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Twitter – New Media, or News Media?

Written by Tom Snyder | Posted on 23 July 2010

Topics: Blog

On, July 22nd a strong summer storm dropped over 7 1/2 inches of rain on parts of Southeastern Wisconsin in a two hour period.  The coverage of the effects of that storm went wall-to-wall all night with live on-scene reports of flooded basements, cars being carried away by water on roads that had become rivers, sinkholes eating SUVs, the airport closing, and a local burger joint being spared flood damage by a well-installed door that kept 3 feet of water from pouring into their establishment.

Oh yeah, and local TV covered it too.

The coverage I’m talking about was Twitter, as the community that provides the content for that Social Media outlet shifted into high gear. In so doing, it inadvertently became  a competitor..and facilitator…of one local TV station’s position as “Breaking News Leader.”

One of the big stories of the night was that of a huge sinkhole on Milwaukee’s East Side that swallowed a Cadillac Escalade. The local news carried the story, but the first media report didn’t come from a TV news crew. It came from a “reporter” named “@matt_is_a_nerd” who scooped all the other media outlets at 7:08 with his Tweet:

Before the local news was able to scramble their trucks to go set up a live shot, Twitterer “@theGlenn” published the first photo:

Minutes later,  @Mike_Thiel twitpic’ed the photo of the actual SUV in the hole that has since gone viral:

That photo ended up on all the local TV stations and by the next morning, even NBC’s Today Show was showing it. Other photos, including the now famous back door shot at AJ Bombers with three feet of water visible through the glass showed up on TV. But unlike broadcast TV and its “push to the masses” model, the viral buzz on Twitter gave people the opportunity to participate in the stories…sharing the stories with their own “take” attached, and in the case of the AJ Bombers photos creating a meme where people were encouraged to use their Photoshop skills to modify the photo to include various objects in the water behind the door. Entries included mermaids, turtles, oil leaks and other aquatic creatures.

As they always do, the local TV stations did an awesome job covering the news and human interest stories. Weathermen with the cool graphics, remote crews, cameras mounted on their towers and the access the media has to officials available for phone interviews gave them the edge that even Social Media couldn’t provide. But with a base of tens of thousands of “citizen reporters,” this storm demonstrated the new paradigm of Social Media as a bona fide news source, almost like the old teletype news wires that printed out stories from organizations like Associate Press and United Press International for anchors and reporters to “rip and read” on air.

Twitter, however, did more than just act as a news feed to TV stations. It also provided an amazing service to its members by being a news feed and information source to its own community. News of flooded basements spread and was responded to by people with generators and pumps, willing to brave the elements and come out and help.

A viral concern over the safety of local Twitter favorite @bootyp almost developed into a search party after these two Tweets:


She eventually arrived home safely, but not without dozens of posts expressing concern while everyone waited and worried to find out how that prime-time drama would end.

And just as Social Media provided the Local TV stations with content for their broadcast, a case of reciprocation also emerged as a local TV news anchor actually became an impromptu Twitter Anchor. @SusanKim4 provided her own news celeb sex tapes blurbs, infobits, and interacted with the community via Twitter throughout the night  just like she does every morning on the Wake-up News show on the local NBC affiliate.

In between on-air interviews with the local Media, the staff at Milwaukee Mitchell Airport was busy as people used Twitter not only to monitor conditions as the airport closed, reopened and closed again, but also assumed that they were there to answer individual questions:

@MitchellAirport is there a bus from Chicago midway to Mitchell airport. My @southwestair fly stranded here

@MitchellAirport is it possible to drive to the airport at this time…and is the airport closed to access from departing passengers?

@MitchellAirport what is the airport doing to get the water off the runway?

Dear @MitchellAirport Please open long enough for my husband to come in from Canada. We miss him. Sincerely, samdham.

Mitchell Airport actually became a trending topic on Twitter as even the local news media began to rely on their Twitter posts as their “official” statements with queries like this:

@MitchellAirport How are the ground (supersaver) lots looking? What will travelers return to?  @wisn12news

Eventually the waters subsided, but coverage still dominated and cross-pollinated both spheres the next day, further blurring the lines that separate traditional Electronic Media and Social Media. Life returned to normal. But will the relationship between New Media and Old Media ever go back to the way it was before?

As mobile devices become more powerful, and Social Media becomes more ubiquitous, one wonders where the trajectory will lead. Will it be further convergence and greater synergy, or will Social Media eventually overtake Traditional Media as the source of information for our society?  What are your thoughts?

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28 Comments Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Jim Thomas says:

    Great summary of social media’s impact on how news reporting and participation evolves. Out of town on business, I got this story by family accounts and Twitter, and it was amazing. The Twitter reporters took me to all corners of the area. My view is the convergence will continue between traditional and new media. That’s a big win for the users, no matter their chosen source for news. It’s an exciting time.

