The King of Twitter

Reporters have been calling today looking into the importance of Twitter and social media in the two big stories of the month: Iran and Michael Jackson. Have we come to a next step stage in social media’s impact on news? Maybe.

Certainly the Jackson news spread quickly via Twitter. got the news first and it spread from tweet to retweet and then it spread beyond the web as each of those Twitterers acted as a node in a real-life network. An AP reporter told me she was riding on a bus when someone came on and announced the news to all the passengers – that person was a node, the bus the network – and then everyone on the bus, she said, took out their smart phones and spread the news farther. The live, ubquitous, mobile web is an incredible distribution channel for news.

I also spoke with Tampa Bay’s Eric Deggans and we wondered together about the arc of the Jackson story in big media versus our media. I’ll just bet that the story will die off on Twitter trends, Technorati, YouTube, and Facebook sooner than it finally exhausts its welcome – and our patience – on cable news. Back in 2005, I said that TV news was paying more attention to Jackson’s trial than the audience was, as evidenced by discussion on blogs, which lost interest in the story long before TV did; indeed, they never obsessed on Jackson as TV did and TV believed we wanted to.

I think this also means that we are less captive to cable news. Since its birth, cable was the only way to stay constantly connected to a story as it happened, or allegedly so. But in the Jackson story, there really is no news. He’s still dead. All that follows is discussion and wouldn’t we really rather discuss it with our friends than Al Sharpton? Once the supernova of news explodes – taking down Twitter search and YouTube and jamming GoogleNews search – we probably to seek out TV, but it quickly says all it has to say and the rest is just repetition. If the Iraq War was the birth of CNN could Iran and Jackson mark the start of their decline in influence? Too soon to say.

Journalists end up playing new roles in the news ecosystem. Again, I followed the Iran story in the live blogs of The New York Times, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, and Andrew Sullivan and they performed new functions: curating, vetting, adding context, adding comment, seeking information, filling out the story, correcting misinformation. They worked with social media, quoting and distributing and reporting using it. I watched the filling out of the Neda video story as the Guardian called the man who uploaded it to YouTube and Paulo Coelho blogged about his friend in the video, the doctor who tried to save Neda. Piece by piece, the story came together before our eyes, in public. The journalists added considerable value. But this wasn’t product journalism: polishing a story once a day from inside the black box. This was process journalism and that ensured it was also collaborative journalism – social journalism, if you like.

The unfortuante truth about the confluence of these two stories – Jackson and Iran – is that the former pushes the latter off the front page, the constant cable attantion. But will it push Iran out of our consciousness and discussion? Again, we’ll see. I was in the car when I spoke with Eric but he told me that on Twitter, the trends were all but filled with Jackson – except for the Iran election, which was still there, in the middle. That renews my faith in us.

: LATER: Here‘s the AP story.

Here‘s Eric’s piece. And here‘s the San Francisco Chronicle’s piece (curses to the editor to cut out reference to WWGD?).

: Interesting take from a lawyer who sees Jackson as a victim of the innovator’s dilemma.

  • Jeff,

    A sidebar to this is that cable / TV have equipment to move around, even in a backpack age. This, plus plane fares and commitment to planned stories, creates a tendency to linger.

    With events like trials, the conventional, for-the-record narrative cares about start, middle, verdict (I now live in Santa Barbara, where a high-profile murder trial is reprising Jacko on a smaller level). Social media doesn’t have to be this dutiful, as folks come and go into the story per their real interest and then backfill understanding.


  • I’m sure the Jackson story will move to the conspiracy phase of “where and who is this personal doctor?”

    This is a great post that shows just how dramatic how quickly news/information gathering is evolving… Thanks for keeping us thinking, Jeff.

  • I think your observations are spot on. But you might have considered taking the logic one step further. Someone noted (probably on Twitter) that microblogging sites like Twitter are taking the place CNN held 20 years ago (circa first Iraq War) in terms of being the source for breaking, up to the minute news. I sparked to the notion. You seem to be warming up to it, too.

