Tedium - Recapturing Real Time 📰

Can we find our way back to useful real-time journalism?

Hunting for the end of the long tail • March 30, 2024

Today in Tedium: This week, the tragic, seemingly random destruction of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore was at the center of our news cycle. It dominated the headlines, and lots of people were looking for answers as to what happened. In an earlier time, this information would have been somewhat easy to gather. But the recent disruption of social media has changed the picture around real-time news-gathering, something that Twitter used to be at the center of. Where once you could follow a trusted feed of news sources from a trending topic, the algorithm has now minimized prominent and trustworthy voices, putting speculation at the forefront. It wasn’t always like this, and one has to wonder, will things change to improve this not-so-great state of affairs? Today’s Tedium considers one path forward for real-time news in the social media era. — Ernie @ Tedium

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“It’s kind of like running a newsroom on Twitter that’s become transparent. And rather than having news staff fulfilling the roles of producers, editors, researchers, etc., I have my Twitter followers playing all of those roles. So it ends up becoming this rather large, convoluted media literacy experiment in many ways.”

— Andy Carvin, a journalist and strategist, describing his approach to real-time journalism during his time at NPR. Carvin essentially treated the firehose of social media as a global, never-ending feed of information, with the public helping him source and research information as he worked. Carvin now serves as the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, still focused on these issues of online research from a bigger-picture perspective.

(Mike Beales/Flickr)

The early 2010s: The peak of the real-time news era

Maybe I was naive, but I thought the breaking-news era of social media was never going to end, that a drip-drip approach to information would forever be the way we parsed news.

I saw much of this stuff up close, having run a news blog that often dabbled in the real-time dissemination of information. I often dug around with all the other social media journalists in the hope of finding something interesting.

The hope was that this sort of deadline-driven work, digging into the tea leaves of social media, would help us uncover angles and reporting that could then be pushed up the stream into everyone else’s reporting. In another era, we might have been doing this work on the ground. Instead, we were doing it on Twitter and Facebook and anywhere else with an up-to-the-moment pulse.

The tools adapted to this need. This, of course, is how we got Hootsuite and TweetDeck. We needed those extra columns to pull in as much detail as possible.

Many known figures worked on this, including Matthew Keys, a close collaborator of mine during that period. (His well-documented legal challenges ultimately do not take away from the fact that, like Andy Carvin, he was doing groundbreaking online reporting work in the 2011 to 2013 time frame.)

@BreakingNews was one of the largest accounts on Twitter for many years. Despite its original format being retired years ago, it still has nearly 10 million followers. (Steve Garfield/Flickr)

But perhaps the most important platform in this genre was BreakingNews, an online reporting platform launched independently by Michael van Poppel in 2007, building a strong reputation as a trustworthy news source over a two-year period in which digital journalism changed significantly. That led big players to notice that this approach mattered. (The Miracle on the Hudson certainly helped matters from an attention standpoint.)

Suitably, MSNBC.com purchased the @BreakingNews Twitter account, operating it as a news site and mobile app before shutting it down in late 2016. Despite getting shut down, the work obviously mattered. As Cory Bergman, the general manager of BreakingNews, told Digiday in 2013:

We like to call it curation. Everything we publish is touched by an editor. The biggest challenge is balancing speed with truth, making sure you’re right and doing it quickly. The second frontier that we spent a lot of time thinking about is being relevant. There’s so much information that’s out there; how can we identify breaking news that’s happening now and match to someone’s interest? It’s a different animal than personalizing. We spend time figuring out how to balance speed and relevancy in a mobile world.

To put it lightly, its closure was a big loss, and one we’re still feeling the effects of nearly eight years later.

Many BreakingNews team members moved to the startup Factal, which offers a breaking-news-as-a-service platform for large companies. The BreakingNews Twitter account is technically still around, and is operated as a major-headlines feed for NBC. But the innovative work of the early 2010s has unfortunately been lost to time.

(BNO News, Michael van Poppel’s follow-up news feed, remains active.)

The problem with covering real-time news on a social media feed is that it’s not easy work. It is the kind of job that takes a lot of you, because news breaks at all hours of the day. To offer an example: I remember when the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan happened. I was up nearly the entire night, working to gather details when necessary—videos and photos that would emerge from small-time accounts and gradually emerge. I think I was up until 4AM that night, woke up at 6AM or 7AM, and was back at it.

And an error on social media can have dramatic effects. Infamously, NPR’s Andy Carvin was involved in one of the biggest mistakes of the real-time news era, an incorrect report that then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died in a mass shooting. (Giffords, fortunately, is with us today.) It was a tense moment where one of our key news organizations got it wrong. But the company learned from it and changed processes long term.

Put simply, it is a young person’s game, and it is incredibly easy to burn out, which is part of the reason you’re reading a long-form newsletter instead of a ShortFormBlog.

If you do not have a staff or strategy for managing real-time news updates, it can be difficult to capture all the details. Things can get missed. And it can create both gaps and incredible stress.

In this light, it’s understandable that a slightly slower approach to real-time journalism has won out. Do we want an environment where reporters get stuff wrong because they’re not taking a beat?

But we are still missing the immediacy of having a news feed where accurate information hits you in real time. When Twitter’s impulsive owner decided to make blue checkmarks a paid feature, it damaged longstanding journalistic verification processes. That meant news reporting’s value on the platform declined sharply. You could feel this during the bridge crisis, where conspiracy theories seemed to dominate the feed over accurate information.

Let’s say you’re a news consumer looking for accurate, real-time information. What are your options in 2024?

“Once you invest that time into building the right timeline with the right people, it is so powerful that it really can change how you engage with the world.”