  2. Tom Snyder says:

    Thanks for your insight, Jim. As a former radio guy, part of me sometimes wishes that I could be back in the media on your side of things, taking advantage of all that the Web and Social Media brings to that party. But being a part of this side of Web and Social Media is still a pretty cool place to be. :)

  3. Laura Gainor says:

    Tom, great article. It amazes me everyday how Twitter has become a true news source. I joked with my colleague this morning that I was bored with TV news and that it was a little long and boring. I just want to hear a brief description of stories and be able to learn about a large amount of news in a short time, so I always look at Twitter to do that.

    I rarely go directly to a news website first. I typically see what people are talking about on Twitter to give live updates, such as I did last night for the Milwaukee storm. Using Twitipic and other Twitter photo platforms, is an excellent photo journalism tool. Everybody becomes photo journalists and reporters.

    Great post. Happy Friday!

    • Tom Snyder says:

      Thanks, Laura. I’m obviously (much) older than you, so I still watch way too much TV news. But I never watch TV without having my laptop with me, and I’m paying less attention to what’s on the tube and more to what’s on the monitor. I actually ended up missing out on the beginning of the coverage last night because with my Satellite out due to the storm, I was putzing with an antenna to get TV over the air… Man, am I old school, or what?

  4. Good analysis. Twitter was also a fantastic tool for the news gatherers. But another news media player now, in addition to the broadcast stations, are the “print” media thanks to online convergence. For example, it was Don Walker of the Journal Sentinel’s JSOnline Breaking News Hub who launched the #brewcityflood tag that brought all of Milwaukee’s flood contributors together in one place.

  5. Tom Snyder says:

    Great point, George. It’s been great to watch JSOnline embrace Web in general and more recently Social Media. Having that voice is critical to give print the parity they need to participate realtime and not have to wait for the “morning edition.”

  6. marjie says:

    George I was happy to see the hashtag #brewcityflood come on the scene. I had mentioned to Tom that we needed a hashtag for this and there it was. Good job JSOnline for jumping on that!

  7. Joe Sorge says:

    Tom,
    Great post, it was nearly a surreal experience to be a part of all that content generation while it was happening. There was NO way NOT to take notice of the micro example of something much, much bigger that last nights event represent. We were all consuming and creating content on the fly and the content itself in many corners of this story was in fact the story. It was amazing how far it spread, how many calls we received from friends across the globe who had seen what Milwaukee was going through.

    Katie’s (@bootyp) story was a very eye opening part of it as well, you only realize how closely together social tools can bring you to one person when that person is in need or danger. And no less then a few hundred people were laser focused on her twitter stream for over an hour all collectively pulling for her, just amazing.

    Thanks again for bringing this to the surface and in this light Tom, it’s your analytical sense that makes all of us more aware of the changes all around us.

    Joe

  8. Tom Snyder says:

    Thanks, Joe!

    The fact that it still is a story shows that we have a long way to go. I still encounter way too many people who still have no idea what Twitter even is. But just like the 87% of all businesses polled at the time I started my company who said they would never have a need for the Web, eventually they too will come around.

    Events like this, and stories like yours will make enough noise and have enough impact that they’ll provide the impetus.

  9. Tom, you do a wonderful job explaining how a community can gather together using social media tools to relay information, particularly in breaking news situations. This is so invaluable, especially when people’s safety is at stake.

    Let’s not forget that the news stations — and the newspaper and its web site, which you don’t reference at all — also do an invaluable service by verifying what is and is not true and by being a conduit for that information for the wider community (more than 2 million views by noon today, in fact), much of which is not on Twitter.

    While you may have first heard about an Escalade in a hole via a tweet, it was the Journal Sentinel that did the reporting and relayed a first witness account of the rescue of the driver from the hole. Mark Pawlik graciously shared his story and his photographs with us. And this was what was picked up by the national media.

    What’s worth noting, Tom, is not some kind of an everyman vs. big media dynamic but rather the ways in which individuals, local officials and media can collaborate.

    (To be transparent about things — I was the JS staffer who reported from the sinkhole).

    • Tom Snyder says:

      Please don’t take the omission personally. :)

      Over the decades, Radio, TV and Newspapers as a source of information have appealed to different types of individuals for different reasons. It’s fascinating to watch the shift caused by the emergence of the Web and Social Media, and the unique impact it has on each of those media. Watching expanded TV news during a weather event is a tradition that’s apparently ingrained in some of us as deeply as our DNA. My curiosity was peaked by how Social Media was impacting that specific tradition last night and just inspired me to write about that aspect.

