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Nov. 14, 2011, midnight

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.

POSTED     Nov. 14, 2011, midnight
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