How Twitter is changing news as we know it
Last week, I argued that short-video app Vine is a killer news tool and that it will consolidate Twitter’s position as the first port of call for news. The six-second videos, just like 140 characters, provide flashes of insight, nuggets of information, and fast-flying shards of the truth that keep pace with the loud and echoing volleys of Internet-enabled global discussion. Now it has been revealed that Google Chairman Eric Schmidt has been chewing his nails over that very phenomenon: Twitter as first mediator between a news event and the public.
For the last couple of years, I, like millions of others, have been tuning in to Twitter for breaking and developing news stories, especially around big news events, like Hurricane Sandy, the shooting at the Empire State Building, or Beyoncé defeating electricity in a football stadium. I know that Twitter isn’t ideal – a lot of information that crosses its wires will be wrong – but it provides instant gratification, a real-time feed of man’s flawed interpretation of reality. Plenty of other people use it the same way.
You can put aside the question of whether or not that’s a healthy development in the evolution of news consumption. It won’t be stopped. Just as Daniel Defoe lamented the proliferation of newspapers in 1600s because they "spread rumours and reports of things," contemporary concerns over the rise of Twitter will ultimately fade away. For as long as people prove willing to broadcast their voices in 140 characters or six-second audiovisual snippets, the Twitterization of culture will continue.
Clearly, Eric Schmidt has been thinking about Twitter and its effect on news consumption. Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal’s Tom Gara published two stories outlining the findings from an early look at the galleys of Schmidt’s upcoming book, The New Digital Age, co-authored by Jared Cohen, the head of Google Ideas, which the search giant calls a “think/do tank.”
In the book, Schmidt and Cohen look at the role of news organizations in the age of Twitter. “Twitter can no more produce analysis than a monkey can type out a work of Shakespeare,” Schmidt and Cohen say in the book, according to Gara’s review. When we fret that Twitter might be ruining journalism, we tend to forget that Twitter is not in and of itself a content producer. It is a content platform. If it ever does have a hand in “ruining journalism” it would only be because it allowed journalism to ruin itself faster.
On the other hand, while Twitter may not be able to “produce” analysis, it can actually distribute analysis. That happens most obviously with a shared link to a larger piece, but analysis can also come 140 characters at a time. Take, for instance, New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza’s recent Tweet about President Obama’s skeet-shooting photo. Alongside an embed of the pic, Lizza wrote: “Conspiracy theories about how this photo is fake in 3...2...1”. Not deep, but pithy, and it says as much in 12 words as a Tom Friedman column could say in 1,000.
It is true, however, that analysis is not Twitter’s forte. Nor should it be. And that’s where Schmidt and Cohen are on stronger ground.
“The effect of having so many new actors involved, connected through a range of online platforms into the great, diffuse media system, is that major media outlets will report less and validate more,” the authors say. “In fact, the elite will probably rely more on established news organizations simply because of the massive swell of low-grade reporting and information in the system.”
That’s a point I made in my post about Vine last week:
I suspect it won’t be for a while, but this development should ultimately be freeing for newspapers, agencies, TV, and radio, who can instead position themselves as an authoritative port of call for news. (All the above should use Vine, too, though.) Once people have got the “raw” version of the news on Twitter, they can turn to those organizations for more facts, context, depth, and, hopefully, assurance that the facts being reported are actually true.This re-ordering of the news hierarchy with Twitter as the first port of call doesn’t displace traditional news organizations so much as give them a stronger remit to do the sort of reporting that really matters – getting the facts straight and lining them up in an understandable narrative that we can trust. Then, perhaps, we can leave behind us the days of major networks getting important stories dead wrong simply because they were rushing to be first. For a case in point, refer to SCOTUS Blog’s 7,000-word account of how CNN and Fox News botched the Supreme Court’s healthcare ruling by hurrying – and how SCOTUS Blog got it right by being deliberative.
To me as a news consumer and practitioner, this is a positive development. No longer should such outlets be concerned with being first; they should instead concentrate on being right and smart. Sure, Reuters and AP can race each other to be the first to “break” news 140 characters at a time on Twitter, but those Tweets won’t be enough to build a business on, and they’ll be competing with on-the-scene witnesses, amateurs with smartphones, and crowdsourcing. Instead those Tweets should be used to drive readers and viewers to the more authoritative accounts that come later.
While, as BuzzFeed’s John Herrman has argued, Twitter does have some powers of self-correction, there have been enough “Morgan Freeman is dead” rumors to foment a healthy skepticism among all but the most gullible users of the service. Most people should know by now that not everything that comes down the Twitter pipe is going to be 100 percent accurate. But the chance that it is accurate will be titillating enough to drive consumers to find out more. An offshoot of the spread of half-truths and titillations is that there will be a greater and more intense drive to find out what actually happened and how and what it means.
At that point, Twitter has done its job. That’s where it hands off the news duties to traditional news organizations – newspapers, radio, TV, blogs – which can provide not only analysis, but context, deeper reporting, and authority. That’s why newspapers like the Washington Post are investing in services like “Truth Teller,” which can tell truth from fiction in real-time. That’s why the golden age of fact-checking might also be a new golden age of news.
What Schmidt and Cohen don’t do is explain how news organizations can build businesses on trust and authority. That’s a harder conversation. It’s also why a golden age for news won’t necessarily translate into a golden age for the news industry.