  • I have been thinking about the significance of the first weekend of the Iran story and the black eye that CNN received for running Larry King reruns instead of going all-Teheran-all-the-time. #cnnfail marked the first time that CNN lost its reputation as the go-to source for a fast-breaking ever-changing story of global proportions.

    My theory is that before that Teheran weekend, CNN seemed to have enough clout to decide which stories deserved wall-to-wall attention and which did not. Tautologically, if CNN was covering it all the time, then it must be a big story…and if it was a big story, then CNN would be covering it all the time. This was the first time that apparent clout was tested.

    It was not that other big stories, before Teheran, had not been covered by social networks. The Mumbai hotel raids were an example of that. Further, it was not the first time that other stories that should have been given blockbuster treatment, before Teheran, had been similarly ignored by a CNN weekend shift.

    The significant thing that happened with #cnnfail was that CNN made a misjudgment of news value and the social networks were this time strong enough to expose it.

    • Sherrie de Leon

      This is interesting. Next question: will it always take an event on the revolutionary scale of Iran election or Michael Jackson death for the masses to determine news value?

    • “I was taught when I was a young reporter that it’s news when we say it is. I think that’s still true — it’s news when ‘we’ say it is. It’s just who ‘we’ is has changed”David Carr (b. 1956), US Journalist. CNN “Reliable Sources”, Sunday, August 10, 2008.

  • Neil Connolly

    CNN still can add value and that is their new role. Twitter is the raw feed, information that used to come from stringers and sources. But, on a sunny summer saturday afternoon, I am not willing to sift through tweets, blogs, etc. to get the news; no matter how interested I am. I am willing, however, to turn on CNN once an hour to see what’s up. They sorted everything for me, added context, had experts on, and packaged everything for me.

    What I found particularly interesting is how CNN, MSNBC, and FOX completely missed the first weekend of the protests. Fox and CNN made up for it in spades last weekend, while MSNBC continued to show their lack of interest in actually being a news channel as opposed to a mouthpiece for the democrats.

  • A number of good points here. I can only hope you’re right about this being the beginning of the end for cable news: I’ve endured enough blather, thank you. But to my mind, your most interesting observation involves the shifting role of journalism. Process, not product, is the new reality of the Internet – one that is changing not only journalism but entertainment, marketing, and every other form of storytelling.

  • Pingback: Web Media Daily – Friday June 26, 2009 | Reinventing Yourself...()

  • Nice post, Jeff, and I think the curating aspect of journalism is key when events happen fast and we don’t know who or what to trust.

    One note, however. #IranElection *did* drop off the top 10 trending topics on Twitter yesterday afternoon, though I noticed it made a comeback today. But you’re probably right about the obsessing not lasting very long online. Twitter seems to jump from topic to topic very quickly, and the fact #IranElection is still up there after two weeks is incredible.

  • Edward Craig

    Weirdest thing, commercial radio didn’t pick up on Michael Jackson’s death for hours after All Things Considered had confirmed the news.

  • John Lang

    Cable news still possess the tools to set and play a dominate roll in the conversation. However they have yet to figure out how to do do since they lost their monopoly to the internet/social media.

    They may not have the numbers of the internet masses, but they certainly have superior training (in most cases) and resources. Their is no reason cable news can not continue to be a player for years to come, unlike print.

    CNN is a great example of the laziness to change. What is the difference between Headline News and regular CNN? They may have the “ratings” but the world is increasingly becoming more niche and at this rate cable news will soon be its own niche (for the net illiterate). They should concentrate on trying to compliment the internet and harness the niches.

  • Pingback: Der neue Zeitungsjunge heißt Twitter | Björn Sievers()

  • Pingback: Der neue Zeitungsjunge heißt Twitter | Björn Sievers()

  • Pingback: Jackson death was twittered, texted and Facebooked | SMS messaging mobile marketing Blog()

  • No hard feelings, but I think you are forgetting one of the main aspects of journalism: fact-checking!

    Once the rumor about Jackson’s ‘deatch’ I made some screenshots from several big media’s websites (CNN, BBC, Guardian, LA Times). They all have either the LA Times or TMZ as a unique or a pair of sources.

