Friday 21 August 2009

Sky News journalists debate the value of Twitter

Picked this up off Twitter. A Sky News field producer (@fieldproducer) debates the value of Twitter with political correspondent, Niall Paterson. My thoughts in italics.

[I bore myself wondering why people don't understand that Twitter has some value to the working journalist. Not least because journalists use it all the time. I mean either they're crazy pretending it's useful to look cool or something or it is actually useful.]
[This was perhaps the weakest line in the piece although the actual unfriendly 140 char quote is: "it is only as useful as the person who is using it wants it to be."]
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer The article's author is equally guilty of the sneering of which he accuses the MSM! The evangelical zeal with which people
[A hark back to bloggers vs journalists. Of course there's no need to sneer on either side really apart from the fact that both commentators in the media and bloggers know that a good old sneer makes more interesting copy than sober assessments. I'm sure some twitterers link to, read, watch and appreciate Sky News coverage. In a few lines Niall's about to sort of maybe recognise the point that it might possibly be a useful, if limited, tool to do journalism.]
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer greet every latest web 2.0 innovation is nothing new. give it a couple of mins and there'll be another emerging
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer tech/app we'll be asked to integrate into our already busy days. christ, when did you last receive a hand-written letter? how
[I'm sure there will be another emerging web innovation. Re: letters. Riding a horse is also nice, I've heard, but most people don't use them to get around these days. Receiving a letter is probably more satisfying than it used to be when letter writing was common, precisely because it has become rarer. But it is nice to receive a letter. I don't dispute that.]
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer Plus, has twitter actually made any money yet? best not to slag off the "ailing industry" when this thing isnt profitable.
[As far as we're aware Twitter hasn't made a great deal of money. But Evan Williams, the CEO of Twitter, has form in snatching finance from the jaws of bankruptcy. He co-founded Blogger which almost died in February 2001 because of a lack of funds. Two years later Blogger was bought by Google. We don't know how much money he made from the deal, but I doubt he's poor.]
[The short answer is: we don't know. Because Twitter won't tell us. Tech Cruch estimated 1 million users and 200,000 active users in March 2008. But there's been significant growth in 2009. According to the BBC, Comscore guess there are 45 million users worldwide. It's not the be all and end all of social networking sites - "During May 2009 ranked as the 38th most visited website in the UK and the fifth most visited social network".]
  • fieldproducer: @niallpaterson ahh, but as journalists we have broken quite a few stories after getting leads from twitter. Profitable or not, bloody useful
[I think this is more like the point. Why is Niall Paterson worried about whether Twitter will make a profit? I think the point about Twitter is not the company but the concept. And as Evan Williams said on Newsnight the other week, if Twitter doesn't make it work, it will be because somebody else will have done it better.]
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer you make my point for me - it's just another tool. might as well evangelise about the telephone. or more approp. the internet
[So it's the hype that's getting to Niall really (but I think he likes an opportunity to have a rant so he can't complain too much). It's the same sort of thinking that happened with blogging when blogging was new and as a journalist told me for one of my interviews, the hype 'puts people's backs up'. And some of the hype is rather mistaken. See my thoughts on Moldova's Twitter Revolution.]
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer arent profits important? they are to our employer and the vast majority of journos. and where in the article were T's faults?
[There were no examples of Twitter's faults in the article. But then the blogger doesn't have any obiligation to be fair and balanced. If you want to ask this question, you might ask yourself where in Jackie Ashley's article was there room for the advantages of social networking?]
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer i'm sick of faceless webgeeks being so condescending to those who fail to share their unfettered adoration of social network
[Nice line.]
  • fieldproducer: @niallpaterson but it isn't like a telephone is it? It is more like a wire feed. I don't think pofits are important to maj of journos either
[Oh so Twitter does not mean the 'end of face to face' communication, then. And people who use social networks do meet in real life.]
[Dean Kirbky uses #gmpraids to report for the Manchester Evening News. Click on the link for more.]
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer Interesting. a rolling tally of arrests? wow. perhaps time would be better spent crafting an easily updateable blog piece
[You can imagine someone a few years ago suggesting a rolling tally of arrests on a blog and someone else saying: 'Wow. Perhaps time would be better spent crafting an easily updateable online piece.]
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer which could actually tell me what's going on... i'm being a tad facetious, but look at how many followers he has...
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer I'm not saying twitter doesn't have its uses - just that as a journalistic tool it has a number of drawbacks
[Ah. Good point. Twitter is not good for a lot of things. For a start, we've already acknowledged that this debate would be better held over a pint. Twitter doesn't do radio or TV so well. Try using Twitter as an audio editing suite. It won't work. You don't get context and background with Twitter. It's too short. I mean I could go on but the disadvantages of Twitter are pretty obvious aren't they. As a journalist, Twitter's a great tool but it's just one tool.]
  • fieldproducer: @niallpaterson irrespective of the subject matter it is a constant flow of info which you recieve passively in real time.
[Some tweets are unverfiable. A lot are verifiable. I've verified who a lot of twitterers are in my time. Indeed, Twitter do some of the hard work for you and verify accounts. If you know who you follow then it's much easier to verify what they say. Raw data is pretty useful I'd have thought.]
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer eh? HE'S the hack! This is what journalism has come to? trawling twitter feeds for tips?! i've just phoned the GMP phonebank
[These are just two different aspects of the journalist's job. Journalists have always trawled for tips wherever they come from. Why not use Twitter as well? But then journalists can't spend all their time trawling for tips, because they have to work on those tips by getting hold of more information and reporting the story. But it's not: either, or; it's both.

