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    Russell Viers is a Transition Expert in the publishing world. Since 1997 he has helped newspapers and magazines adapt to changes in the industry. Read more...

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  • Twister Twitter beats traditional media!

    May 26th, 2011 by Russell Viers

    The text message from my daughter was only one word long: “Tornadoes!!”

    I read it as I left the stage from a morning presentation at the Print & ePublishing Conference in Washington, DC. During the lunch break I headed to my hotel room.

    I immediately called her and the lines weren’t connecting…text was all I had. I asked what was going on. After a stressful text exchange I learned my boys had ridden their bikes to school, which would let out at 11:30, during a Tornado Warning for that part of Kansas City. She was sitting in front of the school in her car to pick them up since it was raining…but they weren’t there.

    She was scared.

    I was scared.

    Between texts I was trying to get a handle on the situation through traditional media. I went to kansascity.com (the website of the Kansas City Star). They had a story about tornadoes in the area, but nothing recent enough. Tornadoes move quickly and in this situation I wanted to know what was happening “Now!”

    I went to the television station websites hoping for current information…nope.

    Just then I received a broadcast text from the school informing me the teachers and students were in the Tornado Shelter at the school. I texted my daughter of the boys’ status and told her to go inside and join them. She replied “idk. I have texted them a thousand times.”

    I replied “THEY ARE IN A TORNADO SHELTER IN THE SCHOOL. GO INSIDE NOW!!” I screamed at my daughter with my thumbs.

    This is where the shift in my brain happened. This is when, for the first time in my life, I realized I could not rely on traditional media. I turned to Twitter.

    Launching twitter.com I did a search for kansas city tornado. Immediately I was seeing tweets of sightings and the neighborhoods. I learned how close these beasts were to three of my children. Every MINUTE I was getting new information. There were hundreds of reporters all over the city giving me the information I needed, while the traditional media’s stories were just getting older and more out of date.

    I’m not new to the concepts of Twitter and it’s impact on the world. I followed the peaceful revolution in Egypt, much of it reported through Twitter. I followed Tweets from Libya as reporters and citizens were risking their lives to get the word out. I thought it was fascinating how the attack on Osama Bin Laden’s compound was being reported through Tweets, even though the “reporter” didn’t know what was going on.

    What I’m writing here isn’t anything new…just the first time it got this personal and I truly felt the impact of this new media.

    A lot was going on in a short period of time…texts, following twitter, trying to find more on TV or websites. Through it all it was the texting and the Twitter that kept me up to date.

    In the end, all was fine. No harm to anyone or any property, but two lessons were learned: Social media CAN outperform what traditional media currently offers with immediate information, but it comes with a very high price tag: Nobody is filtering before it reaches the end user.

    I thought it was interesting how there was an alert that read “TURN UP YOUR TELEVISIONS AS HIGH AS POSSIBLE AND SEEK SHELTER IN YOUR BASEMENT…ETC!” As I read this I was thinking “GRAB YOUR SMART PHONE, FOLLOW TWITTER AND HEAD TO YOUR BASEMENT…ETC!”

    So why is traditional media like television in a storm still relevant? Because not everyone has smart phones, or WIFI or laptops to take with them to a shelter. Today, we still need traditional media for a percentage of the audience…but that will change.

    Aside from the above instance, yesterday traditional media failed hugely meeting my needs as a member of it’s audience.

    Are we willing to pay the price? As I was reading the Tweets about the storm, there was one that popped up and read something like “Massive destruction in the storm’s path all across Kansas City” or something to that effect. It didn’t sound right. It didn’t fit. All of the other Tweets were mentioning where and what, but nothing quite as apocalyptic as this Tweet made it out to be. I had to filter it. Throw it away. Recognize it was just a bored Tweeter trying to, we’ll just say, play a prank.

    Can everyone do this? Remember the old story of War of the Worlds read by Orson Wells and supposedly there were people who believed it and starting packing up. It was radio. It was a book. But it was Orson Wells, and he really can spin a good yarn, but aside from that it was something that people couldn’t filter truth from fiction.

