Up early this morning to watch the team time trial at Le Tour, I flipped on the computer to check what was going on with the Los Alamos fire. (I was hoping to take a few minutes during a commercial break to post an updated fire map.)
It was a little before 8 a.m., and the #nmfire hashtag column on Tweetdeck was hopping with people saying the evacuation order for the community of Los Alamos was about to be lifted. I quickly checked my work email, saw the official announcement from Los Alamos County in my inbox, and within five minutes had the news up on the Journal web site. Hadn’t even finished my first cup of coffee.
The lines between being a news producer and a news consumer blur at a time like this. It’s all one big mashup. But there’s no going back, and I can’t imagine doing my job on a story like this – widely distributed, with lots of people sharing little chunks of what they know in real time – without a Tweetdeck window open on my desktop.
My friend Trip Jennings, a reporter at the Santa Fe New Mexican, gets this, both as a social media consumer and as a skilled news producer. (he must be skilled – he interviewed me! 🙂 )
John Fleck, a veteran reporter at the Albuquerque Journal, has used Twitter from its inception and has noticed a change in how it is used during big news events.
“We saw Twitter as a news tool really come into its own with the big freeze and gas outage,” Fleck said of the snowstorm that blew through New Mexico with an arctic blast in the first week of February, leaving an estimated 32,000 homes and businesses without natural gas for several days. “In a newsroom, you are always trying to hear from as many people as you can. You try to filter out the bad information.”
With the big freeze, “you had all these people tweeting from their front porches, sharing photos,” Fleck said. “You dramatically expanded your pool of information.”
That up-to-the-minute stream of information in multiple formats — photo, audio, video, text — isn’t a gimmick, but a revolutionary tool that lowers the barrier for everyday Americans to participate in a broader conversation, one university professor said.
“It used to be the person who had the power was the person who had a printing press,” said Robert Hernandez, an assistant professor at the Annenberg School of Journalism at the University of Southern California, during a telephone interview. “These days when you buy a computer, you get the book and you get the printing press for free. You get to participate in and shape the conversation.”
Of course, in the event of a major news event, many of the tweets and Facebook status updates will contain links to news stories from newspapers and other media. And, yes, sometimes faulty information mixes in with your Facebook and Twitter feeds, but the positives of social networking sites vastly outweigh the negatives, Hernandez said.
In some sense, from a journalistic perspective there is nothing special about Twitter. There are myriad ways reporters get information, finding and sorting information flow from anyone who has it. That’s what we’ve always done. Twitter’s just one more tool, but a particularly handy one at a time like this.