Twittering away standards or tweeting the future of journalism?

January 30, 2009

I’ve been tweeting from the World Economic Forum, using the microblogging platform Twitter to discuss the mundane (describing crepuscular darkness of the Swiss Alps at 5 a.m.) or the interesting (live tweeting from presentations).

Is it journalism?

Is it dangerous?

Is it embarrassing that my tweets even beat the Reuters newswire?

Silicon Valley Insider

Am I destroying Reuters standards by encouraging tweeting or blogging?

(These aren’t rhetorical questions – I’ve been challenged by many people who would answer those questions as No, Yes, Yes, and Yes! I answer them as Yes, Potentially, No and No.)

The foundation of what we do as a company and as a news service are the Reuters Trust Principles.

While it is vital to read the five as a whole, I take the fifth (“That no effort shall be spared to expand, develop and adapt the news and other services and products of Thomson Reuters so as to maintain its leading position in the international news and information business”) as an imperative for continual innovation and experimentation.

I have no idea what journalism will look like in five years except that it will be different than it is now. That’s a great thing, I believe.

I have little patience for those who cling to sentimental (and frankly inaccurate) memories of the good old halcyon days of journalism that were somehow purer and better than a world where tweets and blogs compete with news wires and newspapers.

Bring it on, I say!

Journalism is one of the great self-declared professions and crafts.  I am a journalist because I said I was one more than two decades ago and have spent the years since working on my abilities. I am not one because I am somehow anointed with a certificate or an exam result.

Journalism is ideally designed for democratisation.

Working for Reuters gives me a tremendous platform and great access. It does not give me a license.

Microblogging and macroblogging and social networks are themselves great platforms.

If great storytellers use those platforms to display their knowledge, access, expertise and abilities, I think that is a marvellous advance.

If I don’t beat the Reuters wire with a live tweet because I deliberately hold back, someone else will. If I don’t beat the Reuters wire because I’m slow or inattentive, someone else will.

The reason my live tweeting was fast is that it was unintermediated, while the journalist covering the story went the traditional route and had a discussion with an editor about how best to position and play the story.

Both methods have important roles. In this case, the editor added value.

In a democratic world where publishing platforms are available to all, editors and institutions like Reuters MUST add great value if they are to survive the competitive fight with the unintermediated storytellers.

I love that.

I love the competitive pressure that brings.

I love the way it will force us continually to redefine our role vis-a-vis unaffiliated storytellers.

I love the way it is and will continue to force us to redefine our profession and our craft.

Are there potential pitfalls and dangers? Could a mistweet hurt our reputation? Of course. And over time we will have to work hard to decide what we have reporters tweet in their own names and what we have them do in the company name; we’ll have to refine our rules about micro and macroblogging to allow the maximum of free expression while holding fast to our important values of being fair, accurate and free from bias.

But we will get there. And consumers of news will be the ultimate beneficiaries.

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Comments
28 comments so far

Fab Post. Really enjoyed that over my second cup of coffee – actually felt like a “i get it now” moment that i have seen from users over the last 18 months i have been using twitter. Good to see, fantastic to hear about it and suitably glad that big news services with the pedigree behind them are embracing it.

I’m not trying to share my boss’s spotlight, but I wanted to emphasize that innovation and journalism must go hand in hand.

There was never a sacred Book of Journalism, for example, that said newspapers were the only way to deliver information, or then “only newspapers and radio” or then “only newspapers, radio and television.”

We innovate or we become irrelevant.

At Reuters, we had intense debates before we began blogging–and yet here we are thriving. And that’s because we remember that it’s not about the means of delivery. It’s about the journalism.

Posted by Dean Wright | Report as abusive

As an avid news addict, I welcome new news channels for me to use.

I want it on paper for me to read at length with my coffee, on TV with footage, on web sites so that I can drill down and link to things that interest or inspire me, and in tweets and blogs for raw, personal, sometimes contextually amusing, but really live clips that i can get on the move and on my iPhone.