      I also read and enjoyed the JS coverage of the event this morning. As a fan of “The Paper” since I was thirteen (yes, 43 years ago), I also have a fascination with the shift as it impacts the newspaper business (as well as your business’s response to that shift). Your point about verification is an important one…for those to whom verification and amplification trumps fast, immediate and possibly wrong.

      All of that will no doubt be fodder for another blog in the near future.

      P.S. Congratulations on your awards!

  10. Susan Kim says:

    Great insight into what was happening during #brewcityflood! I agree, it was fascinating to watch the convergence of traditional TV and people’s voices via twitter during a huge breaking news story. That’s when twitter can be so fabulous! Everyone’s telling a story… from some great pictures to what they’re seeing in their backyard. I started tweeting from my living room, watching our coverage and sending a couple twitter pics to the newsroom. It wasn’t until a couple followers said their TV was out and what did I know, that I realized what a critical information tool twitter was at that moment. @albo60s lives in Eagle and I tweeted him the time the storm cell was supposed to move through because his TV was out. He tweeted back a pic of his basement. It was great! As Mary Louise mentioned, the paper did a fabulous job. I think our on-air crew, especially Mike, Carole, and John Malan, was exceptional that night. And I love the reference of ‘twitter anchor!’ Twitter was also part of the fabric of the night and it was created before our very eyes.

    • Tom Snyder says:

      Thanks for popping in here, Susan. You all did a great job. There are so many slow news days when it’s hard to fill the available space with compelling, meaningful content. And then there are events like this where everyone gets to step up and show what they’re made of. TV, Newspaper, Radio, and yes, even Social Media rose to the challenge. It was amazing to watch it work together. Everyone should be proud.

  11. As you know, I am a HUGE fan of Twitter. There are so many uses for the micro-blogging site – from sharing personal updates to passing along vital information, or even sharing your favorite photos or songs. While I have a degree in Journalism and believe that “real” Journalism really can only come from credible sources and certified reporters, I don’t think that Twitter can’t be considered a supplement to “real” news.

    We have basically become a nation of “instant information.” It’s difficult to sit in front of the television for 30 minutes to wait for a “breaking news” story to be reported fully, when we could easily log on to Twitter and search for that topic to receive up-to-the-minute updates from “citizen reporters.” When I got back to Oshkosh on Thursday evening, I turned on the Milwaukee news channels to see the coverage they were providing on the “Brew City Flood.” However, at the same time I was on my computer, logged on to Twitter to see what my followers were saying. The content that my followers provided, be it TwitPics, TwitVids or short updates, was more beneficial to me than watching the reports on TV. In my opinion, the news stations’ reports seemed “slow.” By this, I mean that each story would last a few minutes, with some b-roll footage of flooding streets and floating cars, and a somewhat lengthy report from the news crew. I then turned to Twitter to get the necessary information that I needed. “A sinkhole swallowed an Escalade!” “Here’s a picture of the car in the sinkhole.” “I haven’t ever seen a storm like this in my life!” The information on Twitter was to the point and provided exactly what I was looking for.

    In general, I still rely on the television news and newspapers to receive in-depth reports and guaranteed credible information. Because reporters in the television and newspaper industries have been educated and know the guidelines and rules to reporting, I trust them more with what they have to say than with what a “random” person on Twitter has posted. But in the case of breaking news and the need for instant updates, I will most likely turn my computer on before my television.

    • Tom Snyder says:

      I appreciate your input Chelsey. Great to get the perspective of a young degreed, and innately Web-savvy journalist. You guys are the ones who will be facilitating the transition of Media from what old folks like me have grown up with, to a new media model that acknowledges and understands the sensibilities of a generation that’s coming that will be totally post print, post 24 hour newscycle. Some will fight it, but for me it will be exciting to watch that torch get passed.

  12. Bill says:

    Great post and observations about Twitter being more real time than any other medium. It is really an awesome time now that traditional ‘breaking news’ broadcasters turn to and rely upon people on the scene via new media.

    My concern though relates to the infrastructure stability of social networks like Twitter when there is a National or Global event. Something as popular as the iPhone4 launch was enough to shut down Twitter and Ustream. For the new mediums to be a real long term replacement to broadcast, the infrastructure needs a lot of work.

    • Tom Snyder says:

      Thanks Bill. The rapid growth of Social Media and its periodic inability to support its own traffic evokes memories of some of the infrastructure problems that faced the Web in general. Events like the first Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show webcast in 1995 or even recently Michael Jackson’s death caused stress on the Internet. As the owner of a company that hosts hundreds of client Web sites I’m constantly enhancing the reliability and capabilities of our own infrastructure. We can only hope that the the YouTubes, Twitters and Foursquares of the world are doing the same.

