T Time: Notes on Twitter, and print media

Cheekily namechecking me on Facebook as some sort of print recidivist, Steve Downes (latterly of Juice Digital, but more famously co-progenitor of Paver Downes) asserted in his blog that recent events in Egypt have proved that conventional newspapers are finished, with citizen journalists now setting the news agenda via Twitter. Typically, I demur. Ish.
Newspapers, like a kind of wood-pulp Michael Myers, have frequently been assumed to be dead, only to rise and continue stalking their prey, oft stronger than before. Telephony, radio and TV have all taken a turn as nemeses. Telephony, of course, became a sometime abused tool of the trade and radio, I suggest, has not proved the greatest medium for extended analysis.
Of course, until recently, radio was also rather hamstrung as a medium by listening opportunities – while great for car owners, its utility on the tube remains somewhat limited. Technology, of course, could change that, though probably more to the benefit of Nick Grimshaw than James Naughtie.
Up until the digital dawn, TV was undoubtedly seen as the great newspaper slayer. As with radio, it wasn’t really suitable for in-public consumption – though the combination of smartphones and free Wi-Fi on the Hong Kong underground seem to be boosting someone’s viewing figures – but it was (and is) great at delivering complex information in a memorable, comprehensible and, often, affecting manner. It didn’t destroy newspapers though.
Instead, as has been widely documented, an unexpected symbiosis between telly and the press sprang up, with TV life bursting out of the listings section and cross-migrating to the news, fashion, comment, gossip and feature sections of virtually every UK newspaper. While The Star may front-page Big Brother lesbian fisherwomen on a self-serving daily basis, The Guardian et al still have their higher-browed weekly analyses of significant motifs in Les Revenants. TV, for its part, repays the debt with its daily review of What’s In The Papers.
Cross-media ownership – Channel 5/The Express, News International/Sky etc – only fuels the beast, driven by cross-promotion, faux exclusives and the desire to push a multi-platform world view. While it’s true in the UK that TV channels are restricted in terms of the political bias they can manifest, anyone who saw Sky News’ coverage of the 2010 election will remember the Fox-lite chicanery the channel adopted, much of which saw the channel get its knuckles rapped, somewhat lightly, long after the ballots were well and truly closed.
In light of this, you could argue that the internet (or one of its many manifestations) was just one more minor obstacle to overcome in the 400 year-plus history of printed news. I wouldn’t argue that though. The combined effect of twitter, Facebook and other websites is, of course, hugely transformational. There is barely a conventional news operation in the world that doesn’t now have its own online presence.
In fact, I suspect only three factors keep the presses rolling – the lingering preference of an older generation of (cash-rich) readers, the difficulty of monetising on-line news sites and the institutional habits of press organisations, some of which, like The Observer, have been killing trees on a weekly basis for 350 years or more. Unravelling such an organisation – printers, distributors, paper suppliers etc – is a massive operation, dwarfing even the 1987 revolution that sent typesetters into premature (but much-deserved) retirement. Of these three factors, the second is by far the most important, with the other two merely being transitory diversions.
As with the 1987 Wapping-led transformation of the newspaper industry, there is a huge pecuniary incentive for proprietors to embrace the on-line world. If advertising rates could be maintained, then the industry would flourish, suddenly free of virtually all distribution and production costs. Sadly, advertisers are not playing ball, with on-line rates still a fraction of the real world equivalent. Proprietors are thus obliged to maintain their print editions, both to retain their ad revenue and as a form of brand protectionism. Launching a printed newspaper is expensive, while online entry is comparatively cheap. At present, it is the off-line entity that both legitimises and funds its online equivalent (with one or two notable exceptions – the Huffington Post springs to mind).
All of which lengthy (but necessary) preamble, leads us belatedly to the main assertion – newspapers have lost their political sway in the face of the first hand, non-journalistic clout of Twitter and, to a considerably lesser extent, Facebook.
First of all, Egypt is a poor example. Although its press (and internet) is relatively free by Middle-Eastern standards, it is way behind the UK (for instance) in terms of absolute freedom. The majority of its newspapers, television channels and radio stations (though admittedly not all) are government owned. Even the so-called independents have suffered from heavy-handed treatment when they refuse to toe the (increasingly confusing) party line. In this environment, Twitter (et al) is not necessarily the medium of choice, but rather the only means open – especially if you want to play to the international gallery.
