Let's all calm down about Vivian's Schiller's exit -- Twitter was never a "news" site, and that's okay
Over the weekend, the Guardian's Jane Martinson had some things to say about the recent management shakeup at Twitter. If you haven't been following along, the company merged its news, government, and elections team under one roof which resulted in some redundancies. The most notable exit was Vivian Schiller, the ex-NPR and NBC executive brought in to head Twitter's news department.
On Schiller's departure, Martinson writes, "The management meltdown has simply served to highlight an ongoing struggle within Twitter over whether it should largely be a conduit for journalism or PR. And whether a technology company, even one with 271 million monthly users, believes it can make money out of breaking news."
Okay, maybe that's what a bit of executive consolidation at the top of a public tech company means. But to think the main takeaway from Schiller's departure is that Twitter is abandoning news is to misunderstand some things about the business model of Twitter -- and the business model of news.
First off, Martinson writes that Schiller's initial hiring suggested that Twitter was "getting serious about breaking news." And the fact that her eventual role, which mostly consisted of convincing journalists and news outlets to tweet more, represents a shift, or at least an uncertainty, over Twitter's journalistic ambitions.
But the initial job posting, which called for someone to work as a liaison between Twitter and news organizations, didn't include any grand statements about hiring journalists or producing its own news or any of the other things Martinson may mean by "getting serious about breaking news." In fact, at the time I felt like Schiller was even overqualified to act as a glorified PR person. But I never thought that Schiller's role would be to run a news department, not in the traditional sense of the word.
That's because gathering, verifying, and producing news is expensive. And the kind of breaking or investigative work that Serious News Consumers want is not necessarily as attractive to advertisers as quizzes, listicles, and other #Content that drive zillions of clicks. As Clay Shirky put it, describing the salad days of newspapers past, "The commercial success of newspapers and their linking of that to accountability journalism wasn’t a deep truth about reality. Best Buy was not willing to support the Baghdad bureau because Best Buy cared about news from Baghdad. They just didn’t have any other good choices." Now, from Buzzfeed to YouTube videos to shows on Hulu, advertisers have lots of choices.
But just because Twitter isn't embracing the often unprofitable endeavor of producing news itself, it doesn't mean the company doesn't take news "seriously." The first stage of Twitter's model was all about getting people with big followings, whether they're celebrities, reporters, or both, to use the service as a sounding board. In that, it's been a raging success. Virtually all of the world's favorite reporters are on Twitter and a large number of them tweet every day. We know where to find them. Even less sophisticated news consumers know where to find them -- almost no journalist gets on national TV without their Twitter handle blasted below them underneath their name. As long as the reporters and celebrities continue to find value in Twitter as a sounding board for their fans, and as long as fans continue to find value from these updates, what more does the company need to do to get "serious about news"?
Of course, merely getting a bunch of important people to use your service isn't a business model, so now Twitter has moved on to stage two, which includes striking deals with networks around big television events like the Olympics or the World Cup. That's not exactly "news," but who cares? The World Cup isn't terribly interesting to me, but because my Twitter feed is (largely) self-curated and of my own design, the service is still a great utility for news consumption regardless of whether the World Cup is going on. I don't see most of these sports tweets anyway. And if big TV partnerships or deals with Hollywood help keep the lights on for Twitter's less lucrative communities then so be it. It beats the "Best Buy Baghdad" business model anyway.
This leads into another concern many have about Twitter, which to some Twitter truthers was intensified by Schiller's departure -- What if your Twitter feed is no longer yours to curate?
Already, Twitter inserts tweets from accounts you don't follow, whether it's promoted paid tweets or, very rarely, tweets that people you follow have favorited. The freaking out really got out of hand when statements from Twitter CFO Anthony Noto about toying with algorithmic curation were conflated to mean that Twitter was on the cusp of implementing a Facebook-style News Feed -- thus destroying the live, unfiltered appeal of the network. I wrote about how if Twitter did such a thing, you might not find out about the next Ferguson shooting or other major news event.
But as Dick Costolo clarified, and as anyone familiar with Twitter's history with power users know, that's not going to happen anytime soon. Will Twitter stop changing? Of course not. Otherwise it will never be profitable. But as we saw when the company briefly altered the ability to block users before quickly backpedaling, Twitter is not deaf to the outcry of power users. My guess is that Twitter may implement a dual feed that can be toggled back and forth -- one raw feed for the experienced Twitter user and a more curated feed for newcomers.
In any case, it's not time to panic about Twitter losing its soul. And even if Twitter eventually sells a small piece of its soul to appease stakeholders, it's better than the company stagnating for too long and being forced to take drastic steps in order to survive. That could really mess our favorite service up.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]