Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Tweets can’t be beat on breaking news

When the siege of Mumbai broke out, Paris-based journalist Frederic Filloux found himself far from home and struggling to learn what was happening. His experience provides a perfect example how our thoroughly wired world is reshaping the media business.

The former editor of Liberation, the influential French daily, Frederic now develops new products for Schibsted, the innovative Norwegian media giant. Frederic is co-author of the blog
Monday Note, where this article originally appeared.

For an alternative point of view on the Twitter phenomenon, see this at Valleywag .

By Frederic Filloux

I began catching up with events in Mumbai at 1 a.m. Wednesday in a Kiev hotel room. I started with frenzied remote-control shuttling between CNN and SkyNews (no BBC World, which I prefer). The same stuff everywhere. Fuzzy footage of the carnage, so-called experts on the phone with the host, etc.

At the same time, I turned to my laptop and logged on to the New York Times. A little better: fresh stories, frequent updates. Same for a couple of French sites.

Out of professional habit, however, I went to the wrong sources. None were as compelling as Twitter, the place to go on that very night.

To get an idea, just go to Twitter.com, log in, go to the “#mumbai” channel and you’re in. Saturday morning, as I’m writing this note, Twitter is true to its name: tweets, prattling, back to normal – boring, questionable.

But in the heat of the terrorist attack, Twitter was more valuable than global TV’s endless loops. Twitter was the fastest stream of raw news — in less than 140 characters for each snippet.

Fact is: Twitter is impacting news reporting. Thirty years ago, radio broadcast epitomized live journalism. Then came CNN, which still relied on the radio format in many instances. In version 1.0, circa 1991, Peter Arnett reported live on his sat phone on the bombing of Baghdad from the roof of the Al-Rasheed Hotel. Later, CNN developed live-television broadcast capabilities.

But even with the advent of high tech TV, holes remain. These are about to be filled with a mixture of mobile phone and Internet, the first iteration being applications such as Twitter.

The Mumbai events are not the only ones where Twitter played a critical role. The list includes the earthquake in China and the wildfires in California. (See the Wikipedia page on Twitter for further references).

As the Canadian blogger Matthew Wingram reports, Twitter is undoubtedly a source of journalism. But, is it reliable?

No more, no less than the usual live reporting.

Some even argue that the multitude is, by essence, way more reliable than the individual (see James Surowiecki’s book “The Wisdom of Crowds”). In June, 2006, Wired ran a great story titled “The Rise of Crowdsourcing” with many examples of harnessing the multitude for a purpose, scientific research or innovation.

Live reporting on the web is nothing new.

As I was doing research for this article, I randomly asked — on Twitter — if someone could supply meaningful examples (without knowing who was seeing my question, I’m not a micro-blogging regular). An answer came immediately from Philippe Cove, media reporter at Radio France International (his excellent French language blog here) who sent me this link pointing to the Online Journalism Blog. There, I found a list of events, widely covered by live blogging, going back to 1998.

Today, live blogging is expected by the audience. And it works.

When French tennis player Jo-Wilfrid Tsonga became the star of the Australian Open Championship, the French site 20minutes.fr [where Frederic was the founding editor, a fact he modestly omitted in this article] decided to provide live, minute-by-minute coverage of the semifinal. It sounded like a weird idea for such a visual event. As it turned out, the coverage drew 40% of the site’s audience that day. Since then, 20minutes.fr repeated the feat many times, always to high scores (it helps that the execution is flawless).

This new genre has been applied to all sorts of events, such as the battle for the control of the French Socialist party two weeks ago. This political drama, unfolding in the middle of the night, was much more compelling when followed through live blogging, rather than by radio or all-news TV. The conventional media appeared out of sync (to say nothing of newspapers having to wait 36 hours before publishing their own account, well reported, no doubt, but almost useless).
What’s next for live blogging? Mashups.

