Friday, 16 November 2012

Impressions from Newsxchange #2: the role of Twitter in broadcast news

Next up in my impressions from Newsxchange 2012, an interesting conversation between Erica Anderson (@ericaamerica, followers: 10,700), Head of News for Twitter and Rory Cellan-Jones (@BBCRoryCJ, followers: 42,000) the BBC’s technology correspondent and self-confessed Twitter-holic, about the use of Twitter in News Broadcasting.

Erica is in charge of creating a mutually beneficial relationship between news organisations. She’s an former journalist for CBS News and citizen journalist for MTV. Since 2011 she’s been responsible for the health of Twitter’s relationship with news organisations, enabling them to use the platform to connect products, services and stories. Interesting initial revelation: there are no phones on the desk at Twitter.

Erica came to Twitter having been on a personal journey to learn how journalists can learn about new tools and how to apply ethics to it in a much more connected world where there is a great deal of misinformation. Journalists need to be able to apply context to the information fire hose on behalf of readers. It’s also the case that although citizens can now be journalists, they are so by circumstance – they don’t know that they’re the source until they go viral. Their reputation capital might not be up to their new role so they need to turn from journalist to source.

Twitter offers or promotes a couple of tools that can help newsrooms use Twitter in their editorial. Topsy is a service (not owned by Twitter) that enables users to trawl through a historic database of tweets to track conversations. Erica gave the example of Gaza, which has been mentioned in 309,000 tweets in the last 24 hours. Topsy could help a journalist figure out what’s valuable and how to support their angle.

The second tool is Tweetdeck for newsrooms. Tweetdeck (a British company that Twitter acquired in 2011) is another analytics tools that helps news organisations (or anyone else) figure out what happens when they tweet by comparing retweets, mentions and traffic dynamics between a website and Twitter.

Rory asked for good practice examples from the news broadcasting sector. Erica had two; first, MSNBC and the Breaking News business they recently acquired. The @breakingnews handle (followers: 4,200,000) has been demonstrably fed traffic into MSNBC and been used to break and maintain stories. In my terms it has great reputation capital.

The second example was the BBC’s Middle East Bureau Chief Paul Danahar (@pdanahar, followers: 20,600) who’s been in Gaza this week tweeting photos that have started off story threads and enabled checking of the accepted “facts” back in the office. These are examples of a change in the world. News used to break and only the news wires would have access, now it breaks in public so the news wires need to have the trust of citizens not just each other in order to be relevant. In Erica’s estimation, when there are unplanned events, people come to Twitter to find out more about them. Because of the size of the fire hose, reputation capital is very important on Twitter.

Organisations are therefore understandably wary to risk their reputations on Twitter. Over time that fear recedes as people give Twitter a try and see the benefits in terms of retweets and links back to the original broadcaster. Journalists themselves need to exercise their judgement. There is a blend between being yourself (Danahar is a Spurs fan and quite willing to advertise the fact) and presenting opinions about a story as facts.

I agree with this to a degree. Truth is that although there are hundreds of millions of Twitter accounts, the vast majority of citizens don’t have an account and a sizable proportion aren’t active users or are fairly low volume followers of other people. Fewer people still actually interact. To give you a sense of proportion, there are a billion tweets every three days. 250 million photos are posted to Facebook every day – a vastly larger amount of information, but also insignificant in terms of time spent than is spent actually watching events on broadcast news. How many people watch Paul Danahar on the TV than the 20,000 that follow him?

Yes, Twitter and other types of social service are interesting sources of data, but they are just one small part of the craft of being a journalist in 2012. Will they be a more important source in the future – yes – will they be the primary source of content and reach (two areas that Erica suggests are the core of monetisation of Twitter for news organisations) – not in my view.

An observation from the audience was that Twitter is an American service with American values. There are some positives to this – the “Trust and Safety” department within the organisation has lately become adept at supporting people and businesses that are receiving death threats or being impersonated. This wasn’t so true in the early days of Twitter.

The flip side is that although Twitter can intervene to take down inaccurate stories, it can’t deal with everything. Nor should it in my view – if a regime says that something on Twitter shouldn’t be viewed within its borders then why should Twitter take it down? The audience should be given some credit to decide for itself what it wants to read. If you don’t like something use your freedom of expression (on Twitter at least) to do something about it! Reputation, reputation, reputation.

Someone in the audience from Al Arabiya asked whether the Arab Spring would have happened if Twitter was censored. Well, gee, in September 2011 Twitter had 100m active users globally. How many were in the Middle East and how many tweeted? I think mobile phones calls, SMS and word of mouth were the key communication mechanisms of the Arab Spring. Twitter existed and played a role. It was not significant and it was not decisive. Twitter – for now at least – is a growing and exciting niche. I love it, but I know its limitations.

A final aside from Erica on Twitter. They don’t comment on their long term business model. Is that because there isn’t one? Couldn’t resist. #weakminded. Yes, I really just hash tagged a blog post. I feel wrong inside.

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