Twitter shakes the ground under major news websites: How they have to adapt

It’s happened again. Yet again, an earthquake has occurred, this time in the U.S. – and yet again I found out about it from Twitter as it happened, rather than from one of the news websites minutes later. In fact, I’d even reported on it, and uploaded an image from Twitter to 140Char (Now available at http://www.thewayoftheweb.net/earthquake-hits-us-and-twitter/ ) before the BBC website had any coverage.

And when the BBC does cover it, look at the lack of any responses. Now compare that to the sheer amount of updates which occurred on Twitter, even during the quake itself.

As microblogging sites increase and users can upload almost instantly from mobiles, news websites need to respond in a far more proactive way. I know the BBC is UK based, but even American media like CNN were apparently late to the party.

For a while news websites have had increased competition, particularly from prominent blogs, but they still had the resources to be the first point for news, and the first place people headed for if they wanted to upload pictures and videos. One significant early stage of Citizen Journalism was the London Underground bombing in July 2005. But now people already have significant networks and reach to share thoughts, images, and video incredibly quickly with a potentially large circle of people without needing the news portal to distribute it. In fact, during 9/11, when traffic brought news websites to a halt, I was ignoring the television to use Instant Messaging and forums to chat with friends in the U.S and at large news organisations to find out what was happening.

And if Twitter or similar tools become mainstream, breaking news is over. You might still get a few minutes grace on embargoed content before it’s replicated throughout the world, but reacting to something just happening? By the time your assigned staff reporter is taking notes, or your Web Producer has been woken up, Twitter users around the world (Tweeple) are already reacting.

As far as I can see, there are a few options still left:

1. Stop autofeeding your late news to Twitter. Particularly when we already know about the earthquake, and it’s been on your website for ages. It highlights that you haven’t bothered understanding how it works. And it isn’t the first time. Earthquakes in China and the UK, Heath Ledger’s death…you got beaten before and you’ll get beaten again.

2. Do make sure all your reporters have decent mobile phones. And can update straight to a Twitter account without worrying about grammar, subbing, or waiting until you have a story to link to on your main website. It’s not about driving traffic, it’s about breaking news. That’s what journalism is about. Get back your reputation for breaking news, and people will respond. And then when you do release an in-depth analysis on the website, and aggregate information, you’ll have an audience which responds.

3. Start aggregating Twitter onto your site. It takes two seconds to set up a Twitter Search result. Put a space in your news template for RSS feeds, and use them to plug Twitter in as soon as something happens. Start collating all the notable Tweets, and speaking to the people behind them. You’ll get responses far quicker than making your reporter get out of bed.

Alternatively:

1. While your print product is already falling, and you’re coming to terms that things are changing a bit more quickly, microblogging takes away one of the major selling points of a major news company. You no longer have scoops, and because you’ve cut back to save costs in an uncertain time, you don’t have the staff or resources to file in-depth analysis and responses to breaking news quick enough to beat experts on blogs, and aggregators.

Don’t stop evolving halfway out of the swamp.

Not a cheerful post perhaps, but the internet evolves faster than any previous form of communication. It took a good 10 years or so for the real effect on the media, and the decline of print and television to be felt to the point major corporations and companies got scared and started really responding. But while the slow pace of change happens within the organisation, outside the pace of change is far quicker – and it’s always happening. There is no single answer to maintaining a sizeable presence on the internet unless it is to become an organisation that can respond quickly and efficiently to new challenges on a monthly basis – even if it means ripping up your website and starting again! Halfway measures will satisfy less and less people. And they’ll definitely be uploading their complaints in 140 characters.

Edit: Turns out the LA Times is running Twitter in a Technology article highlighting how well it works for news, which you can see here. Strange then, it isn’t integrated into their general news coverage? The Guardian putting Twitter on blogs is again, a tiny, tiny step in the right direction, but it’s a start I guess – even if it isn’t working at the moment!

Comments

  1. Great post.

    I stopped buying newspapers quite some time ago as the content to me was old by the time it hit the shops. Likewise I have now stopped reading the BBC website as again the news is old by the time it is reported.

    Local news is even worse, they often report as “Breaking News” a story first tweeted about 48hrs earlier.

    They really need to wake up or be left behind. Is it a question of education? perhaps they don’t even use social media personally, perhaps they view it as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo and believe it is something the kids do!

    If the news websites employed a small team of web surfers instead of an army of reporters they would have quicker, more relevant news to report, furthermore they could report the news that is being most talked about and which is deemed more valuable by joe public.

  2. Great post.

    I stopped buying newspapers quite some time ago as the content to me was old by the time it hit the shops. Likewise I have now stopped reading the BBC website as again the news is old by the time it is reported.

    Local news is even worse, they often report as “Breaking News” a story first tweeted about 48hrs earlier.

    They really need to wake up or be left behind. Is it a question of education? perhaps they don’t even use social media personally, perhaps they view it as Facebook, MySpace and Bebo and believe it is something the kids do!

    If the news websites employed a small team of web surfers instead of an army of reporters they would have quicker, more relevant news to report, furthermore they could report the news that is being most talked about and which is deemed more valuable by joe public.

  3. Hi Dan,

    Great post. Of course news sites need to adapt, just like they adapted for the internet last decade, they need to adapt to “web 2.0” this decade.

    However, it’s not always as clear cut as you make out. Take aggregation for example. If you simply set up a Twitter search when a major news story breaks, it’s easy for advertisers to slip in a key word and sell products with dubious connections to the story. Worse, spammers will just abuse it with unrelated topics/links.

    There needs to be an element of moderation. Or perhaps someone just monitoring Twitter full-time and highlighting the best posts.

    Another point is that Twitter is still far from mainstream. It’s amazing, of course, but it still has some way to go before it gets public acceptance (maybe another year or two?).

