In a world where Lady Gaga has nearly 11 million Twitter followers, it seems almost quaint now that in 2009 CNN entered a playful contest with actor Ashton Kutcher to see who could reach a million followers first (Kutcher won by a thin margin). CNN’s Twitter account in question, @cnnbrk, had only been recently acquired by the network; it was created a few years earlier by a London web developer named James Cox. He had just been looking for a way to get CNN’s breaking news alerts sent to his phone and so he spent a few hours hacking a script that would push these alerts through his Twitter account. Because Cox had entered so early in the game, the account took off and grew much faster than any of the official handles CNN eventually opened, and so it’s not surprising the company worked with Cox to bring the account under its control.
If the 24-hour news network was a little late to the game, Sam Feist would argue that it has now fully embraced the medium. The CNN Washington bureau chief told me in a phone interview earlier this week that Twitter is not just a journalism tool, but rather it’s a platform that has changed the news cycle. “CNN created the 24-hour news cycle,” he said. “Twitter created the one-minute-ago news cycle. Not too many years ago, politicians had a full day to respond. CNN changed that and cable news changed that so you might only have hours to respond. And now Twitter has really put politicians in a position so that they don’t really have time to respond at all.”
Though most journalists would agree that the micro-blogging platform accelerates the news cycle in some ways, there are still debates over whether it should be used to get out ahead of the news. To understand what I mean, consider that, for the most part, the New York Times‘ official Twitter account has only been employed to tweet out links to already-written articles, meaning it only rarely publishes news snippets before a journalist has had the time to file an entire piece (there are sometimes exceptions to this in cases of breaking news). Late last month, the Gray Lady engaged in a week-long experiment in which its Twitter account adopted a conversational tone, replying to its followers and tweeting out links to stories with more playful text than what would be used in a standard headline. Similarly, the Twitter account for Slate will sometimes tweet out links to non-Slate content, often taking on a humorous vein. The Times’ media reporter, Brian Stelter, also received favorable attention for live-tweeting his experience in Joplin, Missouri in between filing stories on the tornado-ravaged area. “I started trying to tweet everything I saw — the search of the rubble pile, the sounds coming from the hospital, the dazed look on peoples’ faces,” Stelter wrote in a Tumblr post recounting his experience. “Some of the texts didn’t send, but most did. Practically speaking, text messages were my only way to relay information.”
Feist said there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how a news organization’s Twitter accounts should be run. Because CNN has dozens of Twitter handles, each one has its own particular style and purpose. He argued that when a person follows an account like @cnnbrk or the Political Ticker handle, he or she is just looking for breaking news headlines. “That’s a one-directional transmission of information that’s automated to some extent, but that’s not a conversation,” he said. “There’s no feedback loop, there’s no feedback mechanism. It’s an opportunity for us to tell you something that you might not have known.” To understand CNN’s full social media ecosystem, you would have to follow its anchors and journalists, most of whom have their own accounts. He pointed to Wolf Blitzer as an example. “If you follow Wolf Blitzer on Twitter — he has half a million followers — Wolf is a personality on his Twitter account. It’s clearly Wolf tweeting. He tweets about what he has coming up on his program. He tweets about his thoughts on the news. He’ll offer his own personal analysis about whether or not a public figure did the right or the wrong thing in a moment. He will also show some of his personality and will give you a take on a professional basketball game. His Twitter followers are constantly replying to his tweets and offering their perspective, and there’s that feedback loop. So not only has Wolf communicated information from CNN, but at the same time he’s hearing and gauging their reaction.”
Watching CNN, it’s not uncommon to see a host solicit answers via Twitter, and tweets from CNN viewers are often read on the air. Most individual shows on the network have their own Twitter handles, and each program employs one or two digital media producers responsible for the various social media accounts. The tweets for the shows serve multiple functions. “They tweet out observations — sometimes quotes from a guest or pieces of information reported by a reporter,” Feist said. “And that is to engage viewers with the show, solicit feedback from those viewers, and at the same time remind viewers what’s going on on the show and perhaps encourage them to watch. It’s all related. It’s not purely about traffic. Engaging in social media can be beneficial for traffic, but I see it as a longer term, more holistic approach to developing a relationship with our customers. At the end of the day I don’t have a strong feeling over whether someone gets their information from CNN on TV, on the website, or sometimes on our Twitter accounts. But I want him to turn to CNN for that information.”
Feist stressed that CNN’s adoption of Twitter is organic. The executives didn’t sit down one day to create a Twitter protocol, and it doesn’t require its talent to join the platform, but rather is gently encouraging to journalists and producers who decide to sign up for an account. “Nobody came in and said, ‘We need a Twitter strategy and everyone get behind our Twitter strategy.’ What we did was we set some broad parameters and encouraged people, if they chose, to use social media as a tool.” By not creating a top-down approach, it allowed the journalists to gravitate to their interests and find a natural voice.
But this is not to say there are no rules at all. The bureau chief said he expects no less from his employees on Twitter than he does for television. “In other words, the reporting standards are the same for our journalists reporting via social media as they are for journalists reporting on television or CNN.com,” he explained. “We don’t report things that we don’t know to be true. The same standards still apply.”
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