Twitter  "Algorithms have consequences." Zeynep Tufekci on Ferguson and net neutrality:  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Twitter, the conversation-enabler? Actually, most news orgs use the service as a glorified RSS feed

A new Pew study finds news outlets using Twitter almost exclusively for one-way distribution — of their own content.

As much as we tout Twitter for its conversational abilities — for its revolutionary capacity to create discursive, rather than simply distributive, relationships with news consumers — many major news organizations are still using the service as, pretty much, a vehicle for self-promotion. A new study, released today by Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, studied 13 news organizations, large and (relatively) small, from print, TV, and radio…and found that “mainstream news organizations primarily use Twitter to move information and push content to readers. For these organizations, Twitter functions as an RSS feed or headline service for news consumers, with links ideally driving traffic to the organization’s website.”

Fully 93 percent of the postings over the course of the week offered a link to a news story on the organization’s own website.

And they really mean primarily using Twitter for self-promo. “On the main news feeds studied,” the report says, “fully 93 percent of the postings over the course of the week offered a link to a news story on the organization’s own website.”

There are some caveats here, the main one being that 13 isn’t, in the scheme of things, a huge sample, particularly given the many discrepancies between news outlets’ sizes and shapes. (The study examined 37 different Twitter feeds across the organizations it examined — the main institutional feeds, as well as breakout accounts — for a total of 3,646 individual tweets.) The findings are also based on a single week of Twitter usage — the week of February 14, 2011, to be exact — chosen, the report explains, because “it resembled a typical news week, as opposed to one absorbed with a major breaking news event.” And while most major news orgs have adopted social media strategies that have resulted in general week-over-week regularity when it comes to the number and type of tweets they post, tweets are still, ultimately, like the news itself: ad hoc, responsive to external events, and, therefore, subject to change. A week-o-tweets can definitely be revealing; it’s not, however, terribly conclusive.

Because of that, the report’s findings should be read less as sweeping determinations about news outlets’ Twitter practices and more as a revealing analysis of a particular, Twitterfied moment in time.

Still, though. As a microscopic — and, also, telescopic — look into news outlets’ Twitter practices, the study’s findings offer a pretty strong counterargument to the assumption that social media in general, and Twitter in particular, are ushering in a golden age of audience engagement, democratic discourse, etc., etc. To wit:

  • “Researchers found that retweeting is rare, and retweets do not often originate outside the news organization. Only 9 percent of the tweets examined were retweets. Of these, 90 percent originally appeared on another Twitter feed connected to the same news organization such as a section feed, reporter’s feed or, in the case of television networks, another show on the network. In all, only 1 percent of tweets studied originated from an entity outside the news organization.”
  • “More than 98 percent of the tweets studied from The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, The Huffington Post, The Daily Caller and NPR included links” [i.e., were spreaders of content, rather than conveyers of simple conversation].
  • “The Washington Post, the most active news organization studied on Twitter, regularly used hashtags (21 percent of tweets studied included at least one hashtag) to categorize tweets. Fox News and the two local newspapers, The Toledo Blade and The Arizona Republic, used hashtags even more. By contrast, some outlets, including those that had a high volume of tweets like The New York Times and NPR, almost never used hashtags.”

These would seem to indicate, to varying degrees, a general insularity in news outlets’ Twitter feeds — the same kind of insularity that’s often on display on those outlets’ websites. In fact, the report’s authors Tom Rosenstiel and Amy Mitchell point out, organizational Twitter feeds are pretty much mimicking the general link-o-phobia that plagued news organizations as they first tried to figure out the web. “Initially, news organizations, worried about losing audience, rarely linked to content outside their own web domain,” they write. “Now, the idea is that being a service — of providing users with what they are looking for even if it comes from someone else — carries more weight. It bears watching whether Twitter use for mainstream news organizations evolves in this same way.”

