“Twitter did/did not break news” is the new “bloggers vs journalists”

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 15 February 2012

I tweeted today that “Twitter did/did not break news” is the new “bloggers vs journalists” - a tired old trope that gets periodically trotted out. It was this dreary ReadWriteWeb piece about the origins of news of Whitney Houston’s death that provoked it.

If you are in the position where you are trying to argue that news can only be “broken” by organisations that historically owned printing presses or have a licence to use scarce broadcast spectrum, then you are fighting last century’s battle.

Being first really mattered when your rivals had a 24 hour print cycle before they could catch up. It mattered in a world of limited TV channels with finite news output. It mattered a lot less once 24 hour TV news arrived, and frankly the web, social media and SMS has blown that all away. Look at the visualisations of the spread of tweets about the Japanese Tsunami to see that major news isn't about one traditional organisation being first, it is about news delivery being almost instantaneous, and on a person-to-person basis.

Don’t get me wrong. Being fast is important for organisational reputation. And so is being accurate. And the AP acted fast and accurately in confirming her death at the weekend. But while a scoop used to last in print for a day - especially if you held it back for the final edition - an exclusive now lasts seconds. And anybody on the planet with an internet connection can be the first person to publish that piece of information.

I first heard about the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster from my mum. I vividly remember her opening the front door and saying “They’ve lost the space shuttle” and me asking “What do you mean, lost?”, thinking perhaps the computers at NASA had broken down or something. The UK had four television channels. We watched the story unfold on the BBC.

Compare this to a few months ago. I found out about the death of Gary Speed when someone I knew tweeted Gary Speed RIP. I don’t remember who. The next tweet in my timeline was a link to reporting guidelines on suicide. I had the whole “breaking” story there and then. I’ve no idea which news organisation had the news first. It would have had a lead of seconds, a couple of minutes at most. I found out that Michael Jackson had a suspected heart attack on Twitter. No idea who from. I found out about Whitney’s death on Twitter. No idea who from.

News breaks for the user where they first find it - and a lot of the time that isn’t a broadcast network anymore, it is a real-time peer-to-peer one.

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