people at Google News are doing to help support journalists. Sometimes these job descriptions seem to be about “supporting journalists” and collaboration with them, but isn’t a lot of your job marketing as well and making sure journalists are having a positive experience?
Luckie: Sure. The thing I love about my job is that I don’t have to convince journalists to use Twitter. They either already know and want to learn how to do it better, or they know that Twitter is important but they haven’t started using it [as much]. The great thing is that I don’t have to go out and bang drums, “Hey! You gotta use Twitter!” Really, the opportunity for me and why I gravitated toward the job, there is a need for people, they have this platform, they really want to understand how to use it. To fill that need is a win-win situation.
What do you think about the “head of news” job that’s out there for Twitter. People are talking about it, and Michael Wolff said that Twitter would be a news operation and this job is more important than Jeff Zucker leading CNN. That seems like hyperbole. Does Twitter really have ambitions to be a news operation?
Luckie: No, Twitter doesn’t have ambitions to be a news operation. Because Twitter is so central to what a lot of newsrooms are doing, naturally there’s a lot of hype around this position. No, Twitter has no editorial team. We’re not out there curating news, or saying, “here’s the source that you have to go to.” We’re not writing stories. We’re simply providing a platform for other people to do so.
The other thing I love is that Twitter really levels the playing field. People can have equal weight. If they are surfacing great content, send out great stories, they can definitely be part of the conversation.
The other thing is that Twitter had a “head of news” previously. Adam Sharp was the head of news, politics and social good, and is currently leading politics and social good, and we have an interim head of news, Andrew Fitzgerald, who has a news background as other team members do. So it’s a new job, but this sort of thing has existed at Twitter already.
And it seemed that this job was about business development and partnerships with media companies more than about creating news.
Luckie: Absolutely. I think people have ideas about where they’d like to see Twitter go. We just try to keep it simple. The easiest way to do that is to stick to what we’re good at, which is just providing a platform and helping people understand it and not creating our own stuff.
What do you think about Tumblr’s Storyboard [which was recently killed]? You said that’s not something Twitter would do, but do you see some value for social platforms to at least curate and tell stories about their platform?
Luckie: I think experimentation is a really good thing, across the board at a social media company or a journalism outfit. An effort like that shows how an effort like that at a social company could work. Then it’s up to the journalist to pick it up, and say, “Are we going to use it in this way? What can we develop based on what’s being shared?” It’s the same thing at Twitter. We are experimenting with new products; we’re launching new things, and we put it out there in the ecosystem. And if people use it, it takes off; if not, we go back to the drawing board and reiterate based on the feedback that we get.
What did you think about the role that Twitter played in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and the manhunt afterwards?
Luckie: Like a lot of other people, I was glued to my TV, looking at my Twitter feeds. What we found was that Twitter was a collective community of journalists saying, “this fact is correct” or “no, that hasn’t been confirmed.” It’s interesting to see Twitter evolve into this communal journalism, whereas in the past you’d see one newsroom reporting over here and one newsroom reporting over there.
And not only newsrooms evolving, but being able to get news directly from the source. So you saw Boston Globe reporters, radio reporters who were right on the ground who were able to share updates as they were tweeted. You also saw the Boston Police Department sharing information. So all that enabled information to be shared and also to be fact-checked because it was coming from original sources.
Despite reports to the contrary there has not been an arrest in the Marathon attack.
— Boston Police Dept. (@Boston_Police) April 17, 2013
Do you ever feel that as a journalist working at Twitter, you’d think “I could help curate that. I could help fact-check!” It feels like there might be some role for Twitter in that. Do you ever feel there’s a role for you in news judgment?
Luckie: As a journalist, my natural instinct is to think, “I need to be curating this. I need to be retweeting.” But the role that I play is so very different than being in a newsroom. I’m not the sort of person who is covering that information. The great thing about journalists is that they’re on the ground, they’re fact-checking, they’re talking to sources. And because Twitter isn’t a newsroom, you just won’t see that kind of information. The company doesn’t insert itself in that role, verifying information and that sort of thing. The closest you’ll see is verified accounts. Those are just people who we say, “Yes, that’s the Boston Police and yes, this is the Boston Globe.” It’s up to journalists and Twitter users to curate their information and decide which sources are valuable and which are not.
Is there anything that surprised you about this job?
Luckie: The thing that surprised me is the number of emails I get. I want to interact. I want to get as much information to as many people as possible. So there are a lot of people who are using Twitter and want new information, new data, best practices, and we do that as much as possible here. I underestimated how key of a role this is. Whoever the next head of news is, while there is some hyperbole about the role, this is an amazing centerpiece sort of job in the organization.
And hopefully they’ll hire more people like you to answer some of those emails!
Luckie: That would be great.
How Mark Luckie Created the Digital Journalist’s Handbook by Ryan Sholin (Idea Lab)
The Best Social Tools from Social Media Weekend by A. Adam Glenn (MediaShift)
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian and fiancee Renee. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit. and Circle him on Google+