Will Twitter transform journalism?

I first learned about Twitter two years ago this month at a conference on the future of journalism.

The online social networking tool was then the new thing in communications technology and few of the veteran journalists in the room had yet heard of Twitter, let alone tried to tweet.

Since then, I have become a Twitterer (albeit a sporadic one) and watched closely as Twitter took centre stage in the digital media zeitgeist. By last June, a “Twitter revolution” was declared when protestors in Iran turned to Twitter to connect to the world at large and communicate their opposition to the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Now, with more than 105 million users worldwide and 2 million new users signing on every week, Twitter is fast becoming an important tool within mainstream media for breaking news, reporting in real-time, finding story ideas, connecting with sources, engaging with audiences and disseminating our work to wider audiences.

A study released last week concluded that journalists who cover Canadian politics are using Twitter far more extensively and to better advantage than politicians. The study, by Tamara Small, an assistant professor at Mount Allison University, analyzed political messaging on Twitter and also found that Twitter is spreading the influence of political reporting and analysis in traditional media.

It would be an overstatement to suggest that all journalists have taken to Twitter. The Star’s website links to only about 30 journalists who routinely tweet for this news organization (though other Star journalists use Twitter for personal use). Within any gathering of journalists, it’s still not unusual to hear veteran journalists state that they “don’t Twitter” and to condescendingly question what can be communicated in a 140-character tweet.

Given that Twitter is hardly novel these days, that view is beginning to sound dated. Isn’t it time we put this debate to rest and recognize that Twitter and other tools of new media can actually enhance our journalism?

Certainly the Star’s Joanna Smith proved that in her reporting from earthquake-ravaged Haiti earlier this year. With little access to telephone lines and computers, Twitter became Smith’s lifeline, allowing her to file instant, constant updates through her mobile phone. Smith’s tweets brought dramatic real-time reporting and interactivity to — and from — followers around the world.

Smith’s tweeting from the earthquake zone has been widely lauded. Two weeks ago, she was invited to speak about journalism and Twitter at Mesh, Canada’s preeminent web conference.

Time magazine followed Smith’s tweets from Haiti, and Twitter itself singled her out on its media blog. The blog boasted of Twitter’s role in helping journalists communicate from the earthquake zone and stated: “But the tweets from one reporter, Joanna Smith from the Toronto Star, were a little different.

“Joanna’s tweets were like tiny stories unto themselves — whole narratives in 140 characters. And her thumbnail descriptions, packed with telling details, communicated things that blaring headlines couldn’t.”

As an example, the blog cited one of many tweets Smith filed from a Haiti hospital: “Woman in A-line skirt, clean white blouse, wanders thru ward, singing, praying w book in hand: ‘Chants d’esperance.’ ”

What do Smith’s tweets tell us, the Twitter blog asks? — “There’s power in great writing, even (or especially) at 140 characters.”

Smith, a political reporter in the Star’s Ottawa bureau, regards Twitter as “an incredibly valuable reporting tool.” She has been tweeting from parliamentary committee meetings for some time and notes that many Parliament Hill reporters have now embraced Twitter.

Smith believes Twitter has the potential to “transform” journalism by making it more collaborative and reflective of readers’ concerns.

“Journalists have always crafted our stories in a sort of vacuum and then suddenly unveiled them to the world and moved on to the next thing. Twitter allows journalists to let readers in on the process of crafting a story, tweeting little bits of information as we go along.”

In covering the H1N1 “pandemic” last fall, Smith used Twitter to connect with readers and sources. “I would often get questions and suggestions from readers who had an interesting perspective on the issue. A mother whose child is sick is going to have something different to say than an epidemiologist at a research hospital, and without Twitter I might not have ever known about it.”

Smith now connects directly — and transparently — with sources on Twitter: “Just this morning I received direct feedback from a cabinet minister I had mentioned in a tweet and was able to respond to it just as directly,” she told me.

Clearly, Twitter offers rich possibilities for enhancing journalism. But, like other digital tools that are transforming traditional journalism, Twitter brings with it new ethical issues for journalists. I’ll tell you more about that in next week’s column.

This column was originally published in the Toronto Star on June 12, 2010.

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