Or, if you work in a media organisation like Sky, you can afford to have people performing different roles. What does Sky's Twitter Correspondent do? Surely part of her role should be feeding tips to journalists from Twitter? Then the journalist can worry about following the tips up, phoning people and doing
all that 'old-fashioned' stuff. Though there's nothing old-fashioned about it in my opinion.]
  • fieldproducer: @niallpaterson we broke the Conrad Murray vid before anybody else, how? I saw it drop on twitter. Wires 20mins & BBC 2hrs after us.
[@fieldproducer says he meant to say 'ran' rather than broke.]
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer Your argument would see me spending most of my time standing up twitter tips rather than actually doing my job properly!
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer Yep, as a source of links twitter really is useful. but didnt the person who tweeted in fact "break" the story?
[This does the raise issue of what 'breaking news' is in the 21st Century. (But I'm running out of steam.) It's changed a lot is the point. But then as an organisation Sky News like bigging up that they are 'breaking news' - the institutional culture captured by Jon Grip's capitalised tweets.]
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer Ah. that old chestnut. if i read something in the papers then do a telly turn before the beeb, am i breaking it?!
[Can't really be bothered but there are some significant differences.]
[Apparently it was a producer not a correspondent]
  • niallpaterson: @fieldproducer had he been in the HoC rather than in front of his computer, we might have had it sooner. you know, proper legwork!
[Sad fact is that a lot of journalists are stuck behind their desks. Most of them don't want to be.]
[An interesting point.]


niall said...

It would have been nice to run your interpretation of my views past me before posting - as it seems you did with Neal (@fieldproducer).

First, your chronology of events is accurate in terms of when we posted. But as both neal and I would admit, thanks to twitter's arbitrary 140 char limit our points often overlapped. The "debate" might better have been articulated if that were recognised in this blog. Still, you make my first point about the limitations of twitter for me: it's easy to get lost in two separate trains of thought, and those thoughts are not necessarily as weighty as others might perceive.

Then you gloss over the point which got me riled in the first place, the ease with which graham linehan slips into the "you just don't get it" argument so beloved of early-adopters from time immemorial. Most people [hold tight, web 2.0] aren't as clued up as you are. And the sneering which occurs is hardly likely to encouage greater participation. Ashley's article was worthy of a few digs. Still, I'd wager she could teach the comedian a few things about journalism. Though I doubt she'd be as condescending as he.

