Twitter for Newsrooms: first impressions

Tonight Twitter released a set of guides for newsrooms. There’s going to be a lot said about them in the next few days I’m sure, and it’ll be a while before we see what impact (if any) they have on the news ecosystem. But here are a few first impressions, in no particular order.

  • Newsrooms, not (just) journalists. This isn’t just about newsgathering, it’s about process and presentation too.
  • This is basic stuff – tools, examples, glossary, links, support. That’s as it should be, I reckon. The newsroom denizens who understand Twitter well enough to build their own techniques are still vastly in the minority. This is about bridging a gap.
  • The examples of engagement are very well-chosen indeed, and it’s genuinely heartening to see a range of reporters from the internationally renowned to the metro beat, with follower count ranges to match. I hope they keep this list up to date.
  • There’s that word “branding” again, providing more fuel for the ongoing branding debates. This is good basic advice about making yourself recognisable and accessible on Twitter, but I suspect a fair few journalists will bristle at the problematic word.
  • The focus when it comes to reporting is on the @acarvin style of curation and publication, not on live reporting or on breaking your own news. There’s a small section on mobile reporting, but the bulk of the reporting guide is around tapping into pre-existing communities, building on top of citizen journalism work, and finding sources. That looks a little like a missed opportunity to tout the real power of Twitter as a direct conduit for breaking news.
  • I’m glad Twitter is making more of its advanced search tools. They’re immensely useful for journalists, but unless you already know about them they’re next to impossible to use. Including them here, prominently, is smart. And it’s wise to explain there’s a difference between Top and All tweets, even if it’s still not clear what “most relevant” means in this context.
  • Twitter is protecting/building its brand. Some of these guidelines are about making sure the platform gets credit for quotes and information shared there. Others offer ways to embed Twitter functionality on news sites. It reminds me of Facebook’s Open Graph plugins, in a nascent and very specific way – proliferating its own platform while performing useful functions. Aiming to become needed, where it isn’t already.

The paywall debate

The Wall An interesting post extolling the virtues of the paywall by Julien Rath as part of’s excellent TNTJ group blog has really gotten me thinking. Not because I agree – far from it – but it’s finally forced me to put into words my own views on the massive paywall debate. I don’t like them. I don’t think that most papers have ever been bought on the basis of the news content – or even the op-ed and columns. (Sometimes the columns – Bridget Jones springs to mind – but rarely, and certainly not enough to subsidise an entire paper.) Asking people to pay on the web for things they don’t necessarily value enough to pay for in print – this seems pointless to me. There’s a laundry list of ideological complaints about paywalls. They trap journalism behind a wall, cutting off access to information in a terribly anti-open-web sort of way. They create gated communities where dissent is unlikely and where the turbulent streams of the open web can’t intrude – for better or worse. They ensure a sort of private members’ club that cuts off those who can’t or don’t want to pay, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on your point of view.

