The Value of Twitter, the Persistence of Email
When I started with Twitter, I had no idea what I was supposed to get from it or do to contribute to it. So I just played with it, trying out various kinds of tweets and looking for folks to follow from my schizoid professional and personal pursuits. Twitter veterans can already guess what happened next: I discovered that by accident, I’d built myself a highly targeted, utterly idiosyncratic news feed staffed by people I trust. Digital Journalism + New York Mets/Baseball + Star Wars + Brooklyn + Whatever’s Big Enough News to Engage Everybody From Those Camps = Me. There was the day I realized I was increasingly learning things not from my rounds of various Web sites but from Twitter, and then there was the day that I reflexively turned to Twitter to find out what was going on.
So I’m the target audience for Robert Niles’s thoughts on the lessons Michael Jackson’s death offers online journalists. As always, Niles is thoughtful and offers excellent advice — about 75% of which I agree with.
Niles’s advice that news organizations use Twitter to acknowledge widespread rumors and quickly say what they’re up to is dead-on, for instance. This is a perfect example of the kind of transparency that readers increasingly demand, and that makes papers paranoid because it seems to run counter to the “batch” culture of newsgathering that evolved to serve print. But while it’s a cultural shift, it’s not one to fear. By acknowledging rumors once they reach a certain pitch, newspapers not only stay relevant, but also fulfill their core mission of informing readers — for instance, the word of a newspaper that’s acknowledged a rumor would carry more weight in knocking it down later.
I also completely agree with the suggestion (passed along from Steve Buttry) that newspapers stop calling email blasts “news alerts.” Social-media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook spread breaking news much more quickly and efficiently than email does. And as a digital-newsroom veteran, I know all too well that email alerts are untrustworthy beasts that have to jump through too many hoops on their journey between the editor and the reader. Emails have a nasty habit of getting hung up on the way out of the news organization’s systems and/or on the way into the reader’s corporate system or ISP. When the email shows up late, readers blame the news organization, not their ISP or corporate email filter. And lots of readers overestimate their appetite for emailed news, meaning email alerts quickly stop being signal and become inbox noise.
That said, I differ with Niles on two relatively minor points.
First, I wouldn’t make a blanket statement that breaking news should be divided into a reporting task and a publishing task. For one thing, good editing-and-publishing systems make it easy to tweet something or put up an SMS from within a single story with minimal interruption to the reporting and writing process. (Or, if you’ll pardon the plug, at least EidosMedia’s does.) More fundamentally, newsrooms and individual journalists are different. I’ve known journalists who could fire off an SMS or post a breaking-news summary without missing a beat, because that was just a part of their tracking and developing the story in their heads. The last thing such journalists want is to interrupt this flow by consulting, however briefly, with a colleague on a tweet. Yet I’ve also known journalists who’d dive so deeply into banging out the first dozen iterations of a breaking news story that switching gears to “publisher” mode would be somewhere between intolerable and impossible. For them, Niles’s advice is perfect.
My other point of departure with Niles is his advice to drop email as a breaking-news mechanism. Neither he nor I want to get breaking news that way, but not everybody is enamored of Twitter or checking their Facebook feed religiously. I suspect most or all papers have many readers that like email as an interruptive mechanism for bringing them news that’s truly important, and those readers have to be served too.
If I were running a newsroom right now, I would rebrand our email “alerts” with a more neutral term to acknowledge that a tech-savvy portion of the audience has moved on to other communications methods, and to guard against poorly behaved servers and filters. I’d clearly explain to readers all the ways they can get news from us and what we use each method for, and I’d make sure readers could easily change their preferences whenever they wished. But I’d keep email as an arrow in the quiver, even for breaking news.
As is so often true with online news, the answer isn’t so much that one technology displaces another as it is that you find yourself having to use both.
Addendum: If you’ll excuse a Friday afternoon digression, this is how I realized my six-year-old son was playing Little League baseball in a rather extraordinary place. I wouldn’t have guessed that the story of a crowded little park with artificial turf dated back 310 years and included the American Revolution and the formative years of Major League Baseball, but that’s why it pays to be curious.