  13. Amy Jahns says:

    Thank you for posting this blog. It inspired me to write a blog on the importance of Social Media during storms. So many times, people are unable to receive important information on the weather due to power outages or knocked out satellite dishes. Working in local news, I don’t know how many times I’ve reported the number of We Energies customers without power and then thought…these are the people that need the latest news the most. With the popularity of internet ready cell phones, I’m hoping journalists and citizen journalists will use social media to provide that information to the desperate in their time of need.
    I did link your blog in my blog. http://bit.ly/bMpl3e

    • Tom Snyder says:

      Thanks, Amy. Like I commented on your blog, having watched the old media initially resist the Web, and to a lesser extent Social Media, it’s great to see all of you embracing it now in an ever growing way. It’s an important and exciting shift.

  14. Katie says:

    Twitter in itself is a pretty cool phenomenon for tons of reasons – but the people who use the service, make it absolutely amazing.

    The love & appreciation for my friends (yes I am going to use the word friends here, they are certainly way more than followers to me) I’m fortunate to converse with on Twitter, were cemented even more after I had a chance to catch up on the posts I missed.

    All I wanted to do was make it home before the nasty weather got even worse. I never expected to be caught in it.

    The unbelievable amount of genuine concern & support from my friends still overwhelms me. Posts turned into direct messages, which turned into text messages, that also turned into phone calls – just to make sure that I had made it out ok. A good number of these people were experiencing storm-related issues in their own homes/businesses. Yet they still checked-in to see if I had made it home safe. Wow. Just wow. To everyone out there – thank you.

    If anyone ever had any doubts about the value of Twitter, I hope they come across all of the stories (in print, online & TV/Radio) that illustrates just how awesome & diverse of a community the people on Twitter really are.

    It truly is relationship building in 140 characters or less.

    Katie

    • Tom Snyder says:

      We were half-expecting TMJ4 to flash a breaking news graphic: “@bootyp missing, Social Media community all a-Twitter.”

      While my thoughts here focused on the “Media” aspect of Twitter, your experience reminds us of the “Social” part. It really is those relationships that empower that community to be the force it has become.

  15. Mike Collins says:

    Moments before I posted this comment congratulating you on an excellent post, twitter scooped me by saying, “@MRC58 congratulates Tom for publishing an excellent post!”

    • Tom Snyder says:

      Hey Mike: I’m wondering where the news media was on Saturday. Apparently a couple gorillas were seen on Milwaukee’s East Side attacking folks at a bar on Belleview with musical instruments. Somehow they missed that story.

  16. Kyler Burgi says:

    I’m sorry I can’t attribute this, but someone tweeted that night “Storms are much more fun with Twitter”. I’m certainly not trying to be casual about the disaster, but that was totally my thought as well.

    Driving home from Brookfield in the storm, I found myself checking the feed to plan a route home. And once I got safely to my couch, I was surfing 3 different channels and refreshing the feed way past my bed time. I couldn’t get enough.

    I absolutely agree it is a win-win for viewers, but I also share the concern about attribution and accuracy, but there are certain situations where reliability is less of a concern. Traditional media simply can’t be everywhere during massive events (floods, blizzards, large fires, plagues of locusts). But social media isn’t real good at providing perspective, the big picture, and expert information. It will be interesting to see how the relationship between the two matures, but while they duke it out and figure out how to co-exist, users will continue to benefit big time.

    • Tom Snyder says:

      Thanks for the comment, Kyler. And best wishes on your move from WISN to law school.

      Attribution and accuracy with Social Media is definitely a concern, but there are some who feel that traditional media sometimes can lack objectivity and neutrality as well. And as someone who has been mis-quoted and inaccurately covered by the media dozens of times over my life, sometimes accuracy can be a problem too. I’m thinking the real “win” will be the checks and balances the two of them will provide each other.

  17. Amy says:

    Tom-

    It’s amazing what Twitter has done for local news, and really news organizations on a global level.

    For me, it was last summer that Milwaukee news organizations finally *got* the value of social media.

    When the MPD officers were shot on the south side, we were all scrambling for information, photos and video. Then here comes @mrc58 (mrcollins back then), twitpic-ing photos from the scene. Within minutes, we were using his photos on television and shortly thereafter, we had him doing a phone interview live.

    I think we’re all just scratching the surface of what SM can do for local news… and what local news can do for SM.

  18. Tom Snyder says:

    Absolutely, Amy!

    We’ve always had Newstip hotlines, but Social Media just seems to facilitate a faster, easier access and a higher level of trust. And with the ability to transmit photos and video it provides an incredibly robust channel. Early one morning last summer, I turned on the morning news to see a house fire in my old neighborhood. I have never called in a news tip, but before I even thought twice, I found myself DMing the station with info on who the on-scene reporters could contact for a back story.

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