While the world may have been kept informed of events in Tahrir Square via Twitter, I suspect the majority of us read about said tweets in the press (print or digital) or heard them read out on the tellybox. Most of us wouldn’t have been following tahrirbrickchucker37 personally and nor would we have understood his 140 Egyptian characters or less. True, we could have been alerted to events by re-tweets or even followed a trending topic. In the latter case, though, this was probably after we first became alerted to the events taking place.
While those with a particular interest in Egyptian politics may have set up a search column or followed a certain hashtag relating to the events, most of us would only have learnt of them on an incidental basis. With a general awareness of the situation, though, it would not be beyond most of us to focus our Twitter radar in that direction in order to keep abreast of developments.
What of genuine breaking news though? The kind that comes completely out of the leftfield? One of the few items of news I learnt of first on Twitter was the death of Michael Jackson. My reaction – probably exactly the same as everyone else’s – was to check if it was true via conventional media brands. That, in essence, is one of the key problems with relying on Twitter for your world view – verification.
It’s open access and the difficulty of authentication has led to a number of fraudulent reports of deaths – Jeff Goldblum for instance. In most cases, unless you actually know the tweetee in question, any Twitter report is essentially unsafe until it has been confirmed by ‘proper media’. Even should we know and trust the twitterer in question, few of them are above a little occasional mischief or immune from ever being hacked.
The second problem – and it’s admittedly a related one – is impartiality. While we all know the politics and the prejudices of The Daily Mail, our man in Tarhir Square could be a sympathiser, a plant, a rebel, an opportunist, a man with a grudge or a transvestite barber in Colorado having a laugh.
In short, we still need trusted information brands to give perspective, context and authenticity to tweeted bulletins. This is surely where our newspapers are heading. The Guardian already clearly regards itself – possibly quite rightly – as more of a brand than newspaper. The Daily Mail, perhaps counter-intuitively given its conservative stance, has arguably achieved one of the most successful online migrations of any newspaper in the world. It has shelved its more obvious partisanships (well buried them at least) and created a digital monster, becoming one of the most-well read newspapers on the net along the way.
If we zip forward 20 years (maybe less), it seems unlikely that all of our newspapers (if any) will still have printed counterparts. They may well still command powerful on-line parishes, perhaps enjoying a far wider global reach than they do today, but will they still be able to prod the electorate Cameron-wards at their proprietor’s behest?
That, of course, pre-supposes that they ever could. The changes in allegiance demonstrated by the Sun for instance (Maggie, Maggie, Major-ish, Blair, Blair, Cameron) show the paper is, arguably, as keen to stay in line with its readers shifting values as it is to try and lead them by the nose. There is a tendency by the media-ocracy (particularly those on the left) to patronise the masses as blind fools spoon-fed propaganda by The Mail, who will always obligingly toddle off to the ballot box to cast their pre-programmed vote. I think that was always bollocks.
What Twitter and Facebook clearly add to the mix are other voices, other streams of information, and that can never be a bad thing. They are, however, only part of the media mix and play a role alongside newspapers and broadcasters.
In the end, I suspect, paper will prove no more of a core property of newspapers than hot metal did 30 years ago. The essential news gathering functions – and the attendant prejudices – will stay in place, but the means of distribution will be very different. We will certainly see the last printed editions of the broadsheets in our lifetimes (even, I suspect, in yours, Steve). The tabloids will, I expect, have a longer lifespan, insulated by reader preference and the ability to retain sufficient circulation to remain viable for advertisers.
Twittering individuals may emerge as reliable brands in their own right. I can see no reason why a an affiliated group of verified tweeters could not form a Reuters-like network, spanning continents and specialist areas, though funding might be an issue here.
Our passive approach to being “newsed??? at by trusted sources would have to change to usher in a truly twitter-centric world, with apathy likely to count that out. Ultimately, Twitter etc will be incorporated into the way we evaluate the world. Its current pre-eminence is at least partly down to its novelty, but that will fade. In 20 years’ time, presidents might still be tweeting urgent declarations of state, but most of us will still be reading about them on secondary platforms, albeit few of them tree-related.
You can tweet Tony Murray about the impending collapse of Middle Eastern fiefdoms or your favourite hat on @Tonymurray37