— Freddie Johnson, a Foundation Ambassador for Newsmast, discussing the importance of building a quality feed for improving your social media experience. If high-quality information is at the forefront, that ensures you’re avoiding misinformation—or can at least contextualize it for what it is.

(Newsmast Foundation screenshot)

Can the fediverse help bring back the real-time news vibes? One nonprofit hopes so

If there was a single tweet that shaped the way Twitter evolved as a real-time news source, it came just two days after the Twitter deal was finalized. In the midst of Elon Musk bringing in a kitchen sink and gutting the company he just bought, he commented about the attack on Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul, which was the subject of homophobic conspiracy theories.

“There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” Musk wrote in reply to Hillary Clinton.

That message suggested the Twitter of the future would not be a good home for real-time journalism—and things only got worse from there. That spurred the founders of the Newsmast Foundation, a British charity focused on community-driven news-gathering, into action.

Newsmast’s Freddie Johnson said the early days of the Ukraine war opened up the nonprofit trustees’ eyes to the value of real-time news.

“What they really liked about it was that there was this spontaneous network of academics and journalists and people on the ground that appeared and provided real-time updates in the early days of the war much faster than conventional media,” Johnson explained. “So that kind of opened their eyes to the possibilities of microblogging and social media in a way they hadn’t before.”

The organization has strong journalistic bonafides in the form of founder Michael Foster, who helped launch the Financial Times’ digital presence in the late 1990s and later spent time at Reuters. The organization, in many ways, sees its mission as generating a community around real-time news discovery.

And given the new ownership, Twitter clearly wasn’t going to be the right home for this kind of work. So Newsmast has built around the fediverse, starting with its own server, and more recently expanding into software targeted at users on other servers.

The Newsmast social feed. You can access your regular Mastodon feed while still getting access to a variety of news outlets you might not have seen otherwise.

The result is a well-curated social media feed, operated from its own network of apps and web interfaces, built on top of an open ecosystem, that makes it easier to follow relevant news topics in a way that has since been lost on other platforms. Suddenly, you don’t feel like you’re losing much, even though the trending topics of Twitter are long gone. A good journalist or researcher knows how to build a feed like this. But the layperson might have trouble—and this curated approach helps improve the on-ramp.

You might wonder, why the fediverse? Johnson says that, despite the fact that the fediverse is not mainstream compared to, say, Tiktok, it has a lot of energy around open ecosystems, something a nonprofit like Newsmast can tap into.

“There’s a lot of really interesting people working in that ecosystem who we’ve been talking to, gotten in touch with, started to work with. We’re becoming a part of the Fediverse Developers Network and initiatives like that. The technology there is just really exciting, and it can bring a lot of social good. We like that it’s really open source. The underlying motivating philosophy of it is one we really like.”

Of course, the splintering of social media in the post-Twitter era hasn’t helped. It was once true that you could talk to most of your friends on one network. Now, many Twitter refugees are stuck having to navigate three or four.

The fediverse has, at times, struggled with a chasm between the existing community and its long-term potential, and that left room for competitors like Threads to hop in and fill the gap, albeit with less energy around Twitter’s traditional news-platform use case. Johnson says that while Newsmast has hitched its wagon to the fediverse, it is open to working with competitors like Bluesky. It has looked at technologies like Bridgy Fed, a tool that aims to connect the fediverse to other emerging networks like Bluesky and nostr, with deep interest.

“We would like to see the fediverse start to grow in a way that is more open to the rest of the Web,” Johnson said.

Johnson admits that not everyone embraces that POV—Bridgy Fed was a lightning rod in both the fediverse and Bluesky communities when it first emerged. But he respects the point of view of those who want a different kind of experience from Mastodon, Pleroma, or other similar tools.

“The fediverse is, I think, old enough and ugly enough to kind of grow to accommodate both parts,” Johnson said. “Basically, I don’t see them as being really in conflict, or really as an existential issue.”

All that said, the growth of projects like Newsmast could be a big element of what is necessary for services like Mastodon or Bluesky to grow. News was a major factor in Twitter’s evolution from massive party line to major social network, in part because it was seen as a way to keep people informed. It got folks past the geekier conversations and into thinking about the bigger picture. And Newsmast, built with a nonprofit infrastructure, believes it can help kick off a potential mainstreaming of open-source social media.

Johnson himself offers an example of what that could look like. He noted that while he didn’t come from a technical background, he understood innately what the service represented from an information standpoint.

“I am a heavy Twitter user, and I really liked the vision of the project, and this was the side of things that really kind of energized me,” Johnson recalled. “It’s like, how do we have better conversations with more accurate, truthful information to really drive forward discussion around the issues that matter?”

This was once a nut that Twitter had properly cracked; it was a system that had worked for years, and drew in a mass audience that wanted to be informed. Now, it’s up for grabs. And knowing that someone is working on it is valuable.

I honestly miss the period when news stories could break in real time on social media, and you could follow them second by second as they happened. Between the shuffle of Elon Musk and the decline of journalism, we have lost a good portion of that era.

It’s becoming clear, by the day, that we are left worse for wear by the journalistic gap left behind. The trending topics grow more vapid. The real news becomes increasingly at odds with speculation. Verification skills are replaced by megaphones and engagement tactics, and the actual story gets replaced with whatever makes the most noise.

(Jon Tyson/Unsplash)

News literacy gets lost in the process, and expert voices, people on the ground, and well-sourced storytellers get sidelined.

Projects like Newsmast deserve our attention because they provide the keys to return to where we once were, even if the lift admittedly feels a little heavy. In an era where journalism’s longstanding existential threat is beginning to feel less than theoretical, this is a problem that needs solving.

The sad part is, a decade ago, we had it solved.

--

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