Journalists Adapt to Twitter World

Political correspondents Karen Tumulty and Jake Tapper take up tweeting.

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Twitter allots 160 characters to “bio” on its profile pages, but Time national political correspondent Karen Tumulty didn’t need that many for hers. “Trying to adapt,” she wrote.

Coming to Time in 1994 from the Los Angeles Times, Tumulty says, was “moving backwards in terms of immediacy” — that is, until Time’s big online effort in 2007. “They pushed me into blogging,” Tumulty admits. “I didn’t read blogs. I didn’t understand blogs.”

This story first appeared in the July 31, 2009 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

These days, Tumulty juggles traditional Time magazine responsibilities — this week, a cover story with an Oval Office interview on health care — with her posts on Time’s Swampland blog and on Twitter, where she follows relevant sources on politics and health care reform. “Trying to adapt” means adjusting to the expectation that everything be backed up by a link to direct evidence, that posts are organic and can be updated with more information — and that absolutely everything she reports on will be second-guessed. She often addresses criticisms directly in a post’s comments, mixing it up with her Twitter followers on everything from the Congressional Budget Office to the fit of Sonia Sotomayor’s jacket.

“It’s almost like the Socratic method of journalism,” Tumulty says. “If you approach it the right way, it makes you a better reporter, and it makes you a sharper thinker.”

The days of journalism as a one-way broadcast have long been over. It no longer matters if you buy ink by the barrel, as the old saying goes — anyone on the Internet can pick a fight, or start a conversation, with a journalist, and increasingly journalists are talking back.

Nowhere is this truer than on Twitter, with its speed and current zeitgeist credibility. If the Internet is already an intimidatingly (or thrillingly) informal and unhierarchical place for some old-line media folks, Twitter takes unfiltered accessibility to the next level.

Take ABC Senior White House correspondent Jake Tapper, no slouch on television or his blog, but who has taken to Twitter with almost manic productivity. Like many of his colleagues, he updates on breaking news, plugs his appearances and blog posts and jokes around with fellow reporters. He has had extensive exchanges with Sen. John McCain (also a devoted user) about the issues. And he holds conversations with a broad range of “regular” people with whom he otherwise might never interact, defending his coverage. “I have plenty of people following me who don’t seem to care for the media or for ABC News, and every day what I do as a journalist is being questioned. And that’s all great, because otherwise there’s no way to hear that kind of feedback,” he says. Twitter, he says, takes him outside “the elite chattering class.”

The White House press corps are often accused of insularity, but as its ranks enthusiastically adopt the form, they arguably increase transparency and accountability. And so far, many of them like it.

“In 30 years of radio I would get an occasional letter, almost never a phone call,” says longtime CBS Radio White House correspondent Mark Knoller. “It was hard to track me down — the CBS phone in the White House isn’t listed. But on Twitter everybody feels totally at ease telling me what they think.” He has responded to followers who, for example, accuse him of being too easy or too hard on the president, or who ask him questions drawing on his institutional memory of the White House since Gerald Ford.

No journalist gets paid extra to tweet, and there are plenty who still consider all this a taxing waste of time or a narcissistic diversion from thoughtful reporting or writing. But Greg Galant, a founder of Muckrack, a site that aggregates journalists’ Twitter feeds, compares it to a crime reporter going into the bar where cops drink. Engaging on Twitter also provides an instant forum for journalists to cement their personal brand in a world of eroding media job security, or to sound off instantly on or off their beats without waiting for an editor or the copydesk. “Journalists have always grumbled about having their work changed before the paper goes to press,” says Galant.

But while that unmediated conduit might appeal to reporters and writers, it’s precisely what led media companies like the Associated Press, Bloomberg and Dow Jones to issue stringent social media guidelines. Wall Street Journal parent Dow Jones’ guidelines took specific aim at unfiltered transparency and engagement: “Let our coverage speak for itself, and don’t detail how an article was reported, written or edited,” and “Business and pleasure should not be mixed on services like Twitter.”

But Galant pointed out that no publisher has outright prohibited its employees from using Twitter, or asked for approval for creating accounts, which he sees as recognition that it’s a valid tool for media experimentation.

Perhaps because demystification is hard to reconcile with glamour, there are fewer examples of fashion or style media personalities interacting with their audience on Twitter. Time Style & Design’s Kate Betts and Elle’s Anne Slowey are prolific tweeters, but almost never acknowledge any other users, whether by retweeting, responding or asking questions. Such interactivity is, of course, strictly optional, and in recent comments to The Daily Beast, Martha Stewart seemed to take particular pleasure in opting out of it: “First of all, you don’t have to spend any time on it,” she said of Twitter, adding, “I don’t have to ‘befriend’ and do all that other dippy stuff that they do on Facebook.”

Rachel Zoe — not a journalist, but now a media personality with a television show — does get in the muck, answering questions (“What do you think of denim jackets, in or out?”) and supplying fashion credits upon request. New York Times style critic Cathy Horyn isn’t on Twitter, but she has been known to engage regular commenters on her blog in conversation.

Of course, there is the legitimate concern that the loudest voices online aren’t always the ones worth addressing. “One thing you really have to control with yourself is that you don’t end up arguing with idiots,” says Rolling Stone contributing editor and television personality Touré, who has about 10,000 followers. “Very early on with Twitter I would try to win people over or I would try to engage them.…[But] my tent is too big now and you know what, it’s just pointless.”

Though celebrities more accustomed to a publicist’s filter have already embarrassed themselves, so far no journalist has gotten into career-ending trouble for Twitter unedited output. CNN anchor Rick Sanchez — a stalwart on Twitter who hosted the Shorty Awards for the best tweets this year — did manage to start a microcontroversy last week on his Twitter feed. Seemingly unprompted, he wrote, “if i didn’t believe in doing right thing, i’d be rich anchoring at fox news” and “do u know how much money i’d make if i’d sold out as hispanic and worked at fox news, r u kidding, one problem, looking in mirror.”

Perhaps because CNN has embraced new media with exuberance, or because all press is good press, or because he was taking shots at its rival, there were no apparent repercussions — besides Fox News snapping back (on and off Twitter).

And then, perhaps capturing the essence of the new communication form, Sanchez crowed, “im not scared anymore. and it feels great to be fearless.”


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