Mixing news (text, photos, videos), with maps, graphs, timelines, is one of the next big things on the Net (for at least six months). For a good implementation of the idea, see this amazing application called Dipity. It is a timeline dynamically fed by all the crowd-powered news you can think of (Flickr, Digg, YouTube and, of course, Twitter), plus any RSS feed you need. Just set the news feed on the event you want, and it adds up automatically. You can, of course, embed your Dipity feed on your site or blog (see here for examples)

Now comes the time to delve into the mundane: Who makes money with this?

Short answer: Nobody does.

Twitter enjoys a stunning growth: about 3 millions users, a gain of 343% in one year, according to CNET. Great.

The two-year old venture is financed by capitalists who coughed up $20 million in several rounds (the last one at a $98 million valuation).

Twitter is not Facebook and has a much more modest burn rate: a staff of 17, no huge photo library requiring thousands of servers, just short bursts of text. Still, Twitter endures the pains that come with its fast rise. Recently, it undertook a management reshuffle as its financial backers were bluntly dismissing the business model query: “It’s like the stupidest question in the world,” said Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures in Wired. “It’s like, ‘How was Google going to make money?’”

Well, it seems we’re back to the usual trick: First, get the audience and monetize later. Except that, in the current context (the collapse, volume and price, of the ad market), the trick gets harder, especially on Twitter’s grand scale.

And the comparison with Google is nonsense. Google offers an unparalleled service, to the casual user as well as to thousands of businesses, which are making money (or getting traffic) with it. No such thing with Twitter. Better find something else, for instance charging hard dollars for legions of corporations considering Twitter for business uses. That’s what Yammer does, though on a much smaller scale.

These uncertainties evidently were not a deterrent for Facebook. It reportedly offered to acquire Twitter for $500million, mostly in stock (Facebook itself is a privately held company). Not a good idea: valuing Facebook’s share is a lottery game (see Monday Note #60). The talks collapsed a month ago, according to the Wall Street Journal blog All Things Digital.

That was not necessarily a bad thing for Facebook: Execs quoted by All Things D said “if Twitter was offered to Facebook’s 120 million users, Twitter’s new owner might have to deal with huge SMS fees, $75 million annually.” This is because Twitter relies a lot on text-messages in the US market.

While eyeballs do add up in the millions, monetization remains elusive. Probably for a long time.


Blogger 10ksnooker said...

Yes, but then there is the issue of what is true and what is deliberately misleading ... Most haven't the education to filter the clutter.

Perfect way to spread rumor, fear and misdirection.

Who wants to bet that next time ...

8:49 AM  
Blogger Rob M said...

I've yet to see what Twitter does that can't be done even easier with e-mail -- assuming a site can create and control their own mailing lists. Everyone has e-mail, so readers don't have to sign up for a separate service. You (the news outlet) don't have to co-brand your product with Twitter if you don't want another brand name in there. And best of all, you have total control over how much or how little text is sent out.

Twitter is a neat toy for teens and college kids who want to be able to tell everyone to meet them at the skate park, and/or want to show off how many people are their online "friends." As a medium for delivering breaking news it's constrained, co-opted and complicated.

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...Newspaper accounts from the Mumbai incident were contradictory and factually wrong in many ways. It was reported, variably, that 7 Brits were amongst the terrs, that the terrs were focusing on foreigners, that the Mombai Police were engaged in hunting down the terrs. Most of this has been refuted by the paucity of dead foreigners and the Indian Governments claim that all the Terrs were from Pakistan. We know now from first hand accounts that the Mumbai Police were inactive and it was the Army's special forces that broke the seige. The television coverage I saw depended on looped film of the taj hotel burning, a police van speeding by, spewing bullets into a cowering crowd and the bloody floor of a train station. As the coverage progressed, anchors would descibe the latest information and continually reshow those films.
...I felt illserved with news and repulsed at the use of those films to fill in the gaps of information. Next time I'll try twitter.

2:16 PM  

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