Media companies and Twitter — still mostly doing it wrong

Birdhouses

We’ve written before about the difficulties many mainstream media entities have when it comes to adopting social-media tools like Twitter and engaging with their users. So there’s some good news in a new study of major media outlets by the Pew Research Center: namely, the fact that plenty of them have Twitter accounts. Unfortunately, it also shows that the main thing most of them do with those accounts — and the main thing most of their reporters also do — is simply broadcast links to their own content all day long. By doing so, unfortunately, they are missing out on many of the things that can make social media a powerful tool for journalism.

The report was put together by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism along with George Washington University, and looked at 3,600 tweets from 13 of the country’s major newspapers, radio and TV stations sources over the course of a week. More than 90 percent of the tweets sent by the Twitter accounts for those organizations contained links to their own websites — only 6 percent of them contained links to a non-news related website, 1 percent linked to another news site, and less than 1 percent were without links. In other words, most are using their Twitter accounts as a glorified RSS feed, as Megan Garber noted at the Nieman Journalism Lab blog.

I suspect this is because most media outlets have simply plugged an RSS feed or other automated process into their branded Twitter account, pumping links out and hoping to drive traffic to those stories. And the main reason many organizations do this is that it is easy to do and doesn’t require a staffer to handle, making it low cost in an era of declining employment in traditional media. Some news outlets are breaking with this tradition, however, including the New York Times — which has experimented with moving its feed from automated to “human curated” twice this year, and plans to do so again soon, according to a recent tweet from social-media editor Lexi Mainland.

Readers care about information, not “scoops”

Obviously, not every news organization is going to feel comfortable linking to some other entity’s news website — although I and others have argued that doing this actually increases the trust that your readers or viewers have in you, rather than diminishing it. Although much of the news business is obsessed with “scoops,” the reality is that most readers just want information, and if someone else has it, it’s worth giving that link to them regardless of who it is. Steve Buttry of Journal-Register Co. has a great overview of how a media organization can use a Twitter account to both promote its own work but also contribute to the conversation around the news.

But one of the biggest flaws in the behavior that the Pew report describes doesn’t have anything to do with links: it’s the fact that none of these major news outlets are using Twitter to ask their readers or viewers for help with news stories, or for their opinions about something the organization has done. As we’ve pointed out before at GigaOM, seeing the media relationship as a one-way street is not only short-sighted — because it deprives the organization of a rich source of feedback and tips — but could actually make the problems the media industry is experiencing worse instead of better.

As the Pew report noted, only 2 percent of the tweets from major media accounts asked followers for information of some kind — either to help with a story or simply as feedback or opinion. Less than 1 percent of the tweets from the New York Times did this and just 3 percent from the Washington Post (surprisingly, even the social-media savvy Huffington Post did this in only 3 percent of its tweets). The number one outlet when it came to asking for input was Fox News, which did this in 20 percent of its posts to Twitter.

One thing that could explain this disparity is that some newspapers and other media outlets prefer to let their individual editors and reporters — or in some cases, their social-media editors — do the outreach to their readers, instead of the main account for the organization. However, the Pew report also noted that very few of the top accounts for these media outlets (based on the number of followers) did this either. In some cases, that could be because the most-followed accounts are held by media celebrities who rarely engage with anyone, such as Rachel Maddow.

But apart from the other factors that hold many outlets and individual journalists back when it comes to engaging with readers through social media — fear, a lack of time, a lack of knowledge about the benefits, etc. — some organizations have only themselves to blame, because their blinkered social-media policies handcuff most of their staff by preventing them from acting like human beings, as I have noted before and former Washington Post reporter Rob Pegoraro also discussed in a recent post. As a result, that two-way street still has plenty of one-way traffic on it, it seems.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users World Economic Forum

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