    Apply this logic to social media and you see how dangerous it can be.

    A good friend of mine, Kris Coppieters, was telling the story last night about how in Christ Church, New Zealand, after the recent earthquake, local police were verifying Tweets. According to him, police were following the Tweets and would act on the information. If it was true, they would reply with “verified.”

    Think about this for a second. The role of the media in the past has been to gather, filter and deliver the news…all the news that’s fit to print, anyway. How dramatically has that changed in some instances, like I’m describing here. The citizens are reporting the “news” and the police are filtering it. Wow! Exciting in this example, could be very scary in others.

    For two years I’ve been asking newspapers “who is going to reinvent the newspaper business?” The challenge is to us, as an industry, to reinvent ourselves. At least yesterday, however, the newspaper industry was reinvented by a social media tool.

    QUESTION: Do you have a personal example of where Social Media has served you in ways Traditional Media can’t? What was it and can you give an example of where you had to filter through the message and authenticate instead of trusting verbatim?

    15 Responses to “Twister Twitter beats traditional media!”

    1. Randy Kemp (Little Rock) Says:

      Wow. Wish I could offer you some really insightful response. However, all I can say is that you have given a compelling argument with thought-provoking questions that I want to ponder for awhile. (Very glad your kids are okay…)

    2. Karen Geary Says:

      Have you ever seen the movie “Wag The Dog” with Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro? It was a take-off on the Clinton’s sex scandal and to take the attention off the scandal, the spin doctors “invented” a war! In the world of Twitter and the internet, this very scenario could happen. Perhaps it already has. What has happened in the Middle East with governments toppling, has anyone thought that could happen in our own backyard.
      What better way to ruin someone’s reputation than to start a “flash” rumor? No matter how many retractions, no matter how many “oops, I made an error,” there is a certain public element who will believe the rumor. And everyone knows nothing dies on the internet.
      And how did Osama bin Laden finally get taken down? His aide texted something to a family member and our government intel picked up on it. As fun as Twitter and the internet can be, it has its “dark side,” too – true to human nature.
      What really bothers me is kids in school Twittering during tests, sending the answers around. Surprise “routine” drug raids at high schools are tipped off by one person who sees the drug-sniffing dogs coming in. Kids aren’t suppose to have cellphone on school campuses, but they do. School administration cannot police all personal belongings.
      As much as we have “instant” news, I see the dumbing down of people’s knowledge. Common sense is gone. Two of our younger reporters were caught providing inaccurate reference material in their stories because they went with the first “good sounding” internet source! They “googled” the information and it was wrong. They didn’t verified the source. They didn’t pick up the telephone and talk to a human being to see if their information was true. It’s careless work, no matter if they were pressed on deadline.
      If you don’t watch the track of reference, that misinformation just continues to get picked up and passed along on the internet.
      Our area of the world isn’t Twitter savvy, but I do have an account. I don’t live by it or anticipate new tweets, but I do enjoy following entertainers I like and their comments.

    3. admin Says:

      I hope nobody reading this article thinks I like the status quo, with the risks you cite here, Karen. What I am hoping to do with this article is challenge newspapers and other traditional media to offer an alternative. Something immediate, something reliable, something that will allow those who are dedicated to responsible journalism an outlet that serves in a way it doesn’t currently do well.
      It’s time for newspapers to wake up an realize that print alone can no longer serve the community. But more importantly, it can’t continue as the only business model when citizens are “reporting” the news in a more immediate way through Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and free community websites like americantowns.com, topix and more.
      In addition to print, the industry needs to counter…that’s what I’m trying to say here.

    4. Karla Says:

      Wow. Amazing article. So glad the kids all turned out safe. We recently had a tragic boating accident in town. The pics were on FB long before the media sites. I doubted whether the families of the victims would appreciate having them there…in that case fast may not be a good thing. but no doubt social media is lightning fast, and in your case, fast was great.

