Twitter and journalism

Posted by Dr John Jewell

Twitter and journalism blog by Dr John Jewell
In the UK there are 15 million active Twitter users

The Initial Public Offering (IPO) of Twitter, that is to say the process whereby the social networking and micro blogging platform will sell 70 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange, is due to take place on November 77h.

Twitter values itself at $12bn dollars and expects to raise up to $1.3bn in sales. This means that founder Jack Dorsey and other prominent interested parties, such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Netscape’s Marc Andreesen, will gain considerably, with Dorsey alone set to add between $300m and $450m to his personal wealth. This is interesting when one considers that the 70 million shares represents just 13% of Twitter as a whole.  

But let’s forget about the money and think about Twitter’s impact in the seven short years it has taken in its quest toward ubiquity. On average there are 58 million tweets a day, 1 billion in total every 5 days and  100 every second.

In September the Daily Telegraph reported that Twitter had over 200 million active users worldwide generating over 500 million tweets daily. In the UK there are 15 million active users – significantly up 5 million from May 2012. You don’t even have to tweet to be on twitter. 40 per cent of users worldwide simply use Twitter as a ‘curated news feed of updates that reflect their passions’.   

‘News feed’ is important because Twitter has clearly changed the way news is gathered, disseminated and consumed. Speaking at a conference for Twitter Chief executives, Andrew Miller, Guardian News & Media CEO said, ‘Twitter has really helped the Guardian. Twitter is the fastest way to break news now. So core to what we do and core to what we do on a daily basis.’ Speaking of the breaking of the NSA/Edward Snowden story Miller said, ‘the story really broke from us and on Twitter. It took an hour before the breaking news stations got this.’ Twitter drives traffic to the Guardian sites from areas where there is no print edition. According to Nicky Woolf in the Atlantic, June 10, the day after Snowden revealed his identity on The Guardian‘s website, was the biggest traffic day in the Guardian’s history, with ‘6.97 million unique browsers’. On June 10, for the first time in the paper’s history, their U.S. traffic was higher than their UK traffic.’

In this sense Twitter facilitates the global expansion of the Guardian into previously difficult to reach markets. Which of course is what advertisers demand.  Miller again: ‘Twitter absolutely helps us with the advertising proposition we have. Twitter is a must have for clients as part of a proposition of multimedia engagement on campaigns we do.’

Social media has transformed newsrooms. In 2011 Kevin Bakhurst, former Controller of the BBC News Channel, wrote of its ‘practical role and influence’. He wrote of how newsgathering had speeded up and enabled recourse to wider ranges of sources and material. This is undoubtedly the case and the corollary of the ubiquity of Twitter is that journalist’s roles have changed significantly. Twitter never sleeps and neither does the modern journalist who is scanning updates 24/7 posting and re tweeting. This is often a hostile environment: as journalist and blogger Amy Cassell pointed out ‘one small error can compound itself instantaneously, thanks to the eager efforts of would-be investigators lurking in the comments section and armed with instant search. Corrections are no longer an afterthought process – they happen in real time for the world to see. This also means that the audience will penalize wrong reporting harshly. So you had better make sure your reporting is ironclad. If that costs you the extra few minute-advantage of being first, then so be it. At least you’ll still have your credibility.’

The illusion of journalistic omniscience has been challenged – where once correspondents
were reachable only through the letter pages. Ellyn Angelotti has written about the end of the ‘passive news cycle’ It is no longer a matter of simply production, distribution and consumption. News has become interactive. On Twitter, news can be broken by the participants in, or observers of, a particular event. So that the journalist often becomes an interpreter, reacting to events quickly and frequently. This arguably makes the responsibility of the journalist even greater. He or she often has to sift through swathes of information and opinion before deciding on what to report. Technology journalist Alex Masters argues that Twitter interaction has become synonymous with news reporting. Media outlets rely heavily on crowd sourced content to ‘help provide real-time information, reaction and public opinion during breaking news stories’. Consider that this process is relentless (and the circumstances highlighted above by Cassell) and we may begin to sympathise with the modern reporter.

There are those who suggest that Twitter has had a trivialising effect on journalism. That it is lazy and convenient for journalists to rely on Twitter ‘outrages’ for news. A quick look the newspapers in the last few weeks gives some credence to that view. On October 24th the Guardian’s politics section reported on the Twitter ‘spat’ between Lord Sugar and Nick Clegg and during the recent vicious British weather, various newspapers printed the tweets of celebrities who had ridiculed the effects of the storm. These are just two examples of very many instances and as Digital Fellow at the Poynter Institute, Jeff Sonderman writes: ‘it is possible to overuse Twitter to the detriment of your other reporting; it is possible to pursue trivial tweetable “scoops” to the detriment of insightful journalism. But, he says, ‘the solution isn’t to not use Twitter — it’s to not use Twitter that way.’

Perhaps this is the key. It’s the way in which Twitter is used that determines its worth and the power of the medium should not be underestimated.  In the Arab Spring of 2011, Twitter was successfully used to mobilise support for change both locally and internationally. The Libyan writer Hisham Matar  whilst seeking to underplay the role of social media in revolution more generally, stated, ‘What’s really exciting is that it allows a new generation a new way of communicating. It is almost like a new language – it makes them [oppressed citizens] feel empowered in a culture that is very disempowered, politically speaking.’

Closer to home, it could be argued that in the early days of the phone hacking scandal it was the  campaign on Twitter  urging advertisers to refrain from dealing with the News of the World that quickened the paper’s demise. Genuinely perturbed by the situation and the potential damage by association, one by one the major companies began to distance themselves from the newspaper. Just one day after the Guardian broke the story, General Motors, Mitsubishi Motors, the Co-Operative and Lloyds Bank were among those who suspended advertising.

In May the Everyday Sexism Project “Women, Action and the Media”, launched an international campaign against Facebook content that they felt incited rape and domestic violence. The project’s founder Laura Bates wrote the sheer numbers of people who joined our campaign in just one week, men and women, testifies to the strength of public feeling. More than 60,000 tweets and 5,000 e-mails were sent using the #FBrape hashtag, while advertisers were flooded with demands to suspend their accounts with Facebook.  Within days Facebook issued a statement promising to act upon each of the stipulations Everyday Sexism called for.

Whilst these are examples of activism and not journalism, they are certainly sources of information. Any news organisation which ignored or completely discounted what was appearing on social media during the Arab Spring would have missed the primary providers of news, both textual and pictorial. That situation is unthinkable.

It is heartening for traditionalists that evidence suggests the rise of Twitter does not appear to be at the cost of people going directly to established sites for their news. Research from the Pew institute in 2012 proposes that social media news consumption is ‘supplemental’ and ‘among Twitter news followers 76% also go to home pages or use apps from a news organization very or somewhat often.’

But Twitter continues to grow and its importance to the future of journalism is evident. Paul Lewis, the Guardian’s Washington correspondent and winner of the best Twitter feed in the Online Media awards said in 2012: Twitter is the digital footprint of things that are happening around the world. If Twitter becomes as ubiquitous as the mobile phone – there’s 4bn mobile phone users in the world – that’s huge. As a journalist who wants to find out things people don’t want you to know, that’s very exciting.