There is a need and place for all these channels in my book. What the Reuters brand means to me though, is that whatever I read; whether it is under the journalists name or Reuters name; the journalist and content is trusted.

Posted by John Burton | Report as abusive

Interesting post, David. You had no wire or print deadline to meet while tweeting away from your phone in that session. Can I ask whether you’d want your reporters who are trained to rush news to the wire before the competiton to be doing the same? Is there a tension in trying to feed two or more media at once? Which should come first?

David, its most interesting to read your blog. But as you demonstrate most clearly, twittering is a good tool for short messages only. It is not a tool for analysis or developing anything close to a complex idea.(Unlike blogging).
While democratization of the media is undoubtedly a phenomenon of our times, I am not quite sure that twittering small packets of information will make a huge difference in this regard. Too much information (without analysis) can be as painful as too little information. How does Haruki Murakami put it? Just shovelling cultural snow?
Anyway, please do twitter your next blog, I look forward to reading it….

Posted by Lorien Holland | Report as abusive

Edge – thanks for the comment. Though I wasn’t on deadline, the life of an Editor continues through tweeting. I was, inter alia, dealing with an hr complaint, a legal issue, a senior staff appointment and sms-ing my wife while filing tweets. My life is one of continual partial attention to things, so I wasn’t bothered!
The point of what to do when is a serious one, but frankly no different from the news editing decisions we make now — when to send alerts, when to break off to file a fullout to the alerts, when to leadout a story, when to write an analysis. Sometimes one person can do it all, often you need to field a team. You always need to prioritise and make choices.

The simple answer is to take care of professional customers’ needs first, but I bet you that professionals will start aggregating tweets the second they know there’s instant useful and relevant information there.

Posted by David Schlesinger | Report as abusive

How do you fact check a tweet? How do you cover a complex story in bits and pieces in weblogs and Twitter? How do you get access to the people, the material, in order to cover the story completely? How do people, who aren’t paid, who do most of this for a hobby, find that hidden story that needs to be told.

How do you uncover Watergate in 140 characters or less. And how do you find the history of the story a decade from now? Dig through your tweets? Seriously?

You think you’ve given a wake up call on the nature of journalism in the future. I think you’ve given a death call on what we will be missing once your “old style” journalism has gone to fate you believe it is due.

Shelley, I never said Twitter would be or should be the only form of journalistic communication. That would be as ludicrous as declaring haiku the only acceptable kind of poetry. Different forms fulfil different needs and different purposes.

Posted by David Schlesinger | Report as abusive

Reuters has been one step ahead on the web continually. There must be a visionary (or a few) in the mix. Have written at least of dozen articles on you guys over the past few years. Keep it comin’. (You may even make money :)

Shelley asked about how we can cover a story completely if we’re not doing it the traditional way. I don’t think any article short of a book tells the complete story. As for Reuters, it already Twitters; it sends out snaps. Then Reuters reporters weave those snaps into a story. Not only that, some reporters snap directly to the wire – just like a twitter.

As for the golden age, it is indeed wrong to imagine that one existed in the same way that Greek mythology points back to a golden age of the world. That said, journalism did have a golden age of financing and prominence. From around the late 1960s when The New York Times went public, up until 10 years ago or so, the profits that newspapers and big newspaper chains took in often resulted in a hell of a lot of expense accounts and travel junkets to foreign places being approved.

Some folks will remember that many newsrooms have always operated close to the bone, and that many editors today have been cheap bastards since they first started ruining copy during the McKinley administration. Nevertheless, it was only a few years ago at The Boston Globe and similar papers ran international bureaus. Those are luxuries of a golden age of sorts.

The thing that we must preserve from that semi-apocryphal golden age is a love of story-telling. As for how the story is told, I am a syncretist.

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

Personally, I would rather read a news report from slightly after the fact than a stream of consciousness live from the proceedings. It’s not important to me to know most things that happen within seconds of them happening. Near time, or many times, even the next day is just fine. Give me the summary. It used to be we were trying to cure information overload, now we seem to have given up.

“Live Blogging” just doesn’t add any value for me.