    Perhaps the bigger challenge is the limited number of reporters. Reporters can’t be everywhere. So I would recommend letting people self-identify themselves as citizen journalsits, empowering them to post news stories they find and then benefiting from their extended network of news. So when stories do break, these guys can speed up the process of getting it ont the websites.

  4. Hi Dan,

    Great post. Of course news sites need to adapt, just like they adapted for the internet last decade, they need to adapt to “web 2.0” this decade.

    However, it’s not always as clear cut as you make out. Take aggregation for example. If you simply set up a Twitter search when a major news story breaks, it’s easy for advertisers to slip in a key word and sell products with dubious connections to the story. Worse, spammers will just abuse it with unrelated topics/links.

    There needs to be an element of moderation. Or perhaps someone just monitoring Twitter full-time and highlighting the best posts.

    Another point is that Twitter is still far from mainstream. It’s amazing, of course, but it still has some way to go before it gets public acceptance (maybe another year or two?).

    Perhaps the bigger challenge is the limited number of reporters. Reporters can’t be everywhere. So I would recommend letting people self-identify themselves as citizen journalsits, empowering them to post news stories they find and then benefiting from their extended network of news. So when stories do break, these guys can speed up the process of getting it ont the websites.

  5. Great comments! Cheers…

    @Rich I can understand the risk of spam, but during the Twitticentre of the earthquake, would a spam message have spent more than a minute or two on the LA Times? I agree that there may need to be some form of filter, but we’ve got to be experimenting to work out the right way to do it…

  6. Great comments! Cheers…

    @Rich I can understand the risk of spam, but during the Twitticentre of the earthquake, would a spam message have spent more than a minute or two on the LA Times? I agree that there may need to be some form of filter, but we’ve got to be experimenting to work out the right way to do it…

  7. I certainly agree that user-generated content is extremely important and that traditional news outlets need to adapt.

    However, I don’t know if Twitter is up to the job. I’ve experienced numerous issues with it and have seen a lot of issues reported by others too. To be a reliable route for breaking news it has to perform better when under pressure.

    I personally don’t use Twitter anymore. Problems aside, it is extremely difficult to keep up with if you follow more than a few users. I have since moved to Plurk, which serves a similar function but in a much more accessible format. Of course, this kind of thing is very much down to preference.

  8. I certainly agree that user-generated content is extremely important and that traditional news outlets need to adapt.

    However, I don’t know if Twitter is up to the job. I’ve experienced numerous issues with it and have seen a lot of issues reported by others too. To be a reliable route for breaking news it has to perform better when under pressure.

    I personally don’t use Twitter anymore. Problems aside, it is extremely difficult to keep up with if you follow more than a few users. I have since moved to Plurk, which serves a similar function but in a much more accessible format. Of course, this kind of thing is very much down to preference.

  9. I agree in principle with much of what you said, with one significant caveat: not everyone agrees with what constitutes “news.” Some people need certain types of information immediately and don’t care about the “professionalism” source. For them, a Twittered message suffices.

    For others, for certain topics they are happy to wait till they receive the morning paper or turn on network TV to get an edited, concise view of some event that occurred yesterday.

    We make a major mistake if we think that everyone has the same needs. The essence of capitalism is figuring out how to meet those diverse needs profitably and consistently.

    So, for some things — like being aware of the well-being of my family members who live in Los Angeles — Twitter has been a great boon for me. But I still periodically check Yahoo News and scan the morning Washington Post.

  10. I agree in principle with much of what you said, with one significant caveat: not everyone agrees with what constitutes “news.” Some people need certain types of information immediately and don’t care about the “professionalism” source. For them, a Twittered message suffices.

    For others, for certain topics they are happy to wait till they receive the morning paper or turn on network TV to get an edited, concise view of some event that occurred yesterday.

    We make a major mistake if we think that everyone has the same needs. The essence of capitalism is figuring out how to meet those diverse needs profitably and consistently.

    So, for some things — like being aware of the well-being of my family members who live in Los Angeles — Twitter has been a great boon for me. But I still periodically check Yahoo News and scan the morning Washington Post.

  11. I agree that different people have different requirements and tastes in how they get their information, but at the moment, the organisations are limiting themselves, and their audience.

    The people who are still happy to wait for the morning paper will need a more informed analysis of what has happened, or they’ll continue to hear things from their friend who is using the internet/facebook/twitter.

    I remember having a great chat with a research company as they outlined how a group of 6 new mothers interacted, and how the only one of them with broadband access was the focal point for questions and answers, because she had all the relevant information and was seen as the gatekeeper to all the knowledge…the others had TV and newspapers, but it didn’t serve the same function.

    It’s about aggregation and then presenting that aggregation in the most appropriate way – for web users that may be incoming RSS feeds for 30 sources – for print readers it could be in a 1000 word article on page 2.

    The difference is that by the time the paper comes out, most people will have heard about the news from the internet or from their friends.

  12. I agree that different people have different requirements and tastes in how they get their information, but at the moment, the organisations are limiting themselves, and their audience.

    The people who are still happy to wait for the morning paper will need a more informed analysis of what has happened, or they’ll continue to hear things from their friend who is using the internet/facebook/twitter.

    I remember having a great chat with a research company as they outlined how a group of 6 new mothers interacted, and how the only one of them with broadband access was the focal point for questions and answers, because she had all the relevant information and was seen as the gatekeeper to all the knowledge…the others had TV and newspapers, but it didn’t serve the same function.

    It’s about aggregation and then presenting that aggregation in the most appropriate way – for web users that may be incoming RSS feeds for 30 sources – for print readers it could be in a 1000 word article on page 2.

    The difference is that by the time the paper comes out, most people will have heard about the news from the internet or from their friends.

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