It's Time to Push Back Against Twitter Backlash
For all the fawning attention mainstream media outlets have been giving Twitter lately, some fairly large names in the field appear to have dismissed its value as a journalistic tool. While it's true that any technology can be abused and overly relied upon, the ability of Twitter and other social media technologies to connect minds and catalyze ideas should not be ignored.
It's a love-hate relationship right up there with dysfunctional parents du jour Jon and Kate (minus 8); the media has a middle-school crush on Twitter, and the media is the first to say nasty things about Twitter while Twitter is in study hall.
Some of its members are using a helluva lot more than 140 characters to do their damage. The New York Times' Maureen Dowd and "Doonesbury" cartoonist Garry Trudeau are just two of the better-known Pulitzer winners to dip their respective pens in a big bowl o' snark to eviscerate the short-messaging service. True, most of the venom ranging from blogs to late-night talk show comedy has been focused on celebrity use/abuse of Twitter. The St. Petersberg Times' Eric Deggans, in his May 24 media column, offered some simple rules of engagement for the famous and infamous. (Sample: Try to offer more value in your tweets than a detailed listing of what's on your sushi plate.) However, Dowd and Trudeau's targets were journalists enamored with this newest of new media tools, and other online media watchers such as Mike James of Newsblues.com and Dallas' Ed Bark of UncleBarky.com have joined in the beatdown.
The Drudge Report threw a fresh can of lighter fluid on the grill this week by linking to a column titled "Twitter Poses Risks for Newspapers." The author? Washington and Lee journalism professor and syndicated media columnist Ed Wasserman -- the same Ed Wasserman quoted in this column last week about freelance journalists dangerously straddling the worlds of public relations and news. Lest the professor think that I'm stalking him, he should know that I subscribe to numerous feeds and bookmark several pages dedicated to journalism, so his work is bound to show up on my computer sooner or later -- and hey, the guy seems to be on a roll lately.
Wasserman's take on Twitter isn't all bad, granted; he thinks it's a good thing that the service can bring journalists, sources and readers closer together. His problem is that Twitter may lure reporters into thinking they're making real connections and saving on shoe leather at the same time: "The danger is that Twitter will keep reporters off the streets and in front of their screens, that it will further skew journalism toward seeking out, listening to and serving the young, the hip, the technically sophisticated, the well-off -- in short, the better-connected. The people who aren't being heard now aren't sending out tweets."
Point taken, even though that "young, hip, technically sophisticated" audience probably gave up on newspapers long before Twitter crossed over into the mainstream. However, any journalist worth a damn will want to spend the majority of his or her time living and working in the real world, hearing real voices, shaking real hands, touring real streets and neighborhoods. The best journalism isn't just about reporting; it's about observing and filling in the colors for the readers' minds.
That usually takes more than 140 characters.
Muckraking With Muckrack
Morley Safer is ready for journalism's Cooperstown. The "60 Minutes" correspondent is a newsman's newsman, and should have any serious reporter's respect and admiration. Yet those in the audience at Quinnipiac University May 20 to hear Safer receive the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award now know what it must have sounded like millions of years ago when a brontosaurus got trapped in a tar pit.
"The blogosphere is no alternative, crammed as it is with ravings and manipulations of every nut with a keyboard," Safer raved. "Good journalism is structured, and structure means responsibility. ... I would trust citizen journalism as much as I would trust citizen surgery."
I pass this along to Greg Galant, cofounder and CEO of Sawhorse Media, which five weeks ago started Muckrack.com, an aggregator of journalists' Twitter feeds. Galant likes Safer's medical metaphor. "He's like the surgeon who criticized the new technologies -- you had to have had the surgeon who said, 'This X-ray stuff is garbage.'
"I think it's absurd to be totally dismissive of new media, much as the town storyteller might have criticized the printing press," Galant said. "It's a shift in technology, and smart reporters have realized that this is something that can make journalism better. If there's a disaster in some part of the world, they can instantly get photos of it. They can link to a story rather than wait to fly one of their own reporters there and have a 10-hour, one-day delay in the news cycle.
