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By Scott Jacobs

The social networking site Twitter has established a new media blog assessing its impact on the news.  One of its first offerings is an analysis of how the Boston Globe used Twitter to cover the story of the Boston marathon bombing – and the remarkable revelation that Twitter generated 6,151,203 tweets about the bombing on the first day of the incident.

When the bombing occurred, the Globe had some 30 reporters on the scene with their own Twitter accounts. Nine minutes after the first bomb exploded, @BostonGlobe reported “BREAKING: A witness reports hearing two loud booms near the Boston Marathon finish line.”

Globe reporters running in and reporting on the marathon had been dutifully sending in their 140-character tweets to the Globe digital desk for a live tweet of the event when suddenly fluff became news. On TV sets scattered around the newsroom, Globe editors were already monitoring Twitter feeds from around the city; now the digital editors began mixing staff reports with citizen postings, but only after verifying their accuracy. On a typical day, the Globe will tweet about 40 times. Over the next few hours, it would send out more than 150, including a police department photo of the bombing suspect.

Reputation Building

Public reaction was immediate. Normally, @BostonGlobe has about 66,000 followers. By the end of the first day, it had 110,000. By the following week, that number was up to 220,000. “The Globe used Twitter as a news distribution channel tweeting a lot — and retained and enhanced its credibility,” reported the Twitter media blog. Retweets of its @BostonGlobe feed, moreover, garnered the newspaper as many as 129,000 mentions a day on the Internet as the bombing investigation expanded into a manhunt for the suspects.

People say Facebook serves the same function. But it doesn’t. Having a page on Facebook is a slow and cumbersome way to reach an audience. And newsworthy posts are quickly intertwined with friend updates on where they got latte this morning or what cute thing their kid did at school. Twitter is an instantaneous way to reach your audience of loyal readers or, through addition of a hash tag (#), anyone else who is interested in the subject matter.

Although there is no way to monetize this content in the Twittersphere, the links presumably drew more eyeballs to the BostonGlobe.com website (and the newspaper), bolstering the Globe’s reputation as a media powerhouse in the region. Not all the coverage of the bombing was as credible. The crowd sourcing online community Reddit mistakenly identified a missing Brown University student as a suspect––putting in the same notoriously unreliable class as the New York Post, which claimed authorities had a “Saudi suspect” on its front page––and a number of mainstream media companies passed on the Reddit report. But the Globe wasn’t alone in working the story. Freelance reporters did too.

One Man with a Notebook (and iPhone)

While the Globe was aggregating tweets from its reporters and other citizens, Seth Mnookin, a former Newsweek reporter who now directs the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing, was sitting at home on April 18 when he received a text alert about a shooting on the MIT campus. He grabbed a notebook and his iPhone (with its police scanner app) to go see what he could see.

Monitoring the scanner reports, he found himself at the center of the manhunt for Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He followed reports of a carjacking to a gas station in Cambridge where the victim had been release. Another tweet then alerted him to the fact the stolen black Mercedes SUV was spotted in Watertown. Seconds later, he heard “Shots fired on officers in Watertown” over the scanner.

With Hong Qu, a fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Mnookin wrote about his experience in Nieman Reports. “I had a small reporter’s notebook with me, but early on realized that tweeting would be a more effective way to take notes. Everything I wrote would be time stamped, and I wouldn’t need to worry about not being able to read my messy handwriting after the fact. This worked out even better than I expected. Because I knew my notes were going to be public, I spent more time thinking about whether something was important or informative or whether I was simply writing things down because I was nervous or had nothing else to do.”

Mnookin is no stranger to Twitter. His personal account had a little over 8,000 followers the night before the bombing, including many prominent journalists and celebrities (like former MSNBC commentator Keith Olbermann, New York Times reporters Brian Stelter and editors on the ABC news desk). They re-tweeted his reports so by the end of the night, his following had grown to over 30,000.

