Twitter’s relationship with the media: It’s complicated

Although it has only been a mainstream social network for a few short years, Twitter has formed a surprisingly tight and symbiotic relationship with the media, both because it is a kind of real-time newswire for information about events like the Arab Spring and the upcoming U.S. election, and also because it gives journalists an easy way to extend their personal brands into the social web. The company’s moves to lock down its network and control more of the content have raised some hackles in the journalism community, however, even as Twitter expands on its partnerships with select media entities such as NBC and MTV — and those stress points are only going to increase as the company’s ambitions and desire for revenue continue to grow.

A recent blog post from the Knight Center for Journalism at the University of Texas does a pretty good job of summarizing why some journalists and media executives might be uneasy about their relationship with Twitter and how they have come to rely on the network. Among other things, the post mentions the restrictions that the company recently announced on its API, which primarily affect third-party developers and apps — but could also wind up penalizing newspapers and other media outlets that have built their own features or services around Twitter using the same API. As the Knight Center post describes it:

“Recent changes to Twitter’s application programming interface (API) rattled some critics concerned about how journalists will use the popular social media platform to cover news in the future [and] beyond the recent API announcement, Twitter has seen a progression of censorship as the company matures that may threaten its credibility as a news source.”

Will media be treated the same as third-party apps?

One of the things that Twitter’s new API restrictions specifically prohibit (without special permission from the company) is mixing tweets from its network with content from other social networks or sources. But as University of British Columbia journalism professor and former BBC staffer Alfred Hermida notes in a recent post about the changes, these rules could also hit newspapers and other outlets that either generate their own curated feeds of content from Twitter and other sources, as the New York Times has done for the Republican National Convention and other events, or use tools such as ScribbleLive and Storify to do so.

So far, Twitter has said that Storify is safe from any repercussions due to the changes — despite the fact that the service (which was founded by former foreign correspondent Burt Herman) appears to be offering features that are frowned on by Twitter, according to the company’s somewhat confusing chart of good vs. bad apps. But given the way that the network has changed its modus operandi recently, by closing off external services such as Tumblr and Instagram and removing referrer links, it’s difficult to know how long that stay of execution might last for something like Storify. If a newspaper or media outlet has made that a key part of their journalistic process, they could be in for a rude awakening.

In a sense, media companies are suffering the same kind of angst that many developers and startups are feeling as Twitter evolves from being an open real-time information utility into a media entity driven by the need for advertising revenue to justify its market valuation. Just as those third-party services have built businesses on top of Twitter’s API because it was free, newspapers and other media outlets have come to rely on the network for the same reason — and could wind up regretting it in much the same way.

Twitter seems happy to have relationships with certain specific media entities, but for the most part they are television networks like NBC — which the company worked closely with during the recent Summer Olympics — and MTV, which is going to be making use of Twitter in a number of ways during its big Video Music Awards event later this month. Although many users seemed irritated by NBC’s delaying tactics during the Olympics, the head of Twitter’s media team, Chloe Sladden, told the New York Times that the network viewed the partnership as a huge success because it acted as “an amazing daytime teaser trailer driving people into prime time.”

Twitter wants to partner with some, compete with others

If you are a prominent media player such as the New York Times or the Washington Post, you can also get access to the “expanded tweets” or “Twitter cards” feature that the information network recently launched, which is the basis for much of its planned expansion. That allows more of your content to be shown inside a frame on the company’s website or inside its mobile apps — but as we’ve explained, this seems to be almost as much of a competitive move by Twitter as it does a helpful one for media companies, since Twitter is the one who gets the benefit of that content.

Meanwhile, as the Knight Center post noted, some media outlets are concerned about where Twitter’s desire to partner with TV networks and brands like NBC and MTV might take it, since the company was criticized fairly heavily for suspending the account of a British journalist who took potshots at its corporate partner during the Olympics. A Twitter spokesman said this was a misunderstanding related to the journalist’s posting of an NBC executive’s email address, but for many the incident was a critical breach of trust — and a sign that Twitter can and will control or even censor the content on its network as it sees fit.

And so, media outlets are left with a dilemma: Twitter is hugely useful in a whole variety of ways, and it has become a crucial part of much political and social news coverage. But at the same time, relying on a proprietary and increasingly competitive service for a key part of your business can be unwise, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook, and sooner or later media companies are going to have to confront that reality and figure out how to deal with it.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Mathias and Abysim