Why traditional media should be afraid of Twitter

As we’ve mentioned a number of times, Twitter has been gradually tip-toeing further and further into the media business for some time now. It has already become a real-time newswire for many, a source of breaking news and commentary on live events, and now — with the launch of curated “hashtag pages” like the one it launched late last week for a NASCAR event — it is showing signs of becoming a full-fledged editorial operation. It may not be hiring investigative reporters, but the areas of overlap between what it does and what media companies do is growing, and so is its attractiveness to the advertisers that media entities desperately need to hang onto.
The NASCAR page may not seem like anything to be concerned about, since it appears to be just a typical grouping of tweets collected by hashtag. But there is editorial control behind it as well as algorithms, with an editor choosing which messages — including photos, videos and commentary from NASCAR insiders — were highlighted during the event, and which streamed by unacknowledged. And Twitter has made it clear that this kind of effort is not aimed primarily at brands (although it almost certainly will involve them at some point) but is intended for events. In other words, for the news.

Twitter is curating information, just as media companies do

It’s easy to imagine a similar page constructed around a revolution in Libya, or an earthquake in Japan, or virtually any other news event. Would that be something that media companies could use to their advantage, or a competing service, or both? In some ways, it could be a much better, crowd-sourced version of Google News. Twitter’s efforts have at least one staffer at a mainstream media outlet concerned — in a blog post, Thomson Reuters digital strategist Ross Neumann says:

Twitter revolutionized journalism once before, and news organizations responded with the social media editor. Now it seems that the social media editor, the reaction to disruption, could be a victim of it.

Is Twitter trying to put media companies out of business, or even social-media editors? Probably not, at least not directly. But in a way, it’s formal intentions don’t really even matter — it could easily wind up doing so by accident, in the same way that Craig Newmark accidentally decimated one of the main cash cows of the media industry when he disrupted the classified advertising business. That wasn’t his intention at all, but he accomplished it nevertheless.
Twitter clearly sees itself as a partner for media companies, which is probably part of the reason that CEO Dick Costolo often denies that the company is a media entity at all. And there’s no question that using Twitter has been a boon for the media — it allows reporters and writers to reach a much broader audience, it enables them to build their personal brand through direct engagement with readers, and so on. And new hires like editor Mark Luckie describe their jobs as helping media companies do that better:
[tweet https://twitter.com/marksluckie/status/212590702092222466]

A partner can quickly become a competitor

That’s all well and good, but there comes a point where a partner can start to look like a competitor if you tilt your head the right way, and I would argue that Twitter is nearing that point. Facebook is also a partner for media companies who use it to host their comments, or have brand pages there, or rely on the social network to promote their work through “frictionless sharing” apps. But at times it can seem as much like competition — particularly for users’ attention — as it does a partner.
That’s part of what I think blogging pioneer Dave Winer means when he warns that media companies should not see Twitter as their friend. To the extent that Twitter is offering news consumers of all kinds access to the information they want — regardless of whether that information consists of “user-generated content” or links to other media outlets — it is a competitor. And to the extent that it can offer better curation or aggregation or filtering or targeting of that content, it will win.

And that kind of targeting isn’t just a threat to the information-management or journalistic aspects of the traditional media industry, as is every other digital-native media source such as The Huffington Post or Buzzfeed. It is also an arrow that is directed at the heart of the financial underpinnings of the traditional media business — namely, advertising.
Twitter is already trying to get better at targeting and curation of topics and content, whether through its new “tailored trends” or the emails it now sends out that are powered by its Summify acquisition of earlier this year. Those skills — and the benefit of hosted curation like the NASCAR event — are just as applicable to advertising messages as they are to any other content, if not more so. And that type of targeting is the thing that newspapers and other mainstream media outlets are not good at (to put it mildly). Anyone who is better is clearly a threat.
So partnering with Twitter, and using its tools and services as much as possible, makes a huge amount of sense for media companies — but so does maintaining a healthy scepticism about who is getting the majority of the benefit from those services, and how.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Rosauro Ochoa