It does. And yet it’s strange that, despite lessons learned about the logic of the web, Twitter is still being used — again, by the outlets studied — as a one-way distribution mechanism. It’s also strange that, despite Twitter’s obvious, and much-lauded, reporting capacities, the studied outlets don’t seem to be capitalizing on the tool’s information-gathering abilities. “Just 2 percent of the tweets from the main news feed analyzed were information-gathering in nature — seeking views or first-hand accounts from readers,” the report notes. In fact, “even the most active outlets rarely or never solicited information from their followers. Less than 1 percent of the tweets from The New York Times, 3 percent from The Washington Post, and 3 percent from The Huffington Post (one of two online-only news outlets studied) solicited information.”

There are lots of reasons for that, the most obvious being that most reporters do their Twitter reporting through both breakout accounts and personal Twitter feeds. Which makes much more sense, for the most part, than using the massive institutional feeds to find sources, both from the perspective of protecting source relationships and from the perspective of not annoying your followers (a particular consideration when you have, like the Times, multiple millions of them). But then! “Individual reporters,” the study announces, “were not much more likely than the news institutions to use Twitter as a reporting tool or as a way to share information produced by those outside their own news organization. An examination of the Twitter feeds of 13 individual journalists — the most followed at each outlet studied — found that 3 percent of the tweets solicited information, a similar rate as the institutions overall.”

Less than 1 percent of the tweets from The New York Times, 3 percent from The Washington Post, and 3 percent from The Huffington Post solicited information.

Of course, “this is not to say that news organizations are not tapping into public sentiment on Twitter through other means. News staff may well be reading, even sometimes doing so on air, the comments posted by their followers. And reporters may have their own list of Twitter feeds that they check regularly,” the study notes. I’d suspect that’s correct. Still, though, from the perspective of the dichotomy between the journalist and the journalistic institution…it’s remarkable how conservatively organizations and individuals alike seem to be availing themselves of the opportunities Twitter offers.

And it’s worth wondering whether news outlets’ need to be institutional is hampering their ability to be, also, conversational. The outlets that, within Pew’s sample, exhibited the most obvious indicators of audience engagement — active solicitations for information, the use of hashtags to convene and reach out to particular communities, and the like — are also the smaller outlets, and/or the outlets with a more explicitly political orientation. While 1 percent of The New York Times’ tweets aimed to gather information from followers during the week studied, 21 percent of Fox News’ tweets did. And while 2 percent of The New York Times’ tweets used hashtags that week, 50 percent of Fox News’ tweets did. That’s not to say that the NYT should become more like the FNC; it is to say, though, that the Times might be missing something by not being more Fox-like. One of the hallmarks of our digital tools is their ability not only to connect people with other people, but also to connect people with organizations — and, ideally, vice versa. While news outlets are right to be strategic in their approaches to social media, it’d be great to see them thinking a little less about distribution…and a little more about conversation.

What to read next
BuzzFeed HQ
Caroline O'Donovan    Aug. 11, 2014
With a new round of investment from Andreessen Horowitz, the viral giant aims to get even bigger. One step down that path: making it more clear to readers what kinds of content BuzzFeed really offers.
  • Donnie Berkholz

    Considering how often journalists seem to get fired for “exposing” that they are actual humans with real opinions rather than objective robots, no wonder they don’t do much besides broadcast their own articles. It’s just a matter of self-conservation.

  • SBAnderson

    Not much has changed since the mid-90s, when Jon Katz so eloquently put it in Wired: Watching newpsapers trying to get digital is “like watching Lawrence Welk at a rap concert.” 

  •!/berfrois Russ

    Not our tweets!

  • Dorrine Mendoza

    This may be off-topic, but I thought Twitter was supposed to be the great equalizer, meaning all media organizations would be given equal weight or consideration to some extent. And that “everyone” is now a publisher, or at least has the potential to be one. We are a small news organization with 6k+ followers (@nctimes) and we do a fair job of engaging our readers on Twitter, and using it as a customer service tool. Studies like this make it seem as if we don’t get it when in fact – some of us do.

