Twitter: out on a wire

Friday 25 November 2011, 14:41

Stuart Hughes Stuart Hughes is a BBC World Affairs producer. Twitter: @stuartdhughes

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It's not very often that a news organisation reprimands its staff for being too eager to break a story.

But recently Associated Press did exactly that.

When AP journalists were arrested during the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York, they immediately put the word out via Twitter. The use of a social media platform to report breaking news prompted an AP manager to issue a sternly worded email directive.

"We've had a breakdown in staff sticking to policies around social media and everyone needs to get with their folks now to tell them to knock it off," the email reportedly said.

"We have had staff tweet - before the material was on the wire."

That AP should worry about news filtering out through Twitter rather than its own official channels is hardly surprising. The company makes its money by charging newsrooms to access its breaking news service.

Clearly, if that news is being transmitted via other channels - free of charge - then why bother subscribing at all?

One of AP's managing editors, Lou Ferrara, admitted as much. As well as citing safety concerns, Ferrara explained: "We put news on our products first. That's what our customers expect."

In years gone by the rowdy clatter of the teletype machine in the corner of the newsroom alerted journalists to the fact that a story was breaking. The 'gatekeepers' of news were a small number of major wire services including AP, Reuters, AFP and the Press Association in the UK.

Now, though, social media platforms are increasingly replacing the wires as the 'go to' source of breaking news. On my newsroom desktop I'm more likely to be keeping one eye on my Twitter timeline using HootSuite than monitoring the wires.

Of course the information flooding in on Twitter is often fragmentary, contradictory, or just plain wrong. Only a very foolhardy journalist would broadcast or publish information gleaned from Twitter without making secondary checks or seeking out corroborating evidence.

But an ever-increasing number of major news stories - from the crash landing of a US Airways plane in the Hudson River to the death of Osama bin Laden - emerged first through social media.

If nothing else, social media can often act as an 'early warning radar', hinting at a possible developing news story long before the traditional wire services begin filing more carefully considered reports.

Despite AP's concerns, other news agencies are welcoming, or at the very least accepting, the arrival of the new kid on the breaking news block.

Anthony de Rosa, social media editor at Reuters, admits that "to bury our head in the sand and act like Twitter (and who knows what else comes into existence next month or five years from now?) isn't increasingly becoming the source of what informs people in real-time is ridiculous."

De Rosa understands that the game has changed irrevocably. Anyone with a smartphone can now take on - and often beat - the biggest news organisations.

"Our direct competitors and two guys in a basement somewhere are already developing tools to be the next-generation newsroom," he says.

"If we're not busy doing the same thing, we're dead."

No wonder AP is worried.

Stuart Hughes is a BBC World Affairs producer. 

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