Opinion

Commentary: How Twitter poses a threat to newspapers

The end began in January 1998, when Matt Drudge broke the story on his blog that linked President Clinton amorously to a young White House intern. At least that's how his scoop is remembered, as a signature moment in the growing dominance of online news. Except that's not what happened. Drudge didn't break the intern story because he didn't have it. What he reported was that Newsweek magazine had the story but wouldn't publish it.

Evidently somebody at Newsweek was fed up with the magazine's reluctance and told Drudge. I think that was the first time a major story went public after being back-channeled from reporters at a mainstream news organization to an unaffiliated website.

What Drudge's scoop really exemplified was the declining ability of news managers to control their staffs' access to the public. Today, 11 years later, thanks to the Internet most every journalist here can reach independently an audience immeasurably greater than the star reporter on the biggest newspaper or top-rated newscast could a generation ago. Now the traditional news business is built, one way or another, on a promise of exclusivity: What we've got you won't get elsewhere. So the idea that a media company's biggest threat may come from its own newsroom is hard for news managers to swallow.

A new networking tool

To make them really gag, add Twitter.

Twitter is a dazzling social networking technology that allows you to stay in touch, via brief updates known as tweets, with a vast number of friends, acquaintances and interested strangers as you go through your day. Related software enables you to interact with even broader arrays of people you seek out through particular words in their tweets that suggest they know something you're interested in.

It's easy to see why journalists, who depend on just such networks of informants, find Twitter appealing.

Smarter news organizations encourage this. But it comes at a price. Nurturing these online networks obliges journalists to exchange messages with fans and followers, so the potential is there for staffers to spout off, spill secrets, give away their journalism.

So like parents with marriageable offspring, news bosses are both pushing forward and pulling back, fearful of looking out of date by reminding their eager staff about the danger of going too far.

In recent months some of the country's prestige press – including The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal – have issued staff guidelines. They urge "common sense:" Avoid talking about things you're covering unless an editor approves. Don't come across as opinionated. Don't get into what "verbal fisticuffs with rivals or critics."

As The Post put its bottom-line concerns, "In general, we expect that the journalism our reporters produce will be published through The Washington Post, in print or digitally," and not via blogs or tweets.

Good luck there. Can you have journalists texting messages independently on topical concerns with thousands of people using a medium that's easily shared with millions more and still retain exclusivity? Not only has that horse left the barn, but the barn is burning down. Twitter will be embraced as no less indispensable to reporters than their phones, but it does carry risk – and not the loss of control that news bosses worry about but the illusion of connectedness.

Technologies never brag about what they don't do; they're too busy wowing us with their tricks to admit to their failings. New media technologies trade on the promise that they truly put you in touch, that they have the power to break the bubble of separateness that the journalist struggles within.

Even primitive e-mail is seductive. That's why newsrooms fret over a few dozen harsh e-mails as if they're the voice of "the public," and journalism students think a text exchange with somebody is an interview.

Today's networking technologies are a huge leap forward in connectedness, but they can seduce journalists into swapping one bubble for another kind of enclosure. The real danger of Twitter isn't its power to undermine newsroom authority. Let it.

The danger is that Twitter will keep reporters off the streets and in front of their screens, that it will further skew journalism toward seeking out, listening to and serving the young, the hip, the technically sophisticated, the well-off – in short, the better-connected. The people who aren't being heard now aren't sending out tweets.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.

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