Memo to AP: Twitter is the newswire now

Updated: It’s a distributed digital-information network that gives subscribers short news updates in something approaching real time, whether on the web or a mobile device. If you said Twitter, you would be right. But that same description also fits traditional newswires like Associated Press and Reuters. So how are they trying to evolve and compete with this new social news service? According to an internal memo obtained by New York magazine, AP’s response is to admonish its reporters for posting news to Twitter instead of saving it for the company’s traditional wire-service subscribers — even though the news in question was about their own arrest in a crackdown on an Occupy Wall Street demonstration.
The events referred to in the memo took place on Tuesday at Zucotti Park in New York city, where demonstrators from the Occupy Wall Street movement were forcibly removed by police and prevented from re-entering the park. A number of journalists for both mainstream media outlets and web-based news sites such as DNAinfo were arrested or detained by the police during the ensuing fracas, including a reporter and a photographer for the Associated Press, and one or both appear to have posted comments about their arrest to their personal Twitter accounts (Update: According to an email from an AP spokesman, “the referenced comments were posted by other AP staffers, not the two journalists who were detained.”). The AP memo notes that this is against company policy because it involves a newsworthy event:

In relation to AP staff being taken into custody at the Occupy Wall Street story, we’ve had a breakdown in staff sticking to policies around social media [because] we have had staff tweet — before the material was on the wire — that staff were arrested.

A couple of things occurred to me when I read the New York magazine piece: one was that the Associated Press is fighting a losing battle if it is going to try and keep the news off Twitter or the web until it can publish something on the regular wire. As New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter — who has been at the vanguard of using Twitter (and Tumblr) for reporting on events like the tornado in Missouri — noted, if Twitter is beating the wire then maybe the wire should speed up. And how can you expect your reporters not to post comments about what is happening to them during such an event? That’s the whole point of Twitter in the first place.

If Twitter is beating your news wire, you have bigger problems

The other thing the Associated Press needs to think about is that if a 140-character post or two by one of your reporters on Twitter is a threat to your news service, then you have a problem that can’t be fixed by simply enforcing your social-media policies more stringently. This argument feels very similar to the debates that newspapers used to have when they first put up websites — about whether to post breaking news to their site, or “save” it for the paper. This was fundamentally a lose-lose situation, as most newspapers discovered, since saving it often involved others breaking the news first on their websites.
Reuters reporter Robert MacMillan made effectively the same point on Twitter, saying a news service that waits and tries to “save” the news for later is really just asking to be beaten by another service that decides not to wait. And Anthony De Rosa, the social-media editor for Reuters (the AP’s major competitor) wrote in a blog post that the wire service sees posting news to Twitter and other social networks as a key part of its business, not competition for the traditional wire:

To bury our head in the sand and act like Twitter… isn’t increasingly becoming the source of what informs people in real-time is ridiculous.

Not ridiculous to the AP, apparently. And the Twitter memo is only the latest example of the newswire’s discomfort with new-media tools: a recent update to its social-media policies forbid AP reporters from expressing an opinion on Twitter or any other social network, even by simply retweeting someone else’s comment. When it comes to adapting to the evolution of journalism online and using tools like Twitter to enhance that practice, it seems the Associated Press is happy to just watch the game from the sidelines.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Petteri Sulonen and Yan Arief Purwanto