  • Stefanie Murray

    Dorrine: I really agree with the last sentence of your comment. I still find the study useful, but agree there are many of us out there using Twitter in much better ways than the study might lead someone outside the news industry to believe. At the Detroit Free Press, @freep, we’re pretty active in engaging the community and are working to train our staff to do the same on both personal and corporate accounts they each run.

  • chris722

    99 percent of my tweets are my own articles.  and I am still getting followers.  the thing about twitter, is that they don’t care if they actually have a conversation with you.  they just want the information that you are putting out there.  if you follow back who follows you, and unfollow those that unfollow you, you can stay above the fray on twitter.

    twitter is not just for self-promotion by news organizations.  twitter is for self-promotion for individuals in general, far more than facebook could ever be.  i did form some deep relationships in the first year of twitter, but i do not even remember their names now.  twitter is a haven for marketers, promoters, hustlers, and those who love them. 

    to be fair, people just do not want deep, meaningful, conversation on the Internet. they want to play games. and twitter, and all of the other social networks out there, is just another game that they are playing. people learn the rules of engagement, they figure out what works, and what doesn’t, and they behave themselves accordingly. there is nothing meaningful about any of the social networks; in fact twitter is about the only place that you could theoretically, Spam someone, without them considering it as Spam, because they like what you are putting out there. it is what it is.

    you do have to occasionally converse with people on twitter, but i would gather than 90 percent of twitter is on auto-pilot, 8 percent are playing games, 1 1/2 percent are “figuring it out” and 1/2 percent are having meaningful conversation.

  • chris722

    it is the great equalizer, but how do you want to use it?  most people use twitter in a matter that is totally inconsistent with the vision that was set out, and the ethos that was being promoted, by the founders and the early pioneers when it started.  twitter has become “ghetto” so to speak, and the MySpace of social networking.  there are organizations such as your own that use it creatively, but the amount of self-promotion, without any response from the being that are being sold to, is staggering.  outside of “twitter jail”, there is no reason to use it responsibly. 

    blogging is the great equalization of the publishing platform, twitter is the great equalization of the distribution network.

  • Andrew Selbst

    You seem to be onto something in that last paragraph. The institutional organizations always feel the need to appear above the fray, objective, and thus impersonal. Never will a Times news writer use “I” in a story. To connect with the author directly like that would tear another hole in this idea that the news people are inhuman, objective observers, by showing us their faces. Connecting with people will accelerate the destruction of the appearance of objectivity, and in so doing, perhaps these news organizations, whose authority has for eight decades come from objectivity itself.

  • Andrew Selbst

    I should read the comments before posting. It seems I’m echoing the first comment. Sorry, Donnie.

  • Globalcombiz07

    How ca we do the same thing? I want to use the Twitter feed for

  • Anonymous

    Everybody has a voice – not everybody’s voice has the same value, if any.

  • Don Daszkowski may be a helpful tool to analyze the same type of data discussed in this article. They say 91% of Washington Post’s tweets are links:

    This is a great article. My partner and I had this discussion a few weeks ago. With all of the great tools available that tap into the Twitter API I am not sure how many users will find it relevant to go back to Twitter for conversation. The more research we do the more we realize a small percent of the activity is true interaction between users that involves no financial gain for themselves or their companies.

    Also, I just read a blog post on Google+ today from Robert Scoble on why he has abandoned his Twitter followers and does not interact with them anymore on Twitter. Here is what he had to say:

    “Twitter sucks for conversations. I am on Twitter every minute of every day, it streams down the side of my screens but it’s NOT APPROPRIATE to have conversations there, so who am I doing any favors to by answering there. Get over here (Google+) and have a real conversation.” (

  • Johnellisdublin

    Media posts on Twitter linking to their articles are informative. Makes reading Twitter really useful