You then reinforce my point by commenting that "in a few lines" i'll have an epiphany and realise twitter does in fact have utility. As if my first comments preclude me having arrived at that bloody conclusion some time ago. Yep, you got it - most of my salient thoughts are arrived at after battering away at 140 char comments on my blackberry when in my boxers. Just like all great thinkers.

I find it hilarious that the twitterati refer, as linehan does, to the "dying" MSM - asking its key figures to stay out of issues that they 'just don't get', yet at the same time failing to acknowledge that the latest set of new clothes for the emperor can't turn a profit itself. You yourself wrote "Why is Niall Paterson worried about whether Twitter will make a profit?"?! Christ, if you are so interested you could have asked me on twitter...

Sustainability is key not just to free market economics (take note, bankers) but to social networking tools in which journalists and commentators have so much faith.

(As an aside, posting your thoughts on a blog which doesn't allow comments doesn't lend much weight to your web 2.0 credentials, eh graham?)

You then quote me: "you make my point for me - it's just another tool. might as well evangelise about the telephone. or more approp. the internet"

...and take from that i'm SOLELY pissed off with the hype that surrounds twitter! You tool. (Again, the first point i made about twitter is reinforced by your own words) Had you asked, i'd have explained that, yes, I am far more sceptical than a lot of people who are tasked with being multimedia in a profession that used to about stepping in front of a camera and nothing else, but my complaint is NOT that twitter is useless. Just that an emphasis is being placed on it that has led traditional forms of getting and checking stories to be demeaned in the process.

You might also have checked whether or not I belonged to the cadre of hacks that scoffed at blogging before posting a line that insinuated that I did. You later put in quotation marks '"the end of face to face" communication'. I'm presuming you weren't quoting me there.

Careful - that's the kind of thing that can land a journalist in the dock. Still, host your server outside the UK (hello Guido) and you don't need to worry about that.

niall said...

And then you indulge in the worst possible kind of misrepresentation, based on your earlier point (based on a couple of 140 char statements) that I'm experiencing some kind of dawning realisation that my argument is failing - that twitter "does have some uses". Yep, it could have been phrased more elegantly (see again my first point), but for you to scoff at the truism in my words without acknowledging that of linehan is fucking ridiculous. Perhaps you'd care to turn your rapier wit and keen intellect to the example that neal used and I challenged: that of a MEN hack posting arrest figures, but with no context, and bugger-all followers. Want to? Nah, thought not.

I'll guess that you're currently thinking "I just don't get it".

Right back at you.

Like you at the end of your marathon misrepresentation, I'm now running out of steam. Still, I'll try not to gloss over some of the more serious points of our "debate" in the way you do.

Reporters do have so many more sources of information than ever before. But if they're tasked with using social networking tools which add little to their own news-gathering simply because they tweak the nipples of the Wired readership there is a risk of harm to the journalism itself. Glad you don't think legwork is old-fashioned, though.

On breaking news - as you put it, "it's [sic] changed a lot", rather like the new meaning you gave to neal's tweet (hey, revisionism is okay so long as you flag it up - nice try). I work in politics which is a rather different beast to general news, I'll admit. But Sky's use of twitter rightly gained positive attention during and post- Iranian election. But there's still a big ol' question to be answered on this point (and it relates to the distinction betw RSS and tweeting) - who doesnt think that the guy who gets it out there first is the one who breaks it?

Twitter requires you to follow people if you want to read their words. Twitter requires people to follow you (or go to your page) if you want people to read your words. RSS permits the same - but with no 140 char limit. Old media initially hated the Guido phenomenon when stories were broken on the web. Strange that he isn't yet on twitter, eh?

Slavishly following twitter feeds will ensure you do nothing more than follow up on others' stories. I'm not stuck behind my desk, and I'd resent anything that demanded that of me.

