03 June 2009

Does Twitter Work for Journalists?

Is Twitter more than just the latest info-plaything? Does it "work" as a news-dissemination channel, a reporting and source-building tool, a promotional platform? Or is it merely a banal, narcississtic time suck?

American Journalism Review's Paul Farhi addresses those questions and more in a new article titled "The Twitter Explosion." His answer: It depends.

Among the benefits for journalists:

* Its speed and brevity make it ideal for pushing out scoops and breaking news to Twitter-savvy readers.

* It can be "a living, breathing tip sheet for facts, new sources and story ideas," and its optimal use requires "little care and feeding."

* It can provide instantaneous access to hard-to-reach newsmakers, given that there's no PR person blocking the way.

* It can be a blunt instrument for crowdsourcing.

* It can be a kind of community organizing tool for the newsroom itself.

* It is popular among adults, a more firmly established audience for news.

On the down side:

* There's a lot of dross. Really, a LOT. "In practice, the idea that friends (and friends of friends) will pass on useful and valuable information is belied by the fact that Twitter can be an exceptionally inefficient channel, if not a downright maddening one," says Farhi, who also writes for the Washington Post.

* Because of the 140-character limit, you usually don't know what a link is until you click on it – perhaps to discover that "you're looking at something you saw two days earlier and didn't care about then." Facebook's news feeds, which aren't restricted to 140 characters and provide a look at the link, can be a much faster alternative, Farhi adds.

* You think you need a better business model? "Twitter isn't merely unprofitable like MySpace, Facebook and YouTube; it has no meaningful sources of revenue at all," Farhi writes. The company does not yet know how to convert its millions of users into paying customers. Its overhead is essentially covered by the $55 million that venture capitalists have contributed.

* Legal and ethical issues are unexplored. Musing about unsupported rumours obviously is not a good idea, as tweets can and do instantly go viral. And there is no guidance, let alone legal precedent, on handling disputes over libelous tweets.

All this suggests that some aspects of Twitter are still under development, at least for journalists, Farhi concludes. "Chalk it up to the growing pains of any new relationship. The question is how long this relationship will last. Sure, it's burning red-hot now. But will you still love Twitter tomorrow?"

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