    The only bigger news channel paying attention to the sensitivity of the news was al Jazeera. According to them Michael Jackson ‘dies’ (26/06 01:45).
    It’s really sad, but news corporations already bury you before once’s soul reaches heaven or the headlines the audience.

  • A few questions that aren’t being asked in all the flutter over who got the “scoop” about Michael Jackson’s death, Twitter, new roles for the media, etc.:

    Should news organizations with dwindling newsroom staffs, news holes and aspirations for what they cover spend all this energy to pursue a story like this? Especially as they jettison their local arts and culture writers?

  • One problem that news orgainsations must come to terms with is that they no longer own and control news sources – ie their own reporters. These days the public often play the role of reporters – we live in an increasingly “senseable” society. What used to be a news crew can now exist in your pocket – phone, video, camera, computer, communications etc.

    Lets not forget that journalists aren’t reporters.

    My analysis is that the role of journalists remains similar it’s just that the sources and technology used have changed.

    “curating, vetting, adding context, adding comment, seeking information, filling out the story, correcting misinformation” – isn’t this what good journalists always did but using public sources and media.

    A major difference is that almost anyone has the capability to do this now – how do journalists distinguish themselves?

  • It seems to me that not only are journalists are playing new roles, but other people are deciding what is newsworthy, like Wendy says. This is similar to the issue with Digg, I think–the tyranny of the super-active Digg users. That doesn’t really renew my faith in the new Internet journalistic voices, but in the process it does.

  • Thanks for the link, Jeff. Big fan of WWGD and BuzzMachine. As you can see from The Client Revolution, we’re trying to prove you wrong that lawyers can’t get Googley. (As for PR: forget about it!) It won’t be easy, and they’ll be a lot of kicking and screaming, but eventually lawyers and law firms will have no choice. It will be innovate or evaporate.

  • PlatformAgnosticJournalist

    One question: where did the Twitterers find out about Michael Jackson’s death. Unless it was Twittered from the ambulance or by Mr. Jackson’s doctor, I’m guessing they were twittering what they heard via TMZ. That’s not exactly a traditional news outlet, I understand. However, if all the news organizations with trained journalists go the way of the Pony Express … do we really think that the news will be delivered, analyzed, investigated thoroughly, and re-analyzed well enough to be a true public service. You mention the fizzling attention span of the Twitterers. Do we want that same attention span applied to, say, health care reform, nuclear weapons development in rogue nations, your city council’s budget increase, global warming and other important issues? I think Jeff’s right that the traditional media need to wake up to an evolving role — but I actually think it’s the long-standing, always-needed role of watchdog. Work the beat, break the news and keep digging. Explain what it means to people. The steps we need to skip, given our reduced resources and the lack of interest from the audience, is the “blather.” TV does this constantly. I’m so sick of the Jackson retrospectives at this point, but I’m more sick of the man-on-the-street reaction pieces on cable, in print, everywhere. What a waste of limited resources of the places that have trained journalists. The old “local reax” piece is dead for traditional media. Twitter, Facebook, online forums on your news web sites, etc., they own that trade space. Link to that and move on to more important work. On the Jackson story, let’s find out more about regular of prescription drugs, oversight of doctors providing excessive prescriptions and other issues that might actually impact people long after the Jackson buzz subsides. Journalists at newspapers and TV stations and cable networks need to exploit these new tools, but not try to replicate them or copy-cat the things they do best. These social-networking tools are outstanding intelligence never before available at this level, in real time. That’s all great data to inform reporting and to give editors and decision makers an idea what the audience is thinking and what people are talking about. Of course, they need to be a little more cautious about applying what’s hot on Twitter to the rest of their audience. Print newspaper audiences and even cable TV news audiences skew way older than the demo on Twitter and Facebook. So, saying the world is abuzz about Iran may or may not be true. The people of the world under age 50 may be abuzz about Iran. Not sure we can so easily attribute that to the entire population and in particular the portion of the population still reading and watching our products (meaning our CUSTOMERS).