Finally, johnny_phipps says, and you repeat with little to add, that our debate brings into question the position of ruth barnett, our twitter correspondent.

It doesn't. At all. Because this wasn't a debate. Just a twitter exchange between two guys with little else to do at that time on a friday morning.

Just an overheard conversation without context or background or the merest hint of explanation.

Which brings me back to the very first par. It'd have been nice to have had this run past me before posting. I use twitter, and I recognise where I think twitter can be useful - not just in doing my job, but in a far wider context.

And amidst the silliness, the stupidity, and the downright nonsense your post contains, context is what's most obviously missing.

Thanks for maligning me, and my views on twitter.

I wouldn't have paid this blog a moment's notice had you not a) been a friend of neal's and b) been so horribly inaccurate in your conclusions.

Your PhD is looking at the "impact of blogging and 'new' media" (love what you did there with 'new'...) on the beeb's coverage of war and terrorism, eh?

Heaven help them, Dr-to-be.

niall said...

"[sic]" transit gloria mundi

Daniel Bennett said...

First paragraph: Point taken. Apologies. When I started I was just going to copy and paste everything and people could make up their own minds. Maybe that's what I should have done. But given that I then got a little bit carried away commenting on it I agree I should have got in touch with you. Some bloggers would disagree with me but you're right. (I do at least offer space on this blog for you to reply). And I appreciate the time you took putting me right.

Re: "In a few lines" paragraph - I didn't interpret my comment as you did. To me, it was obvious you thought Twitter had some utility prior to the Twitter exchange and don't think there is any evidence in the exchange that you changed your position on Twitter at all or had come to some new thinking. And I didn’t intend my comment to suggest you had some sort of epiphany as you put it. I felt this was the position that people would also come to if they read the post but I can see how you could read into it as you did and other people might see it like that as well. So I should have made this clearer.

Similarly, I don’t think I insinuate that you personally scoffed at blogging in the past. This is certainly not what I meant. But I think it's an interesting question to ask whether there are parallels with media developments in the past. Again perhaps I should have made it clearer that this was not about you.

I never said you were "solely" worried about the hype. I pointed out your other main concern as well - that Twitter is not as useful a tool as other people make out, which I note is a valid point. And the hype does bother you a bit doesn't it? It bothers me.

I wasn't quoting you on face to face communication. The comment didn't mention you and was a reference to recent debates on this topic which you and Neal were demonstrating doesn’t stand up.

Daniel Bennett said...

Re: MEN journalist posting arrest figures on Twitter. I think Twitter can be used as a reporting tool, but you are right to point out the problems of context. How and why you report on Twitter should be questioned and there's an interesting argument to be had about how valuable it is.

Having said that the context you are looking for was available on the MEN website. Their reporter’s Twitter feed was fed into a CoverItLive page on the MEN website which had links to two articles which provided the context for the raids (admittedly on a separate page). ( - This website presumably had more readers than the low number of Twitter followers that Dean Kirkby has – I’ll see if I can find out on Monday. The people who could tell me don’t work on Sunday apparently. Though you have a good point on numbers – see later). You might still argue that it would be better in a blog post.

I think though that there’s a lot of exciting experimentation going on in multimedia at the moment which I wouldn’t want to discourage. Some of it will work, some of it won’t. We should dump the stuff that doesn’t work, but we might find interesting ways of presenting the news. Having said that I wouldn’t advocate getting rid of stuff that is tried and tested just because it doesn’t incorporate some new-fangled element and more importantly as you point out, if it gets in the way of good journalism – the legwork - then alarm bells should be ringing. It can do but I don’t think it has to.