Posted by Paul | Report as abusive

Interesting posting. I must say I tend to agree with you to some degree. My worry is with the challenge of unfettered access to voicing an opinion, which has so far led to confusion in the facts, in many cases, and (even worse) leading some to take opinion as fact. Just as governance with laws is neccessary to curb the natural abuses that would ensue without them, standards and editorial control are needed so that misinformation can be kept to a mimimun, don’t you think?
Let’s face it, most people are too lazy to really dig deeper and are used to taking things at face value. How else explain while after months of trying to correct the notion the President Obama is muslum, there are still those in this country who beleive it because of the not-so-whispery campaign of the likes of Rush Limbaugh.
That is why I fear that our rush to be “maverick” thinkers has lead us to adapt some of these high concept practices without considering the real cost to an already dumbed-down society. So, let’s hope you attach to your pithy Twitter comments a video and not a story with details that are too complex, because you risk loosing many of us.
OK, maybe I am being too critical, or maybe just scared, as one of the many media professionals currently jobless because the vereable publication they had worked for can’t compete with all the “free” (but not neccessarily better) content capturing the attention of today’s masses.

Posted by Another David | Report as abusive

What a lot of tweet about nothing. Reuters always WAS competitive with “the unintermediated story-tellers” i.e. the village gossips who “tweeted” through the ages. David, you don’t need to do this!

Is it too self-aware to post a comment on an article about how great the social networking abilities on the internet are? Is it even more so to post your twitter feed in that same article?

What a remarkable post.

I’m a blogger, I’m NOT a citizen journalist for many reasons. I abuse basic grammar and have no journalistic standards or Trust Principles. Almost none, I do sometimes double dog swear that I’m telling the truth. I’m okay with that, when we need journalism, I’ll link to someone like you.

Many journalists have no sense of blogging or microblogging. I’m excited to see you leading the pack.

As a member of the so-called ‘trad media’ but taking part and appreciating the changes we are undergoing in the digital shift, I say go for it.
There’s room for all — tweets and traditional story filing.
My answer to your questions: yes, no and no.
Keep it up!

The Web of Now demands quick sharing of news items. Twitter. Perfect.
The interpretation of the relevance of the news, that’s a matter for blogs, and there is room for a whole army of blog posts an any given news item.
That’s because each of us wants to understand what the news means to us. And we’re all different.
I’m also especially excited about the idea of participatory journalism. It’s democracy, at least for those who understand technology.
This week, via @loic I was able to suggest via twitter a question to Kofi Annon, the former Secretary General of the UN. This experession of “immediate democracy” was especially exciting.
So journalism will change.
But it seems right now, the new journalists are technologically savvy. Not necessarily, journalistically savvy.
The ideal reporter in todays world has the training, experience of a journalist, and the inquisitiveness of a tech innovator.
Never be afraid to fail by trying a new technology. As the current who’s who of tech journalism shows, there is a great first mover advantage.

David I am loathe to inform you that I scooped you on this subject abou 24 hrs ago…And in of all places..TWITTER…Rest Easy thogh my artile was only 140 charcters long and I’m certain was overlooked by more people than those who saw it.
Never the less you are right about the changing structure of journalism. Twitter and Yammer and others ARE the new presence of the written word.I say farewell to many of what is now identified as NEWSpapers and hello to tue NEWS broadcasting. AND ain’t it Grand. My take on it is that we are it a similar point in time, ages later of course{ the next picrure frame in a time line film } as was Gutenberg. The press was the internet of his time and twitter is ours….

Posted by nickdestefano | Report as abusive

Twittering is a great way to generate further interest in a breaking story provided what is being twittered is accurate, unbiased, and unadulterated. Yes it can be journalism, but it can also be abused and be propaganda. Is it dangerous? I could be. Is it embarrassing? Not unless it’s inaccurate or biased.
Journalism has changed a lot int he 20-years that I have practiced the craft. There are still extremely conservative individuals who refuse to move with the times. This was the case when I began my career and is still the case today.
The public – and the media – need to ensure that twittering news items such as this does not get abused. Unfortunately it is my belief that some spin-doctors, PR and marketing types will focus on this and abuse the technology.

