Twitter as media: Its ambitions grow with NBC Olympic deal

Just a few weeks ago we wrote about how Twitter was dipping its toes into the media business by hiring editors and producers to curate content, followed by the launch of a NASCAR media hub that made it obvious where the company’s intentions lay. Now it is about to jump into the global media game with both feet: As reported by the Wall Street Journal and confirmed by us, Twitter will launch a landmark partnership with NBC Universal(s cmcsk)(s cmcsa) for the Olympic Games later this week that will see a team of curators or editors producing a Twitter-based news hub — turning the service into what the Journal describes as “the official narrator” of the games. The deal marks another step on Twitter’s path toward a media-based future, one in which it tries to navigate the gray zone between being a partner for media companies and being a competitor.
The Journal story describes what sounds like a fairly traditional editorial operation: a team of Twitter staff will be based in an office in Boulder, Colo., and will spend their days filtering through a never-ending stream of reports about the Olympics, picking out the interesting or newsworthy ones from participants, onlookers, officials and others. The only different thing in this case is that all of those editing and curating functions will be directed at the stream of tweets coming through Twitter and the people doing it will be employed by Twitter, in concert with staff from the NBC Olympic team. Says the WSJ report:

Twitter’s Olympics hub . . . is one of the first times Twitter will serve as an official narrator for a live event. NBC will tout the website with on-air promotions and links to athlete interviews or video clips.

Twitter’s role as a media entity is increasing

This kind of operation, which Twitter confirmed it is launching later this week, seems like an obvious extension of the moves the company has been making recently to expand its media relationships — and in the process it has become more of a media entity in its own right. The tiptoeing started with the acquisition of Summify and the launch of a curated email for users based on Summify’s recommendation algorithms and then progressed further with the hiring of a “sports producer” for the NASCAR partnership that Twitter ran in June. Along the way Twitter has also announced new features such as expanded tweets that highlight content from media partners (while keeping that content contained within Twitter’s apps and website).
Much like the description of the Olympic offering provided by the Journal, the NASCAR arrangement involved a news hub for the event featuring curated and filtered content from a host of different Twitter streams, including those from drivers, official team accounts, fans and others. Although Twitter has downplayed the work involved in doing this — describing the producer’s function as simply reading the stream and “pinning” noteworthy tweets to the top of the NASCAR hub — it’s pretty clearly an editorial function, very similar to what news entities like NBC and the Journal do (or could do) with similar events.

For NBC, partnering with Twitter makes sense: The network and its staff understand the dynamics of the Twitter stream and can make sense of things more easily, and having real-time tweets appear on a branded news hub and on television during the games probably still seems like a cool and geeky addition to the broadcaster’s coverage, in the same way that newscasters now seem to see reading celebrities’ tweets on the air as a necessary part of almost every news event.

What happens when Twitter no longer needs NBC?

The deal clearly makes sense for Twitter too, since it gets a big marketing boost from being associated with the games, and that will likely translate into a bunch of advertising revenue. And there is probably also some Facebook-related jockeying going on as well: The giant social network has its own deal with NBC for the Olympics, in which the two have agreed to provide content to each other (no money is changing hands in either the Facebook(s FB) or the Twitter partnership) so that NBC can show viewers what is being talked about on Facebook and the social network gets access to NBC videos and other material.
As I have tried to point out before, these kinds of deals are a natural extension of Twitter’s decision to become a media entity powered by advertising — something that has been the subject of much debate recently and has led at least one entrepreneur to try to launch his own user-supported alternative to Twitter. But they are also a double-edged sword for traditional media companies: They get the benefit of access to curated streams of content, but they are also providing more fuel for Twitter’s own ambitions in the media department, as critics such as blogging pioneer Dave Winer have noted a number of times.
In a sense, Twitter doesn’t really need to partner with NBC to provide this kind of curated news content. It could hire staff and filter public tweets and create a news hub without the broadcaster’s help, just as it could with any other news event. For now, partnering with media outlets makes sense for the company, especially for a tightly controlled one-off event like the Olympics, but that might not always be the case. And Twitter’s ambitions are clearly growing.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Umberto Salvagnin