Twitter and the incredible shrinking news cycle

In the not-so-distant past, news generally tended to travel in a few well-worn paths. It was reported by a newspaper, it appeared on television at noon or 6 p.m. or it was mentioned on a drive-time radio show — and those involved usually had plenty of time to report it and produce it. The arrival of CNN and 24-hour news changed all of that, however, and Twitter and Facebook have changed it again: Now the news is just as likely to appear in a tweet or to be posted as a status update by someone who is directly involved in the event. In a nutshell, this means that the value of a simple “scoop” or breaking news report is declining rapidly — and that might just be a good thing.

In one of the most recent examples, the news of singer Whitney Houston’s death at the age of 48 was broadcast far and wide via Twitter and Facebook long before it showed up on most mainstream media outlets. Not only that, but what seemed to be one of the first reports about her death — posted about an hour before the news was reported by a traditional news outlet — included potentially important details about the circumstances that were not revealed until hours later, such as the fact that she was found in a hotel bathtub. The source of the tweet appeared to be someone whose aunt worked for the singer:

Whenever there is a news event like Houston’s death, someone inevitably points out that Twitter also routinely reports things that aren’t true, including the deaths of innumerable celebrities who later turn out to be perfectly healthy. And they note that new-media sources — such as the student-run blog network that mistakenly reported Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s death — can wind up publishing inaccuracies in a rush to be first. But this ignores the fact that mainstream media outlets also routinely report things that aren’t true and have to correct them later.

The news is now happening all around us, and we are part of it

Much of that journalistic process of verifying and making sense of news reports used to happen behind the scenes, inside newsrooms and TV studios and newswire offices. Increasingly, however, it is happening out in the open, where anyone can see it — and where anyone can take part in it by committing what Andy Carvin of NPR has called “random acts of journalism.” German chancellor Otto von Bismarck allegedly warned that anyone who enjoys either the law or sausages should not watch either one being made, and the same is true of the news. But we have no choice but to watch now, because it is happening all around us.

The result of this for journalistic entities of all kinds is that the “news cycle” is being accelerated, like a train whose brakes have failed (and in some cases it becomes distorted as well, as media writer Michael Calderone recently noted about Twitter’s effect on the political news process). In a recent interview, retiring Associated Press newswire president and chief executive Tom Curley said that instead of having days to report on a breaking story, journalists now have hours and in some cases only minutes:

I would say until about 11 September 2001 it was three hours. Now it’s 30 minutes. You might say if you are a certain age – with Twitter and Facebook and all that type of stuff – it’s three minutes.

Curley said the focus for the Associated Press is on speeding up its ability to post scoops and news reports, which presumably is one of the reasons why the service has a prohibition on reporting news on Twitter before it appears on the wire, something the BBC also lectured its journalists about last week. The AP head told the Guardian that if the service (which is owned by a group of member newspapers) can “win by two minutes, on just about every story we can charge a premium.” Curley also said the newswire is working on developing a mobile news app that will feed breaking news reports to users, Twitter-style.

The half-life — and value — of a scoop continues to decline

But is this the right response to the shrinking news cycle, to simply speed up the attempt to beat Twitter or the social web to the news by one or two minutes? Perhaps for the AP it is, but that solution arguably contains the seeds of its own demise. As I have argued before, the half-life of a scoop or a breaking-news report grows shorter every day, in part because sources like Whitney Houston’s hairstylist or the former chief of staff to the Secretary of Defense (who was the first to report that Osama bin Laden had been killed) can “go direct” rather than waiting to have their news reported by a traditional outlet.

Instead, it might be worth more — particularly in the long term — to spend the time trying to confirm the reports that emerge through social media (was that tweet really from the niece of Whitney Houston’s hairstylist?) or to push the story beyond the simple report that something has happened and figure out what it means or why it matters. That kind of analysis and context has always been the most long-lasting aspect of journalism, but mainstream media outlets continually get distracted by the need for another scoop or another “exclusive,” something very few non-journalists care about.

This mentality isn’t confined to mainstream media, of course. The blogosphere is just as guilty of obsessing over scoops and exclusives or trying to pump out as much content as quickly as possible. But there have been some encouraging signs from sources like the Atlantic and Salon that quality content — longer pieces, more thoughtful analysis, etc. — can generate the kinds of results that matter for media entities. Better that than chasing a news cycle whose value continues to diminish with every passing day, and in the end news consumers are better served as well.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Waldo Jaquith and Rosaura Ochoa