“Historically, TV and radio have had the biggest competitive advantage in breaking news,” he wrote. “But fluid, chaotic situations are also precisely those in which the transfer of information from cameraman to reporter to producer to anchor is most prone to error. Plus, when you’re on the air, providing steady updates isn’t an option—it’s a necessity. And needing to fill airtime can cause problems of its own.” His conclusion: “On Twitter, if there’s a new development every minute, you can update every minute; if nothing is happening, you can wait.”

A Personalized News Engine

As in any media, Twitter news coverage is only as good as its source. So news junkies (like myself) build a set of reliable, and frequent, Tweeters that reflects our confidence in their judgment. As Jacob Weisberg, chairman of Slate, notes, they become our “personalized news engine.” In my case, my Tweetdeck is divided into categories, like newspaper sections, for politics, sports, and local Chicago news. I follow about 65 political reporters, 20 or so athletes and commentators, and an eclectic mix of local luminaries in Chicago.

On breaking political stories, I get a customized, realtime report of events from my favorite reporters at the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, National Journal, Atlantic, Politico and National Review, among others. If reporters aren’t covering a story themselves, they are usually re-tweeting their favorite stories and/or making fun of them. The result sometimes reminds me of water cooler conversations we used to have back in the newsroom––when people actually had newsrooms to go to.

Not everyone is enamored with Twitter. Joe Nocera, the New York Times columnist, found his name attached to the twitter account @joenocera, a Yankee fan in New Jersey with opinions about all things sports. When he learned the Yankee fan was getting insulting tweets aimed at him for past columns, he wrote about the experience on the Times op-ed page.

“I understand the case for Twitter; I really do. It can be used to spread knowledge by sharing photos or articles you’ve been impressed with, But to me, at least –– and yes, I acknowledge I’m at the age where I’m losing the battle to keep up with technology –– the negatives outweight the positives,” he wrote. “So much on Twitter is frivolous or self-promotional. It can bury you in information. Because people often use Twitter to react to events instantly, they can say some awfully stupid things, as Roddy White, the Atlanta Falcons receiver did after the George Zimmerman verdict, suggesting in a tweet that that the jurors “should go home and kill themselves.”

“With its 140-character limit,” Nocera added, “Twitter exacerbates our societal-wide attention deficit disorder: Nothing can be allowed to take more than a few seconds to write or read.”

Journalistic Milestones

Harvard’s Hong Qu begs to differ. “Twitter coverage of the manhunt in Watertown is a remarkable milestone for journalism. Even more remarkable are the implications for ordinary citizens who, without a press pass, can report news and influence coverage. For the latter group, this event instilled a newfound sense of power and responsibility in how they verify and disseminate news. Tools and processes for assessing source credibility need to catch up with social media technology and culture, especially in dangerous environments in which the public relies on reporters to provide actionable news updates with minimal misinformation and fallout,” he writes.

“There is a reflexive reaction to pit emergent social media behavior against traditional journalistic practices and norms,” he adds with the warning. “This defensive posture is counterproductive, for both sides. Rather than pointing out flaws to favor one model over the other, we should appreciate the interplay between them, an interdependence that ultimately produces a more participatory, accurate and compelling news cycle.”

Sharknado

But Nocera is right as well. Much of what appears on Twitter is frivolous – and fun. (Remember the Sunday comics?) Two weeks ago, my own little coterie of brand name political reporters fell in love with a made for TV movie on the SFX channel called “Sharknado.”

The potent combination of Tara Reid fighting off a tornado that scoops up all the sharks in the ocean and drops them on Los Angeles had my twitter feed aflutter.  And not just mine. SocialGuide, which measures social activity around TV, reported 318,232 tweets during the broadcast, peaking at 5,000 tweets a minute during the climax.

Intrigued by the comments, many quite funny, I tuned in for the last 20 minutes, just in time to see a flying shark swallow our hero mid-air. After the hulking beast falls to the ground, he cuts his way out of the shark’s belly with a chain saw –– and LA is saved.

Which only goes to show. If Twitter is the new newspaper, even Twitter will soon find its way to the bottom of the birdcage.


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