I’m continually astounded at how many discussions about journalism and Twitter — including this one — end up being asking whether Twitter “is” journalism. Of course it isn’t — no more than the telephone system is journalism or a typewriter is journalism.

Even if you take the word “Twitter” as shorthand for “the communities of people who use Twitter” rather than the technology itself, it’s still not journalism — any more than the groups of people talking at a bar or on a street corner are journalism.

Journalism is a process by which all these raw sources of information is turned into some sort of media product — a newspaper story, a TV report or whatever. Those processes include uncovering hidden truths, cross-checking the information you receive and turning it all into a coherent narrative for your audience.

A 140-character tweet could itself be a journalistic product. But it’s the processes — and the people who conduct those processes — that make that tweet The News rather than small-n news or, as we like to call it, “gossip”.

Someone asked how you fact-check a tweet. Exactly the same as any other piece of information you receive. The medium by which you receive that information makes no difference whatsoever.

I find this statement quite interesting: “I am not one (a journalist) because I am somehow anointed with a certificate or an exam result.”

I take it that you didn’t go to journalism school — I certainly wasn’t annointed with either of my degrees. I had to work hard to earn them.

Posted by zingaralla | Report as abusive

Excellent article David – and I agree that consumers of news will be the beneficiaries.

I think it’s absolutely right to link using tools like Twitter to Reuters’ Trust Principles as you have, and it’s heartening to see your attitude to this issue.

Everyone producing news must add value, and “expand, develop and adapt”.

Thanks for sharing this – but I didn’t catch your twitter name here! I’ve had my twitter name on my business card for over a year now – it’ll be interesting to see how many news organisations add such detail to sites and stationery come 2010.

As the author of an article about how social media is impacting CNN and being on the receiving end of a lot of skepticism and flack for that article, I was absolutely delighted to see this piece from you today. It confirms my suspicions that the very nature of journalism is changing and social media is providing the democratisation of which you speak. Thank you for being one of the loudest voices to embrace the change and not allow the stuffed shirts of journalism past to censor your true opinion.

What most people will take away from this episode is that Reuters’ editor-in-chief tweeted from Davos. Practically no one will recall what he tweeted (or allegedly scooped the Reuters wire) about. Which raises two interesting questions. One, when the reporter becomes a bigger story than the story he is purportedly covering, what exactly is going on? Is this where a fact-based news gathering organization like Reuters wants to be, or sees its future? And two, if, as opposed to a pointless panel discussion and “crepuscular” Alpine dawns (shurely shome mishtake? Ed), the reporter had witnessed something really consequential and unexpected like (irate delegate pulls gun and fires at Davos panel), would he have tweeted the shootout or call the desk to dictate a snap? Somehow, the latter sounds more likely.

Posted by Ahmed Azhar | Report as abusive

What about those who use blogging merely to give themselves some purchase in an intellectual maelstrom such as their lives?

Wouldn’t that immediately give journalists who represent themselves as ‘bloggers’ an immediate reputation loss, being associated with irrelevant information sources?

I must say, I know many a person, including myself, who naturally distrust blog posts as being too pretentious, or as you say, unintermediated between an Editor who can evaluate for communicative consistency and coherency … I suppose it places a very high demand on the blogger itself, but realistically speaking, won’t the mere association with irrelevant bloggers (ljers you could say) cause Blogging to be a form of media to steer away from when reporting our daily issues?

Posted by VeriaBlade | Report as abusive

An interesting question seen… on Twitter: “is tweeting breaking an embargo?”

Posted by Pascal Taillandier | Report as abusive

I think it will be a cause for future o f journalism,bcz views of people their opinions are shared here not major news

I don’t see Twitter as the future place to find news. I don’t see my grandma sitting down at the computer and tweeting about her day. I think journalist need to stick to print media and online newspapers, not facebook and twitter.

Posted by Jstock | Report as abusive
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