The telegraph became mainstream in the 1830s thanks to Samuel Morse and immediately changed society. The communications technology broke space and time; people no longer waited months for messages to be transmitted. The beginnings of a democratized mass media took place as the telegraph enabled newswires to exist, transmitting information instantaneously across the world. Can Twitter, the modern telegraph, upend newswires?
Traditional newswires, like the Associated Press or Reuters, provide publishing partners with short bursts of information, as well as intensive reporting where outlets are under-sourced or may not even have staff. Newswire content has long filled the gaps for newspapers. But with the advent of the 140-character social network, newswires find themselves, like many other traditional models, disrupted by the Internet, looking down the barrel of a gun. The choices seem obvious. Either adapt to the speed of real-time communication and use Twitter as a complementary tool to help with reporting or face irrelevancy as Twitter and other social networks tap into the power of the ultimate free resource, people with an Internet connection and desire to share what they see.
Twitter has 140 million active users around the world. When news breaks, people tweet. Journalists on the ground or in a newsroom and normal, everyday people who happen to be where an event is occurring flock to Twitter. Take Sohaib Athar for example. You might not recognize the name, but he was the person who inadvertently tweeted the Osama bin Laden raid last year. No reporter, journalist or wire service was there at that time witnessing history. But a guy who had a Twitter account was.
The upside: information dissemination at a rapid pace gives Twitter users an understanding of events in real time, whether it’s a sporting match, an election or the toppling of governments. The downside: besides information overload, tweets still need to be verified, fact checked and then analyzed for importance. Wire services can see this as a double-edged sword. Take the two leading companies, the AP and Reuters.
Newswires are in the midst of change. Reuters, for example, has turned its century-plus old news service into a modern newswire by employing a team of social media editors to factcheck tweets in real time, but also allowing its reporters to tweet first file a story second. The Associated Press, on the other hand, disagrees with that strategy as it continues to figure out how to best use the technology. While it has a one-man Twitter machine in Eric Carvin*, it still has cumbersome policies in place that handcuff its army of journalists around the globe when news does break.
Additionally, the AP has to worry about long term financial viability from its newswire. The others don’t, having back-end terminals they sell to clients. And while wire services make money from these terminals in addition to selling content to media properties, the journalists who are the front lines of the wire services have been quick to see how Twitter can help them; from sourcing to distribution, Twitter has taken on an important role for reporters.
“For many journalists Twitter is replacing newswires, but not all. And I follow Reuters etc on Twitter. Old wine in new skin,” The Economist’s Tom Standage said via Twitter. Others, like The Washington Post Express’s Ernie Smith, acknowledge that the Twitter feed has become the noise and the users the signal. “On Twitter, the modern wire editor can be ANYONE, though,” Smith tweeted.
Where social networks like Twitter may have the instant feedback loop or even reach, newswires still have the editorial process of credible information distribution. Media organizations who purchase newswire feeds aren’t about to give them up for Twitter anytime soon. But they must continue to adapt to both changing technology and the way people consume content.
Today’s newswires provide more than breaking news, and according to Reuters social media editor, Anthony DeRosa, wires update faster and more frequently than what Twitter’s API allows. “Twitter actually helps the wire, provides more data for the wire to share, once vetted,” he tweeted.
*Update: The article inaccurately described the Associated Press as having one social media editor. The flagship @AP Twitter feed is serviced by a dozen or so staffers at the AP Nerve Center, around the clock, and the 20 or more other AP-branded accounts are managed by dozens of other AP staffers around the globe. Additionally, there are dozens of other AP staffers who work diligently to find news tips and user-generated content on the social nets.
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