After sifting through a long list of stories, headlines, podcasts and, yes, tweets about Twitter over the past week — only one week, mind you — I have just one question on my microblog-addled mind: Would the news media shut up already about Twitter and just buy the damn thing?
I first floated the idea of a media company that owns a news organization buying Twitter a couple of months ago, when the short-message service had vaulted its way to the top of the technosphere because of the Mumbai terrorist attacks. It came at the end of a column about its journalistic usefulness during that event — when eyewitnesses blasted out 140-character descriptions of the carnage, and news organizations like the BBC were able to provide a story-in-progress to their Twitter followers.
Since then, we’ve had the “Miracle on the Hudson,” with Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger’s pilot heroics initially bypassing traditional media gatekeepers, thanks to Twitter. It quickly became a case of true Twitter smotherage, though, as the story successfully jumped from the tech/media press to the mainstream — just like we all fear the bird flu will do someday if it ever escapes avian DNA.
This particular viral meme infected NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” this week, with Neal Conan interviewing two of Twitter’s cofounders, Biz Stone and Evan Williams. Maybe I was hearing things, but it sure sounded like Stone and Williams were sowing the seeds for a news media-based takeover of their company. (Then again, considering the economy and the vagaries of venture capital, they probably wouldn’t say no to Baskin-Robbins.)
“It’s not purely a social network,” Stone told Conan. “It’s a communications network with social elements.”
Later, Stone reacted to Conan’s question about Twitter’s use during major news events: “You have this new kind of wire service that’s happening in real-time. When you consider search, it’s about discovering what’s happening around the world all the time.”
NPR’s listeners phoned in with their own ideas. One woman said she was using Twitter to keep up with news of state legislative budget cuts.
Twitter’s most-followed user, according to Williams? CNN.
Another example of Twitter going mainsteam, this time on the local level: A reporter for the NBC affiliate in Seattle, Deborah Feldman, profiled Ballard’s Mars Hill Church, where the faces of congregants were illuminated by the soft light of their iPhones as they tweeted reactions to what they were hearing during the service. (Full disclosure: I freelance for the same affiliate).
The Gospel according to Twitter. Whether it’s in the Bible or a news story, it’s all about the message, right?
Follow the Money
Mark Glaser, executive editor of PBS’sMediaShift blog, said he likes the idea of a media company buying Twitter, but he was also quick to point out the potential problems.
“I think a media company would be smart to buy Twitter because of the real-time nature of what they have created. It’s a great tool for journalists and is a platform for many news services,” he told me in an email. “I’ve been surprised how important Twitter has [become] as being the ‘first responder’ medium for breaking news — earthquakes, terrorist attacks, etc. — but their business model is still murky.”
Indeed, NPR’s Conan couldn’t get Williams and Stone to cough up a revenue plan after numerous attempts by the tech press and bloggerati. Neither could Charlie Rose when he invited Williams to sit at the big round table two weeks ago. Yet there seems to be no lack of estimates regarding the company’s value.
“Twitter has reportedly been valued at around (US)$500 million to $1 billion, and that’s a lot to spend for a media company during a credit crunch,” Glaser said. “Even Google has been shying away from buying Twitter, and if they can’t afford it, it’s hard to believe another media company could.”
Glaser also brought up the competitive aspects. How would a Time Warner/CNN-owned Twitter treat feeds from Fox News Channel or NBC?
“I don’t think a media company would actually shut out another company from using Twitter,” he said. “I think the problem would be the appearance that they might do that — that they might be favoring their own feeds in Twitter searches or something like that. It’s something that might become a delicate issue if not treated properly.”
Then you have the Wonkette factor, as explained to me by Dianne Lynch, dean of the Roy Park School of Communications at Ithaca College.
Wonkette’s original editor, Ana Marie Cox, was doing snark before snark was cool, as she dished on Washington, D.C., political news for the Gawker blog group.
“She had enormous cultural status and its attendant impact, because she was independent, unfettered — not beholden to any particular power or platform,” Lynch said. “Then she ‘sold out’ — went to Time magazine — and became just another corporate blogger. Her audience disappeared; they went off to find an independent voice.”
Such a fate — from coolness to corporate — might await Twitter.
“In terms of Twitter, the power of the collective is — big surprise — in the power of the collective,” Lynch observed.
“That, by definition, is not harnessable. [Cofounder] Jack Dorsey can sell the Twitter platform; that’s what he owns. What he doesn’t own is the community that expresses itself on his platform — and that’s a community that would simply relocate rather than become de facto contributors to any commercial enterprise,” she maintained.
“The extraordinary value of independent media expression is not in the media and not in the expression,” said Lynch. “It’s in the independence — and that, by definition, can’t be sold to the highest bidder.”
Let’s Make a Deal
Glaser and Lynch offer valid points, but news companies are scrambling to separate themselves from the pack in a crushing economy, and the allure of a bona fide phenomenon like Twitter might prove to be a debt-inducing temptation.
Yes, most have already co-opted Twitter or are rolling out their own feeds as I tap these words on my computer. (CNN would have you believe it invented Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, webcams and the Internet itself with its relentless promotion of anchor Rick Sanchez’s midafternoon show.)
Yet for any network to say it actually owned the Twitter brand via buyout might bring a cachet that could send PR machines into overdrive. Naturally, there might be some explaining to do regarding the purchase price while you’re laying off experienced journalists all over the place; that would be the ultimate public relations challenge, possibly to be spun as an “investment in the future of news,” or something like that.
Despite what you may think of their products, companies like Time Warner and News Corp. have a few very smart people in their corner offices waiting to get their hands on something like Twitter. Who knows? Maybe somebody at TimeWarner Center or Rockefeller Plaza has actually figured out a business model for the service that won’t chase away its audience or rob it of its uniqueness/coolness. An agreement to treat all news feeds as equals could be hammered out during negotiations.
The possibilities are so intriguing to me that on Wednesday I sent a tweet to Evan Williams asking for his input: “[email protected] Renay San Miguel here with TechNewsWorld. For this week’s column: would you consider selling to a media co. that owns a news network?”
The hours drifted by. Somewhere, crickets chirped and birds were … tweeting? No response yet. But as I was sending that tweet, new Web-centric NBC “Late Night” host Jimmy Fallon was conducting a “Twitter experiment”; the Weather Channel’s Twitter feed was informing me of a shuttle launch being scrubbed; a Seattle TV station’s tweet told me about murder charges filed in the death of a local high school coach; and themediaisdying Twitter feed gave me the scoop on the latest journalism layoffs.
I can see the news network promo now: “Around the world … in 140 characters.”
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.