    5. admin Says:

      I guess the question is: “would the local newspaper also have published the pictures on their website or in the printed edition if they had them?”
      I raise this question because many newspapers publish car wrecks, plane crashes and, like this example, boating accidents if they have them. If the local paper is one that would publish such photos, then all the FB photos did was beat them to the scoop.
      How many times have you picked up a newspaper and seen crime scenes, etc. In this example, what’s the difference?
      I don’t mean to sound argumentative…only continuing the discussion. If social media is doing the same coverage the papers are doing, only faster…what’s the problem. If they are, in fact, being irresponsible, like the example of releasing names before family members can be notified, etc., then this new form of journalism could very well hurt a lot of people.
      Thanks for commenting, Karla…let’s keep this discussion going.

    6. Karen Geary Says:

      Our local newspaper published a photo of a dead young lady completely covered under a sheet, the result of a tragic motorcycle accident. We were scalded by our readers and even lost some subscribers. The photo was a 3 column with a large headline. BUT our competitor on the web published a similar photo and nothing! I don’t know if on the internet the photo is smaller and the impact is not as graphic. It’s kind of like seeing a natural disaster on TV – it’s tragic but the impact isn’t completely fathomed. You can’t see the grand scale on TV. Same with the internet – news is more condensed and the impact isn’t as severe. It’s just wets the taste. Then we go looking for video or TV to see it “bigger.”

    7. Karen Geary Says:

      This may be off the subject, but not really. Just curious, Russell – do you know the percentage of the country that has high speed internet service? Why I ask, in my little neck of the woods, over 50% of our county does not have even basic dial-up service. I predict a day soon when people will scream internet discrimination – rural areas that cannot get land line or wireless service. We have areas in our region that cellphones don’t work because there are no towers. My husband had better phone reception in Sierra Leone, Africa – one of the world’s poorest countries – than our connection between our town and Memphis, TN.
      (If you are curious about Sierra Leone, communication service is better there because OUR country has a “vested interest” for our military in that area. It has the world’s deepest water ports; can drive a battleship almost to the coast and it is a key in the war on terror. Too bad our country couldn’t take a “vested interest” in our own cities and help our rural areas develop their cyber-economy.)

    8. Sarah Parker Says:

      About 20 percent of Wisconsin residents lack access to broadband, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, but the state received $65 million in federal stimulus funds for broadband improvements. So I guess it’s going to improve.

      I wonder how long it will be before some new media practitioners take libel law seriously. I suppose that if a few extraordinarily wealthy people sue Twitter, that could change the new media landscape. I think. I’m a terrible prognosticator, though.

    9. Larry Bartley Says:

      In my area of Central Texas I’m seeing social media as a whole become more and more a good source of reliable local information. We’ve been plagued with grass fires lately as has most of Texas. A lot of small ones and some have burned thousands of acres.We had one yesterday just 8 miles from my home and wound up burning about 100 acres. An SMS from our local online newspapers’ Facebook page was the first notice I had. It was followed by several updates before there was anything on the radio. Our nearest “local’ TV station is 80 miles away and they have a free iPhone app that sends SMSs for breaking news.Twitter don’t seem to be a major force in my immediate area but I have associates in Dallas and Austin that rely on it constantly. I agree that there is a large amount of self filtering that needs to be administered to all posts and tweets or or SMSs or whatever you use. If it comes from a known entity it’s probably pretty reliable. If it comes from someone you don’t know it could be questionable. It’s a litle more complicated than just knowing that Nigeria isn’t really trying to get all that money out of the country and sorting out the truth can sometimes be difficult.

    10. Daniel Says:

      Here in Ontario, Canada a mobile plan with a data package that would allow access to Twitter costs over $80.00 per month through a reliable service provider. That’s a bit rich for someone who’s not constantly tweeting, texting, taking, uploading and downloading photos. I’d have to be right inside a tornado to justify spending a thousand dollars a year just so I could tweet “TORNADO,” if I needed to.

    11. Melissa Perner Says:

      Russell – we used Twitter and Facebook during three massive grass fires we have had this year. We are a weekly newspaper, so these social media sites helped us get information out readers and people in our community. It worked great for us. Of course we had follow up stories in our paper and we also used our website, but the Facebook and Twitter gave up to the minute information, warnings and allowed us to post photos and readers to post photos of the fire. We found it to be a great tool for this situation.

