The Role of Twitter in Journalism

The following is an essay I wrote recently about Twitter’s role in journalism.  Enjoy!

Telegraphs, the printing press, typewriters, and computers – the technology of journalism has been transformed extensively over history.  Today, in the twenty-first century, computers, smart phones and other devices communicate instantaneously across the globe for minimal cost.  Web 2.0, a phrase thrown around in today’s fast-paced Internet world, refers to the plethora of online applications billions of people use each day to communicate, share ideas and learn.  With the world becoming “flatter” as telecommunications technology advances at lighting speed, these online services become increasingly popular worldwide.  Journalism has been transformed by the instantaneous ubiquity that is the Internet.  Notable newspapers that once boasted large print readership now instead pride themselves on websites that are fully integrated into their news production.  Some of these popular Web 2.0 services have even made their mark on the modern newsroom.  Of the most significant of these services, Twitter has emerged as a powerful tool for the gathering and transmitting of news.  By examining Twitter and its current uses in journalism, perhaps a clearer understanding of the role of technology in news will be achieved.

Twitter is, to put it simply, a short message service, much like text messaging on a cell phone, for the Internet.  Officially, at Twitter.com, the creators define it as “a real-time short messaging service that works over multiple networks and devices.”   Unofficially, Twitter is a micro-blogging and social-networking service that allows users to read and post what are known as “tweets” of text up to 140 characters in length.  Users can log in to Twitter.com and post via the website, send in tweets from their cell phone via text message, or use a third-party application on their computer or smart phone.  They then follow and are followed by other users so that they have a stream of updates delivered to them and their followers.   Due to the 140-character limit and the streamlined user interface at Twitter.com, the simplicity of the service is its most popular and appealing feature.  Far too many Web 2.0 applications bewilder users with hoards of features while Twitter is a smash hit with its ingenious simplicity.

Because Twitter is so easy to use and update – either on the site itself, through a text message, or a third-party application – users have been able to scoop news services in reporting breaking news.  On April 13 of 2007, an earthquake shook Mexico City, and the first reports of it were found on Twitter.  Following the earthquake, American blogger and Twitter user Robert Scoble wrote, “as soon as people started reporting [the earthquake] on Twitter, I looked at the [United States Geological Survey] maps. The Twitterers beat the USGS by several minutes.”

Twitter is being used extensively right now in many modern newsrooms, but today, what is a modern newsroom anyway?  With the rapid expansion of the “blogosphere,” successful blogs – or “web logs” – have become a brand of online newspaper.  At the site ReadWriteWeb.com, “a blog that provides Web Technology news, reviews and analysis,” they have begun using Twitter as an everyday part of their newsgathering procedures.   The writers at the site discover breaking news regularly on Twitter, and also use the service to conduct interviews and solicit interview questions.  In addition, they use the Twitter user base to crowd-source opinions and thoughts from their viewing public: “Some Twitter users reply to our questions with single line answers, others with a few tweets in a row and still others send us paragraphs by email when they see we’ve asked an interesting question.” Vice President of Content Development and Lead Writer at ReadWriteWeb Marshall Kirkpatrick says that he even takes corrections to stories and does “quality assurance” via Tweets.

But how is Twitter being used in more traditional journalism fields, such as newspapers, magazines, television and radio?  In terms of embracing technology, traditional media tends to lack behind the vanguard of progress; however, the use of Twitter has been so viral that even the most traditional of news organizations are jumping on board.  It is no doubt that other organizations are taking the approach that ReadWriteWeb is by utilizing Twitter to gather news, conduct interviews, and accept feedback.  There are just too many users to not pay attention to what is being said.  According to TwitDir.com, a third-party service which lets users search for fellow Twitterers, there are approximately over 3.3 million users currently on Twitter.   Responsible news organizations have chosen not to ignore this massive amount of people, and are instead taking advantage of it.  Virtually every reputable news organization – from the New York Times, to the Washington Post, to FoxNews, and to CNN – has created a Twitter account through which they push their news out to the Twitter community.  A Twitter user can chose to follow CNN’s Twitter feed (@cnn) to receive the lastest breaking news headlines to their home screen or cell phone.   Similar services are available for other news organizations as well.  CNN and the New York Times may not be using Twitter as extensively as ReadWriteWeb is, but the fact that they have created accounts and regularly “tweet” their news shows a willingness to embrace the ever-expanding technology sphere.