"The smart ones are looking at this as an opportunity -- new ways to gather information, new ways to source stories, new ways to get their product out there," he added. "They'll be the ones who benefited, and the ones sticking to the older ways will be at a disadvantage."
You would expect Galant to evangelize about all this. When he and his partners started Muckrack, they had 170 journalists' Twitter accounts for the launch. Now they're tracking 700 top reporters, editors and columnists -- an impressive mix of traditional and new media with plenty of boldface names from the likes of ABC, CBS, NBC, BBC, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, Wired, Cnet, Reuters, the Associated Press, NPR, Paid Content, Air America -- plus those toiling at several major daily newspapers around the country. Like Twitter, Muckrack is adding new features as it adds followers (nearly 2,290 at last count); beats, trending topics, photos.
I ask if Galant is noticing Muckrack's journalists using Twitter in good, innovative ways. His answer provides ammunition for those praising and wanting to bury new media. "The most important thing now is to experiment. That's the smart thing that's been going on. It's kind of this golden opportunity because it's opened itself up to a system that's designed without any layers of moderation. If a newspaper had started a short-form messaging service, it would have passed through a lot of people with a lot of constraints. Right now, there's nothing standing between the thought in one's mind and reaching an audience, except for good judgment."
That means asking in tweets if anybody knows somebody who knows something about a story a reporter is working on for the next deadline. Finding new sources, curating links from all over the Web, asking for suggested questions from readers/viewers before interviews; "Doing things that are for their audience and also things that help them shape the stories they're working on."
For Galant, Twitter is the virtual version of the bar where an earlier generation of reporters hung out after the last edition was put to bed -- the same bar where the cops hung out or the politicos swapped stories.
I don't know if Muckrack is serving as "tomorrow's newspaper today," as it sells itself in its About section. I do know that on the day I spoke to Galant, I was able to track tweets from several big-name reporters on two big stories breaking on a Wednesday morning; President Obama's press conference from Las Vegas focusing on energy, and The Wall Street Journal's D: All Things Digital conference, where new Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz was answering some tough questions. If anything, Muckrack may also help cost-conscious newspapers and networks cut down on travel to journalism conferences to learn where the innovation is happening. "Now it's happening in real time," Galant said. "I hate using the term, but [reporters] share industry best practices, or more simply, share what's working, and there's definitely a lot of learning to be done in how to make money off the news using these tools."
New Tool, Not New Journalism
I hate to sound like my parents -- most assuredly not the Jon and Kate of their generation -- but I've said it before and I'll say it again: Twitter is not the new journalism (is there such a thing?) and should not be sold as such, no matter how many times you hear a CNN anchor ask for your feedback on his or her social media pages. (Trust me; whenever a cable news network discovers some new technology -- and there's no major breaking news to be found to use it on, which is its real value for newsgathering -- rest assured said technology is being fitted for Fonzie's leather jacket and there's a dorsal fin circling in a tank nearby.) Twitter is real-time feedback, which is cool but not stone-cold groundbreaking. It's a neat tool for the reporter toolbox, but don't ditch that phone just yet -- or that AP Stylebook, for that matter.
Yet it's more than depressing to hear (usually) older journalists, whom you think would know better, diss Twitter as if it were solely responsible for their colleagues losing their jobs. There's only so many times you can hear some newsie do his best Lou Grant impression -- "You know what, Twitter? You got spunk ... I hate spunk!" -- before it starts to get a tad annoying.
Journalists on Twitter don't need to be providing the haters with fresh targets -- no sushi-descriptions or other celebrity mistakes for us, either. And there should be recognition that although Twitter is now fodder for a Letterman skit, most of those using it still seem to be those who communicate for a living: writers, marketers, PR professionals. Accept that, understand that, and move on.
Maybe it's too late. OK Magazine asked the new "American Idol winner Kris Allen if he was Twittering. "Twitter's the devil," Allen said. When you've lost the newest reality TV star, you know you're in trouble.
Of course, that means Allen and Morley Safer now have something in common; another sign, no doubt, of the impending Twitter-ocalypse.
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.