How Twitter won the social media battle for journalism

Social media plays key role at new BBC News HQ in LondonPolis, the journalism think-tank at the LSE, has published an in-depth report looking at the value of social media to journalism, specifically public service broadcasting, and it highlights how Twitter has come to dominate news.

As the report puts it, Twitter plays a more important role in newsgathering than Facebook, which is much more about discussion and far less about breaking news.

Lyse Doucet, the BBC’s Chief International Correspondent puts it this way: “There is no question, if you are not on Facebook and Twitter, you are not getting the full story”.

More telling is the comment from Joanna Carr, editor of BBC Radio 4′s news programme ‘PM’, who said she “wouldn’t hire anybody who doesn’t know how to use Twitter”.

From that you get all you need to know. Twitter has quickly made itself an essential modern journalism tool for news journalists.

That said, the report, written by Nadja Hahn, a business reporter with the Austrian broadcaster ORF, asks a pertinent question: why does social media in journalism matter?

There are number of answers. Some are very obvious. For instance, according to the BBC, referrals to its news website via social media increased by 500% between 2010 and 2012, and at the end of 2012, the @BBCBreaking Twitter account had more than 4.5 million followers. It now has 5.2 million.

Twitter and social media more generally is how many of us consume news – particularly given the universal rise of smartphones in the west – when we are on the move.

So not to be in social media is to be missing a huge opportunity to give your audience the chance to consume news in the way that they want to.

That change in consumption is a two-way-street, as not only has how consumers get their news changed, but so has the way news is gathered.

Stuart Hughes, world affairs producer at the BBC says that the way he uses social media has completely changed the way he gathers news. Until three years ago, Hughes relied on wire services and the internal BBC news production system for fast information. Not anymore.

He says: “Now, very often I will only glance at that”. Instead, Hughes uses Twitter, in two different ways.

Like many journalists, he now looks first at his Twitter feeds. But since he is following thousands of people, he organises his Twitter feeds using hootesuite.com to create lists, according to different topics or people he follows.

Twitter has in practice become those newswires displayed as multiple lists in Hootsuite.

He supplements that with the very useful Twitterfall.com that shows you who is tweeting about a certain topics or places.

“I used to wait for stories to drop on the wires. That was the first indication that something was happening,” Hughes says.

Speeding up the news cycle

Reporters previously waited for a story to drop on the wires first – in effect letting them know that something was happening somewhere in the world.

However, the time taken for that wire story to make its way through the AP or Reuters’ machine and hit the wires could involve a significant time lag. That is no longer the case. Reporting is now in real time and it comes to us Tweet by Tweet.

Hughes says:  “Social media allows me to get much closer to the story. There are journalists and other people on the ground reporting in real time and sharing it in real time, so by the time a story actually appears on the wire, very often I will have already spotted it through social media”.

That means that like a lot of journalists, Hughes does a lot of his news gathering on Twitter. Some other reports say the figure of journalists getting stories from Twitter is about 50%. Hughes says that 80% of his newsgathering on Twitter and only 20% on the wires.

Abbottabad and bin Laden

The Osama bin Laden raid has been written about to death when it comes to breaking news and Twitter, but it is a great example of how the news process has changed — it was dubbed Twitter’s “CNN moment” reflecting how in an earlier age the cable news network had covered the first Gulf War.

Eye witness reports don’t need to be picked up by reporters. Instead, anyone can see something and tweet it, as Sohaib Athar, the café owner and IT consultant, who tweeted about helicopters overhead as US Navy Seals launched their raid to kill the Al Qaeda chief.

It was only in Abbottabad itself that the story came to Twitter. First official news in the US also emerged on Twitter, as Keith Urbahn, the former chief of staff to Donald Rumsfeld, tweeted: “So I am told by a reputable person they have killed Osama bin Laden. Hot damn.”

Superstorm Sandy

The violent storms that hit the US at the end of last year were big moments on social media and Hahn writes about how Twitter can help find contacts. She points to Superstorm Sandy and shows how reporter Fred Mogul from New York Public Radio WNYC saw the tweets of a woman trapped in a hospital with a baby during the storm, and contacted her on Twitter, producing a memorable exchange.

Instagram had an important role during Superstorm Sandy also, but it was less about news gathering and more about documenting the destruction of the storm.

Facebook is a discussion forum

So what about Facebook? For a while it was in contention in the news battle in social media.

Friction-sharing emerged and it looked like apps produced by the likes of The Guardian and The Washington Post were pointing to a future on Facebook where we would all be consuming a lot more news in this fashion.

But it never happened. This turned out very quickly to be a social media dead end. The apps proved unpopular as they flooded people’s timelines, people unsubscribed and the apps were quickly killed off.

More recently we have had a wider dissatisfaction with Facebook as publishers question its worth – that is not a debate that has come Twitter’s way.

That leaves Twitter as the undisputed king when it comes to news and leaves Facebook as something very different.

Anna Doble, head of online news at Channel 4 says Facebook is about discussion.” On Facebook you discuss an issue, you can ask specific questions. Twitter is more for exploring news,” she says.

#Hashtag on screen

However, in some senses this is a role that Twitter fulfils in part too, through the use of the hashtag although this is mostly around television where it has become a ubiquitous sign on programmes ranging from ‘Question Time’ at one end of the cultural scale, to ‘The Only way is Essex’ at the other end.

This shows Twitter and social media extending its reach. It can, as we already know, result in a tidal wave of tweets about certain programming. See the example yesterday with the data from SecondSync, which showed how well certain programmes appeared to do in generating Twitter conversation.

TOWIE is a major Twitter hit, although ‘Question Time’ is used very effectively also to engage the audience in the online discussion, showing that Twitter can both act as news generator and discussion forum. That gives it a considerable edge over Facebook.

The Jimmy Savile scandal

The report has interesting things to say about how public service broadcasters can use social networks to help explain their own broader institutional or editorial positions, and we saw that clearly with the BBC during the Savile scandal, as the corporation tweeted news about itself, revealed by its own programme. In the Savile incidence, this was ‘Panorama’.

You can read the full report here.