  • Michael Jackson is my favorite pop artist ever since i was a child. He is truly the King of Pop and i am saddened by this news.

  • Platform Agnostic, it’s important to stop assuming that everybody tweeting and FBing and mobile webbing is under 50 (I see way too many people who even assume they’re all under FORTY). We run a neighborhood-news service – it’s not just a website, it’s also content delivery/aggregation across channels including Twitter and FB, not to mention RSS and F2F :) – and not only are we 50mumble-mumble (OK, I’m a few months away, but my partner’s a few birthdays past), we know MANY of our “customers,” site participants, etc., are older than we are. And you can’t just say “oh, that’s cause you’re in hyperwired Seattle.” I have contacts who are 80-plus and e-enthusiastic. Meantime, even as a longtime TV news manager/producer, this news event has pretty much capped it for me on TV, able and otherwise. I was one of those nodes who got the TMZ scoop ASAP (from Twitter, as I follow a former local TV co-worker who is now a TMZ muckymuck) and retweeted it to our 3.5K Twitter mininet – then I relentlessly patroled “old media” because I saw some skepticism about the TMZ report and wound up defending it (hoping I wasn’t indirectly sacrificing my credibility) … it took a full hour for ANY old media to confirm … and even past that hour, when LA Times confirmed it, CNN was still saying “we haven’t confirmed it.” They don’t have the sources. That was the most damning thing to me. It’s still all about the sources, whether you’re a node or a news service, and they didn’t have the goods. Next time I’m not even turning the TV on. Luckily this happened going into a weekend, so I am guessing TV will finally wring the last out of it by tomorrow.

  • Pingback: Ólafur Andri Ragnarsson » Blog Archive » The Real-time Web()

  • Jeff, the question about cable news: Do you watch it because you want to learn, or because you want to learn what the cable news-viewing public is learning? I think the second option still makes sense, though less than it used to. I don’t have the patience or stomach for it.

  • Writingprincess

    I think all this pontificating on Twitter misses a key point: the message is the medium not the other way around. Twitter is just the latest invention in a long march to get news instantaneously. It’s the same as cable news was years ago. However it was dogged journalism – by no less and on-the-ground Iranians – that got the news on M.J. and the election, for Twitter to spread. Without, or independent journalists there would be no news on Twitter. Twitter gave them instant access to their audiences who passed it on. Twitter made mainstream media’s traditional role – getting news first – irrelevant because they can’t compete with niche reporting. EVER. If newsrooms were smart they would go back to investigative journalism, to telling stories instead of spreading the obvious and they may become relevant again.

  • Agree with Writingprincess. Mainstream, traditional media needs to rethink. Just written a piece about that on Media Helping Media, if anyone is interested.



  • michael jackson is a very very talented person to the point that he rose as a pop icon. he would live forever in our history books and memories…

  • Pingback: Vital Communications, Inc. » From Hollywood to Tehran: Sustaining Press in a Busy News Cycle()

  • Pingback: The Digital Wing » Blog Archive » From our audience, with our audience, to our audience()

  • Pingback: BM Paris Blog, le blog de Burson-Marsteller France » Archive du blog » Le spectaculaire, la seule issue du journalisme face à Twitter ?()

  • Pingback: The Changing Face of News |

  • Pingback: Paulo Coelho Knows How to Use Social Media Better | Thoughtpick Blog()

  • Pingback: How has Twitter effected the proliferation of information? | BrandsAmongMany()

  • Pingback: Digital Perspective Blog » Blog Archive » Are sensational topics the only way for journalism to face Twitter’s success?()

  • Pingback: Are sensational topics the only way for journalism to face Twitter’s success? : DigiSolutions()

  • Pingback: Burson-Marsteller: Are sensational topics the only way for journalism to face Twitter’s success? | 222.490 research compile()

  • I hope to see some day on the tweeter “Iran is free” message.

  • Pingback: Are sensational topics the only way for journalism to face Twitter’s success? – Burson-Marsteller – Europe, Middle East & Africa()