Take notes with Twitter, though, and this dynamic is radically changed. Since everything that’s jotted down for later use is simultaneously published, there’s a strong incentive to be cautious, to focus on the concrete and manageable rather than the abstract and elusive, to traffic in quips instead of big thoughts.
So why make that sacrifice? The answer, obviously, is the media’s current infatuation with speed. You know the root causes: thanks to round-the-clock cable news and the ever-expanding hegemony of the Web, stories develop and die faster than ever. This is a problem for everyone in the press, but especially for newspapers; after all, whether you’re the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) or the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, you know that tomorrow’s paper is going to be dated hours before it lands on an ever-dwindling number of doorsteps.
Then comes Twitter — and if you’re a newspaper bigwig, imagine the possibilities! There is, first, the chance to update readers every time a new story breaks online, something numerous newspapers — including the New York Times, the WSJ, and the Boston Herald — are currently doing. What’s more, no matter how obscure or understaffed your publication is, your reporters can now get information to your readers just as quickly as CNN or Fox. Quicker, even, if they’re in the right place at the right time, and skilled with their cell or Blackberry.
When you’re reporting, there’s something exhilarating about possessing this power. But really, is the press’s current fetish for speed such a good thing? True, the public looks to us for fast updates on big, breaking stories. But the public also wants us to interpret events — and the faster we move, the more difficult it becomes to provide smart context or analysis. This, it seems, is precisely why the RMN’s Twittered funeral coverage seemed off; there was an abundance of grim detail, but no corresponding effort to grapple with the pathos of Kudlis’s death.
And that’s not necessarily the reporter’s fault. By its very nature, Twitter collapses the distance between observing and reporting until it’s almost nonexistent. In certain situations — a terrorist attack, say, or a violent confrontation between protesters and police — that could be invaluable. In most other instances, though, wouldn’t we be better off watching and thinking — and keeping our cells in our pockets?
Tweet, tweet, tweet, nitpick a little
To be clear, this isn’t a call for right-thinking journalists everywhere to rise up and boycott Twitter. First off, there are the aforementioned cases where immediacy makes sense. What’s more, Twitter, like any other news mechanism, is a two-way street: reporters can use it to get news as well as to give it. NYU journalism professor and PressThink blogger Jay Rosen puts it this way: “Twitter lets journalists keep in touch with a wider range of information sources than they’d get in their own newsroom, or from their circle of friends in their geographic area. You can also ask reporting questions on Twitter. And if it’s the right kind of question, you can get really good answers right away.”
But even Rosen — whose robust Twitter feed, at twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu, is followed by 1800-plus people — concedes that some journalists won’t get any benefit from Twitter, period, and that others probably aren’t making the most of it. As with any new technology, he argues, journalists need to soberly consider how it works, and why we’re using it, before we actually start.