When Twitter recently posted a job listing for a “head of news and journalism,” it sparked a rash of posts and commentary about how the company was becoming a media entity — until Twitter staffer Mark Luckie tossed cold water on that idea with an interview in which he poo-poohed the notion that Twitter had any plans to be a media company. But Luckie’s response misses the point completely, which is that in every way that really matters, Twitter already is a powerful media entity. Depending on how you see the future of media, that is both good and bad.
There’s no question that some of the reaction to the company’s job posting has strained the bounds of credulity: media gadfly and failed media entrepreneur Michael Wolff, for example, wrote about how the person who became Twitter’s head of news and journalism would have a job “more important than Jeff Zucker’s at CNN,” one that would be like “running a network news division in the 1970s or 80s, the biggest job that there has ever been in news.”
“Given the choice between being the executive editor of the New York Times or being the first Twitter news chief, you’d be well advised to think twice.”
Twitter says it isn’t a media operation
Wolff’s description is more than a little hyperbolic — but at the same time, not entirely untrue. Emily Bell, head of the Tow Center at Columbia University and former head of digital operations at The Guardian, described Twitter recently as “the most significant invention for journalism since the telephone,” and her opinion is shared by many in the media and outside it. For all its flaws, the service that started as a simple messaging app with a weird name has become a critical piece of the real-time information and journalistic infrastructure.
In his interview with PBS MediaShift, Luckie — who got his start doing social media for the Washington Post and was hired by Twitter last year to be part of their growing media-outreach team — downplayed the company’s media ambitions, saying the service wants to be a partner for media companies, and has no intentions of hiring reporters or editors, creating content or doing any of the other things that traditional media entities typically do.
“Twitter doesn’t have ambitions to be a news operation. Because Twitter is so central to what a lot of newsrooms are doing, naturally there’s a lot of hype around this position. No, Twitter has no editorial team. We’re not out there curating news, or saying, “here’s the source that you have to go to.” We’re not writing stories. We’re simply providing a platform for other people to do so.”
But I think Luckie’s response — while perhaps being technically true — misses the much larger point about what we mean when we say “digital-media entity,” and the increasingly powerful role that Twitter and other tools and services are playing in that ecosystem. In a nutshell, much of the power that used to reside with the creators of content has been moving to those who have platforms to disseminate it.
Where does the power lie in media?
The reality is that hiring journalists and creating content, as valuable as those things are (and I would like to stipulate that they are hugely valuable, before any traditional media fans get out the tar and feathers) is only part of what constitutes a media entity in the digital age. The other factor that is almost as valuable — and perhaps even more so, depending on your perspective — is the ability to aggregate, filter, distribute and monetize that content.
For a long time, traditional media entities like newspapers and TV networks owned both of these aspects of the media ecosystem, but that is no longer the case. Now, the most powerful platforms for distributing — and potentially monetizing — journalism and other kinds of content are not made of paper or TV tubes or coaxial cable, and they are not owned by family-run media conglomerates. They are companies like Twitter and YouTube and Facebook.
It’s true that Twitter in particular has focused on selling itself as a partner for media companies, rather than a competitor, which is one of the reasons why CEO Dick Costolo has tried hard to resist any attempt to paint the service as a media entity. Instead — as with Luckie’s interview — the company would much rather describe how it works hand-in-hand with media outlets, the benefits that accrue from having a strong Twitter presence, etc.
Twitter is a partner, but also a competitor
At the same time, however, blog pioneer and digital-media entrepreneur Dave Winer has a point when he repeatedly warns media companies that Twitter is not their friend: in a very real sense, as I’ve tried to argue before, Twitter has built a powerful media company without having to create any of its own content — and every TV network “crawl” that features tweets, and every newspaper story that mentions a reporter’s Twitter handle subtly reinforces that position.
Even the use of Twitter Cards or “expanded tweets” is what I’ve described as a double-edged sword for media companies: it promotes their content, but it also shows an excerpt that might be enough to satisfy many readers — in exactly the same way that Google does with Google News, something that many media companies have criticized and even required payment for.
I am in full agreement with Emily Bell and others who say Twitter is one of the best tools for journalism and media that we have ever seen, and there is no question that it has changed the media environment for the better in a whole range of ways. But let’s not kid ourselves about whether it is a media company or not — it obviously is, in almost all of the ways that really matter, and other media players need to be as clear-eyed about that as possible.