    12. Heather Says:

      I had a similar experience with Facebook. When there were tornadoes all around and the electricity went out, I turned to facebook on my phone to find out whether we were in the clear yet.

      You’re right about traditional media needing to reinvent themselves for current technology. The corporations just need to be smart about it. Our daily paper decided to start charging $15 a month for access to their online edition. That’s insane for a smaller Arkansas town. I can get better news more up to date by following a local activist Facebook page. The administrator is quicker, more unbiased, and doesn’t have to worry about offending any advertisers. It’s awesome.

    13. Joe Says:

      Hmmmmm…. I might point out to Heather that newspapers actually pay their people to cover things, like that school board meeting where they’re discussing the pedophile instructor at your daughter’s school, but that the activist Facebook page does not.

      Is knowing about that instructor worth $15/mo.?

      People who are not trained journalists do not know about unbiased reporting. Reporting from people like these is full of their attitudes, and that might preclude hearing from the other side of an issue.

      If you think that Facebook posts and Twitter will ever replace a New York Times journalist embedded with the Marines in Afghanistan and the reports that person generates, you really don’t have a firm concept on what constitutes good journalism.

      By the time we moan the loss of the Free Press in our society, it will already have been replaced with the likes of unskilled or paid reports that slant the truth whichever direction the author chooses. NOTE: there will be no policeman there to verify those reports.

    14. Noel Wilkerson Holmes Says:

      Wow. What a strange and apples to oranges question as it relates to the kansascitystar.com. VIERS QUESTION: Do you have a personal example of where Social Media has served you in ways Traditional Media can’t?

      Never would I have gone to an on-line newspaper to find out urgent info on a tornado in progress. Newspapers might have a feed but up to the second news is not nor will ever be a feature on newspaper websites just like in-depth reporting is not a feature of twitter nor will it ever be. Good sense says start at weather.com, then let text, twitter, etc. keep me even more up-close and personal on this urgent news. Weather.com was designed to give us the most comprehensive up-to-date weather especially in emergency situations. You can get their tweet on twitter. Who knew!!!!
      But, the next day I would go to my paper to read the full report including personal stories of people impacted in my community and how I could help. I would do this both by website and by print.
      I certainly would not the next day say how twitter failed failed me by not giving the day after full in-depth story of the tornado’s devastation.

      Noel Wilkerson Holmes
      Asst. Publisher
      Pleasanton Express

    15. Russell Viers Says:

      Good points, Noel, no question…thanks for chiming in.
      My bigger challenge in this post was for newspapers to look at how social media is reshaping the definition of news and to think of ways we can reinvent ourselves to serve that purpose.
      When newspapers were just print, the line between the role of television/radio and newspapers was very clear. You would never pick up your newspaper to find out if school was canceled due to snow, for example. As newspapers enter the electronic media world, and as television and radio stations are adding text stories to their websites, it’s getting harder and harder to see who is who.
      Look at the top five websites…how many of them are newspapers? Of the newspapers with websites, how many have video? Media is blending and that includes social media.
      I get emails from papers regularly complaining that Facebook is “killing” them. The ability to sell things through Marketplace is hurting classified sales. And when the news shows up there first, it devalues the work of the traditional “gatekeepers”…the newspaper. The publishers who call me can feel the impact of Facebook not just on classified but on circulation, as well.
      So even though it may seem apples to oranges, is it? If Facebook and Twitter are taking a bite out of newspapers, which they are, shouldn’t we look at ways to combat it?
      Your point about in-depth stories is valid, and could be a useful tool in keeping our product relevant, compared to the snippets one can read on Facebook or Twitter, as long as people want that type of coverage.
      We can either hope they will or accept the impact social media is having on our communities and look for new ways to include it in what we do. We sat back and let craigslist.com take our classifieds away…I would hate for us to sit back and watch our news coverage taken over by a bunch of onlookers with smart phones.

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