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.
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.
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!