I don’t think the context issue is a new problem either. News often suffers from a lack of context. A radio bulletin piece on a rocket fired from Gaza into Israel would be the most extreme example. If you want context on that you have to go elsewhere to find it (even if it just means listening to the radio for a bit longer for some analysis). It’s the same with Twitter but if you are using it well then you can use Twitter to provide a link to a context piece on your website while providing headline or very short bulletin style updates (or feed a Twitter feed into a website page with context around it.) (You could criticise Kirkby for not providing a link to some context on Twitter at the beginning of his coverage of the police raids. But he did get round to it at 10.32am, about 50 mins after he started). Perhaps we might ask: will everyone just read the Twitter bit and not bother with the context. But I think this goes for all forms of media. You can just read the headlines and not bother with the rest in newspapers if you want to regardless of how much subsequent context you provide.

Daniel Bennett said...

I don't think I did gloss over some of the serious points of the debate. I agree with you about social networking tools potentially getting in the way of what reporters do - a point I made in the section about tips and reporting the story. You acknowledge my comment about legwork.

On Twitter and tips I said: ‘why not use Twitter as well?’ I think you could make a good argument against this. I’m sure you have plenty of good contacts who already give you great news tips. And the sort of tips you probably wouldn’t regularly find on Twitter. Also they are much more reliable because you know them, trust them (even if you subsequently check out what they say), and do not need to spend hours monitoring Twitter which you don’t have.

I still think Twitter is a great source of tips and not always on stories that other people have covered. Some random person on Twitter pointed me in the direction of a blog by one of the people that helped organise the election protest in Moldova (which I linked to previously). In fact, at the time I covered the story all the other media coverage was going in completely the opposite direction. And a journalist can build up useful contacts on Twitter that will give him similar tips without having to monitor Twitter. They can just @ or DM the journalist.

I can understand your annoyance at the way some social media types are constantly telling journalists that they ‘don’t get it’. (I am sorry in my misrepresentation of your views that I did not pick up on this but you did not specifically say this in the Twitter exchange. Another good reason for getting in touch with you but I’ve dealt with this already).

Some people ‘don’t get’ the job of the full time journalist. Either they aren’t doing it or have never done it or they haven’t even spoken to some journalists to find out what it involves. I can’t vouch directly for Sky journalists but I’m sure they would echo the thoughts of BBC journalists I speak to who often mention the time constraints on them and the pressure of a 24 hour rolling news cycle. (Numbers point coming up). So prioritising is important. The World Service is listened to by 188 million people each week. The BBC Website, which has 22 million unique users per week (billions of page views mind), still has some catching up to do. Even if you fed a Twitter feed onto the BBC website, I’d suggest that if you are a journalist who is forced to choose because of a lack of time then doing the radio piece would be more important than updating the Twitter feed. (Of course ideally you might do both, but the point is that journalists don’t work in an ideal world.)

I’m not going into to go into the breaking news aspect because I’m not sure exactly what point you are trying to make with regards to the RSS/Twitter thing. But maybe over a drink some time.

Finally, you're lucky not to be stuck behind your desk - that was my point. A lot of other journalists, it seems, have to be even when they don’t want to be.

I’ve probably not replied to all of your points but hopefully I’ve covered the main ones. Thanks for paying a moment’s notice – I learnt a lot.

niall said...

I'll post a slightly longer comment tomorrow when the ashes victory celebrations have abated a tad - giving consideration to a topic such as this is difficult when one's neighbours are screaming "Eng-er-land". But having read and re-read my marathon critique above, I'm embarrassed by some of what I attached to your original blog.

Thanks for not being as intemperate as I in your response. The first drink and the second (and maybe even the third) are on me. More than that and the useful stereotype of Scotsmen as tight bastards might be ruined forever.

Daniel Bennett said...

Readers: If you've got to this comment you've got too much time on your hands ;) But I said I would find out the Manchester Evening News web stats for their coverage of the Greater Manchester Police raids that were mentioned.

The people at MEN were very helpful and told me on the Friday, the Cover It Live page (link in previous comment) had 23,157 page views. On Saturday, when obviously it was far less relevant, it had 1,119 page views.

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