Osama Bin Laden and the New Ecosystem of News

As usual, when big news breaks these days — and the death of Osama bin Laden is definitely big news — plenty of people would like to give the credit to Twitter, and use the fact that news broke there first to make the mainstream press look slow and backward. While many traditional media outlets don’t really need any help looking slow and backward, the truth is that this is no longer about Twitter vs. TV or radio or newspapers (if it ever was). It’s about the reality of a new ecosystem of news, one in which the network effects of tools like Twitter and Facebook play an extremely powerful role — and one which can actually help the traditional media, if they will let it.

Many were eager to give Twitter credit for the first credible report about bin Laden’s death, which came from Keith Urbahn — former chief of staff to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld — at 10:24 p.m. EDT on Sunday, before either the New York Times or CNN had confirmed this was the news President Obama was expected to release in his scheduled address. However, Urbahn later pointed out the information he posted to Twitter actually came from a well-connected TV news producer. Said Urbahn:

Stories about the “death of MSM” because of my “first” tweet are greatly exaggerated.

This is one of the best examples yet of how interconnected Twitter has become with the rest of what we think of as media. Even CNN, which initially refused to report any of the rumors that were flying through the Twittersphere — leading to considerable frustration on the part of many of those watching — wound up giving credit to social media when they finally confirmed their own sources were reporting that bin Laden was dead. In addition to Twitter, some said they first heard about bin Laden through Facebook, which was also awash in status updates about the news.

Looking at it as an ecosystem instead of a competition reinforces the point that all of these things feed into each other: TV reports are spread through Twitter; news that breaks on Twitter forms a part of TV and newspaper reports that try to summarize what has happened; and so on. As one person put it Sunday night: “Twitter breaks news. TV covers it.” And leveraging the power of social media can help traditional news outlets find sources — like the guy who unwittingly tweeted about the bin Laden attack. Twitter and Facebook-style networks also helps the mainstream media distribute and promote their content — using network effects to their advantage.

At least one blogger said Twitter had experienced its “CNN moment” with the bin Laden news — a reference to what the all-news channel went through when it went mainstream during the Gulf War. But in fact, Twitter has had a long series of CNN-style moments over the past couple of years, going all the way back to Flight 1549 landing in the Hudson, followed by various disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti, and more recently, the uprisings and outright revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. In other words, the fact that Twitter is a news network is, well … not really news.

As my colleague Stacey pointed out in a post Sunday night, the process by which this kind of event filters out through Twitter has become so commonplace that it now proceeds in well-defined stages: the rumors, the news break, the confirmation, then the jokes and spinoff Twitter accounts (@OsamainHell, etc.) and so on. There’s no question that the bin Laden news was big, with more than 4,000 tweets per second at the peak during President Obama’s speech, but it was not unprecedented.

As I tried to point out during the initial frenzy about social media and the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, it’s not really about Twitter or Facebook; it’s about the power of the network. And the bin Laden case is yet another sign that the way we consume media has changed and is continuing to change.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Flickr user See-ming Lee