That may be trickier than it sounds because, while Twitter offers some obvious journalistic advantages, it poses unexplored risks. Twitter may well be a part of the media model of the future. But as the RMN’s misadventures indicate, we still haven’t figured out when it’s worth doing and when it’s best left alone.
A time and a place
I, too, have Twittered. Covering the Republican National Convention (RNC) for the Phoenix, I sent 18 “Tweets,” as they’re called. The newsiest of these dealt with the protest march on the RNC’s second day, and the massive, somewhat spooky law-enforcement response it elicited. But the one that still gives me greatest satisfaction — composed just after Sarah Palin accepted the GOP’s nomination for vice-president — involved a random encounter with a C-List actor: “Saw Stephen Baldwin in elevator. Hair greasy. Asked his opinion of Palin’s speech, dubbed it ‘awesome.’ ”
It’s this sort of Twittered observation that John Dickerson, Slate’s political correspondent, extols in the summer issue of Nieman Reports. Sometimes, Dickerson notes, the bits of color journalists gather while reporting end up anchoring a piece; other times, they go unused. But now, thanks to Twitter, all of them can be shared. “As journalists,” Dickerson writes, “we take people places they can’t go. Twitter offers a little snapshot way to do this. It’s informal and approachable and great for conveying a little moment from an event.”
Here, then, is one big argument for the marriage of Twitter and journalism: used cleverly, it creates an accessible, impressionistic portrait of what we see and hear — one that complements traditional reporting rather than supplanting it.
And here’s a second: in the process, it advances a very traditional journalistic end. Dan Kennedy — author of the Media Nation blog and a former Phoenix media critic — explains this concept thusly: “Think about it on a continuum, especially with breaking news. You can use Twitter to get a first, rough take on what’s going on. Maybe a few Twitter posts become the raw material for a more complete blog post. And then, as you’re blogging the breaking news, that ends up forming the basis of a more substantial reported piece.
“The argument here,” Kennedy adds, “is that if journalists can think about how to use these tools in the right way, it doesn’t really take them away from the task. It becomes a tool to help them do their job in a better way.”
That’s an enticing portrait — but my own experience suggests it’s a bit too idealized. Covering the RNC, I had the strong impression that, when I shifted into Twitter mode, I was actually thinking differently — and sure enough, in the end, the vast majority of my Tweets weren’t incorporated into more substantive dispatches.
Given the difference between traditional note-taking and Twittering, this makes complete sense. After all, old-school note-taking boasts one big advantage: it’s private. And this privacy, in turn, lets us journalists be as expansive and unguarded as we want when we’re sizing up a new situation and trying to figure out what the story is. Sometimes, this means seizing on details that later prove to be irrelevant, or floating theories that don’t quite hold up, or just noting stuff which, in retrospect, sounds kind of dumb.