As a budding journalist myself, I have too found efficient and important uses for Twitter in my journalistic enterprises.  On election night in November of 2008, as a student at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, I was assigned to help the reporters for the school’s live newscast stay in contact with one another in the field.  Mark Lodato, director of Cronkite NewsWatch at the Cronkite School, and I set up a make-shift Twitter group for all of the correspondants and reporters in the field on election night.  Twitter itself does not support group functions, but other third-party applications attempt to create the feature.  None of the third-party applications seemed to suit our needs, so we simply had everyone create an account and only follow one another.  This way everyone would only be seeing the other peoples messages, but unfortunately, the messages, which were not terribly sensitive in content, were actually sent out to the entire Twitter community at large.  I sat with Mr. Lodato in the control room for NewsWatch that night, and every now and then he would lean over to me an say something along the lines of, “Okay, send out a Twitter, I want to remind everyone to get their microphones really close to people’s mouths, it’s really loud out there and it’s hard to hear their voices.”  This added line of communication between the news room, control room and field correspondants allowed everyone involved in the production to stay on the same page.  We also sent our messages of the latest breaking news, so that everyone in the field had up-to-the-minute information no matter where they were.

While Twitter is being used by millions of users as well as news organizations of all shapes and sizes, it has yet to gain a large amount of traction.  In an article titled, “For some reason, Twitter hasn’t yet taken the journalist community by storm,” Cnet.com news reporter Charles Cooper found that after surveying fifty-five technology journalists that only fifteen of them could be found on Twitter.   This phenomenon may be partly because of Twitter’s ease of use.  Twitter is used a lot by corporations and by older Web 2.0 fans, while younger web junkies find themselves involved with more complicated services like Facebook and MySpace.  It seems younger generations of Web 2.0 users are bored with the lack of features Twitter offers, while older users are drawn to Twitter because of its simplicity.  This is why Twitter is so successful, because it is not overrun with immature younger generation users, like other services are.  The majority of Twitter’s users are using it legitimately to conduct serious business and conversations, such as the journalists discussed in this essay.

Since Twitter has found a niche in more mature and professional groups, it is no surprise that journalism has started to utilize the services full potential.  But has the full potential of Twitter really been realized?  I still think there is much to learn from Twitter, and that we have not found it’s true meaning.  To me, Twitter is a great way not only to keep in touch with friends, but also to have chance communications with people I otherwise may never interact with.  I even used Twitter in researching this essay.  I asked my followers if anyone had any comments about Twitter’s use in journalism, and received a few interesting replies.  One follower recounted his experience with discovering breaking news through Twitter: “A couple months ago when Pelosi dismissed the House and the Republicans revolted and wanted to discuss drilling, most of what I learned of their activities was through Twitter.”  The responses I got were a little limited because I have a limited follower base, but this kind of research and polling is readily available to the more popular Twitterers and to news organizations with Twitter accounts.  This simple method is just further evidence that the role Twitter plays in journalism is changing every day as more and more professionals utilize the ease of Twitter to communicate their ideas and questions to a candid audience.

Sources:

Tiwtter.com, “About Us,” http://twitter.com/about.
Scobelizer.com, “Mexico City Reported on Twitter First,” http://scobleizer.com/2007/04/12/mexico-city-earthquake-reported-on-twitter-first/.
ReadWriteWeb.com, “About,” http://www.readwriteweb.com/about_readwriteweb.php.
ReadWriteWeb.com, “How We Use Twitter,” http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/twitter_for_journalists.php.
Twitdir.com, http://twitdir.com/.
CNN, http://www.tiwtter.com/cnn.
CNet.com, “Twitter Not Taking Journalism By Storm,” http://news.cnet.com/8301-10787_3-9912520-60.html.

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