Ideology aside, my most basic reason for disliking paywalls is business based. We have declining circulation in print, which means very few new paper readers will come to our websites based on what we’ve put in our newspapers. One of the obvious ways to gather new readers therefore is online, getting young people used to seeing our content linked on Facebook, Twitter, social networks they belong to and appreciate, in the hope that we can drive brand loyalty through those platforms and maybe, eventually, a few of those people will start reading the paper. What happens to that model if there’s no accessible content online? It dies. What’s the plan to attract new readers to your brand above all others if it’s all behind a paywall? I haven’t yet seen one that works. It doesn’t matter how well-written or wonderful your editorials are – if no one can link to them they aren’t going to drive new traffic to your site. Breaking news content online will rarely if ever be unique outside exceptionally specialist circles. Commentary, analysis, feature articles are more “valuable”, but very rarely irreplaceable given the vast amount of alternative and specialist content available for free elsewhere. And many news consumers now read what their social circle reads and links. We come through that to like personalities or subject-specific content, but that’s not the same as a brand loyalty – I read Charlie Brooker and the Guardian Datablog regularly, but that doesn’t mean I ever read the Guardian homepage. Paying for the whole Times website when I just want Caitlin Moran doesn’t make a lot of sense to me – especially when I can’t search for Times content using my normal methods (Google) and no one else links me to it because it’s all behind a wall, so I’d have to go hunting for it specifically if I wanted to include it in my daily reading. If many other net users are like me then they won’t be willing to pay for a whole bundle when what they want is one strand. I’m more open to the idea of limited paywalls on sites like the proposed New York Times one, where only very regular readers – the folks who are already brand loyal – get charged for content. I still think they do more harm than good, because at that point you’re essentially punishing people for liking you too much. If the expectation is that content is free, suddenly charging is going to irritate people and drive them away from engaging too strongly. Yes, journalists need to be paid for what we do. We need to eat and live, after all. I’m interested in the idea of micropayment systems that let me pay pennies at a time for content from any one of hundreds of news sources – from specialist science papers via Athens through the Financial Times through the Sun, I suppose, pretty soon. I’m interested in untapped affiliation potential – ticket sales, restaurant bookings, holidays, iTunes links next to band reviews. We can still make money from picture sales, family notices and so on, but we can do it in new ways – like the death notices my paper has set up where a single payment gets you not just the notice in the paper but also a living page that remains as a permanent and changing tribute. And that’s before we get into serious targetted advertising solutions, or the content changes that have got the Mail Online to where it is today. [Edit to clarify: I’m not suggesting that any one of these is a magic bullet that will save the news industry. I’m simply pointing to possible multiple revenue streams that I feel are worth exploring to see whether they could go some way towards paying for news.] I’m not Rupert Murdoch. I haven’t sat in front of the figures or done the maths with real audience numbers, so like most other people I’m just having a good old reckon. Still, I reckon there are better ways forward than paywalls. What do you think?

Dummy demolition

Alison Gow recently wrote an excellent post suggesting that newsrooms should get rid of the dummy – the page plan that tells print new teams what space we need to fill in the paper and where.

She said:

Everywhere I’ve worked it’s been called something different – The Book, The Plan, The Dummy, the Flatplan – but recently I’ve started wondering if it should be called The Box, because we think inside it.

… the HOW of filling a newspaper can become more absorbing and demanding than the WHAT …

…I would love to hear the phrase ‘How many words do you want?’ replaced with ‘How do you want this told?’ Is that happening on any editorial floors in the UK’s regional press yet? I’d love to know – because that really would be a converged newsroom.

I’d love to know too. As a general print journalist without an official specialism – and as a trainee, too – I’m not yet at the stage where the demands of the dummy consume my day as much as they do the content editors who have to fill its hungry boxes.

But the demands are becoming more apparent. We’re in the process of switching from a Microsoft Word-based CMS to Atex, built around InCopy and InDesign – and designed to allow reporters to write directly onto the page.

In effect, that means many stories have to be written to an exact length. Things weren’t particularly flexible for us before – we were writing to imaginary boxes 30cm or 8cm or sometimes 450 words long – but we could tweak our stories if we discovered they were “worth less” than we thought. That’s still going to be possible, but not as easy. Instead of writing the story to whatever length reporters felt was best and letting subs pick the right story lengths to fill the page, we’re now starting to see a situation where we have to work out how long our story will be before we begin to write it and set pen to paper.

It’s a different way of working and it may well suit some journalists better than it does me. But for me, the psychological impact of writing a story into a box is that I find myself stretching stories to fit, squeezing an extra quote or two in or lopping off a few facts.

And I have to change that. If stories are too long or too short then they’re in the wrong box, and I have to move them to fit. But that process has illuminated for me the problems of writing for boxes in the first place, especially for the web. If we write the boxed-in print version first, the web version will never flow the way it could given the unlimited space we have there to play in.

Allen Ginsberg once said – though I can’t find a cite online for it, I’m informed by a university tutor – that the length of a line of poetry can be constrained by the paper you write on. (Another beat poet, LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, wrote him a letter on a length of toilet paper afterwards.) His argument was that the words should fit the breath instead.

Boxes constrain and limit us, and force unnatural shapes onto the writing process. No matter how many journalists, editors and newsrooms begin to break away from the dummy and start asking how we can tell stories instead of what shape they should be, if the technology we use keeps dragging us back there, journalists will still be writing 30cm page leads first and thinking about everything else – including innovating for the web – as secondary.