While Twitter has radically changed the way news is reported, disseminated and consumed in markets abroad, is this the case in South Africa, where data is expensive and uptake slow?
Award-winning journalist, author and social media trainer Gus Silber thinks so. Silber first realised the importance of Twitter in 2009, when US Airways Flight 1549 crashed into the Hudson River just outside New York. An ordinary eyewitness snapped a photo of the half submerged plane on his phone and tweeted it. The photo went all the way around the world before the major news network helicopters even found the crash site.
“As journalists, we often fantasise about being on the scene first, getting the story out first. Twitter can help us do this. Since then [the Hudson crash], it’s become indispensable, as much a part of the arsenal as pen and notebooks; in fact, more so now that smartphones can record everything,” says Silber. “You can connect instantly to the news and send it to the world, which is the instinct of any journalist.”
Twitter’s immediacy has changed the nature of the scoop, he adds. “In South Africa, journalists are usually working for the big newspapers. If there’s a major news event, they don’t wait for their papers anymore, they now have to tweet the news immediately.”
When Beeld reporters heard from two independent sources that Oscar Pistorius had shot Reeva Steenkamp, they made the decision to break the story on Twitter because there was a good chance they’d be scooped if they waited for their newspapers to be printed. Says Silber, “No one thinks of who broke a story first anymore because the stream moves so fast. Stories are routinely broken on Twitter and no one cares who broke them.”
Eyewitness News (EWN) reporter Barry Bateman and his colleagues found themselves with massive Twitter followings during the precursor to the upcoming Pistorius trial, due to the international interest in the case. Bateman says his following peaked at around 139 000 on the day Pistorius was released on bail. As he returned to reporting the general news, he lost hundreds of those followers.
“It generally is the international followers who unfollow because they’re not interested in SA news. But there were also a significant number of South Africans who were only interested in the celebrity aspect of the Pistorius matter, as opposed to the South African news in general. They’ve also unfollowed and come back when the matter resumes in court.”
Nevertheless, he has built significantly on his own brand and that of his organisation.
But, says Bateman, Twitter is not a substantive news platform in its own right. “[Social media] hasn’t become a medium entirely independent of other, perhaps traditional, news media. Twitter and other social media are being incorporated into the traditional news stream, supporting other means of news consumers getting information. By its nature, it can’t carry the entire story.
“Twitter is either used for live coverage or a ‘throw forward’ to other media. While on a story I tweet. I take pictures, which I tweet and are used on the website. I file for the radio, and my radio bulletins are transcribed and edited to be used online. I will then tweet to send followers to the online story.”
Silber says Bateman is an example of how Twitter has broken down traditional hierarchies and boundaries: between reporters in the field and those in the newsroom; between the journalist and the public; and about what characterises ‘qualified’ journalists. It has created stars out of people who would otherwise not have been, he says.
“Barry Bateman is a global social media authority with a vast number of followers who will never hear his voice or see him, but he’s THE guy on a certain issue.
“This is difficult to do deliberately. EWN could put up billboards all over Gauteng with his face on them and it wouldn’t have as much impact as his tweeting 140 characters.”
Former Daily Maverick political correspondent Sipho Hlongwane, who now writes a column for Business Day, is another prime example. Hlongwane has made a career for himself as a journalist, columnist and ‘opinionista’, with much more of a profile than many a seasoned hack, on the back of his social media savvy.
Hlongwane says he merely learned how to engage with people: “I certainly owe my chances to contacts I made on Twitter. [But] I don’t think that the way I used it to find a start in journalism can be described as unique. I merely did what any decent social media strategist would tell you to do: I followed news people, engaged robustly in their conversations and wrote as much as possible. I found a way to make Twitter work for me.”
Bateman, similarly, attributes his success on Twitter to his “eagerness to exploit one of the key features of social media – its interactivity. I try as much as is reasonably possible to engage with followers on the stories I’m covering. With Pistorius, this was amplified because I think people generally don’t quite understand or are unfamiliar with the justice system – I provided as much clarity on this as possible.”
But, says Hlongwane, social media can encourage shallow engagement. “Social media has been falsely made to be [representative of] the South African zeitgeist in some articles. You will often see a Twitter vox pop presented as a cross-section of the population, when in fact it only represents a fraction of those well off enough to be online.
“So the ubiquity of these new platforms may be breeding a new complacency and shallowness in our work.”
Silber says that Twitter is becoming more representative as more South Africans have access to the internet, even in rural areas, and is an invaluable place to take soundings of public opinion. It’s not just a tool for distribution either – it’s a source of stories. But he agrees that journalists risk shallow engagement. “Sources are online and active all the time. It’s partly a negative thing, because there is a temptation to conduct your job from your desk. So you must take it a bit further and have a unique conversation.”
He has some tips for journalists who use Twitter (which will very soon be all journalists). Firstly: don’t be boring. “You want to present yourself as a multi-faceted personality… The real pros can tweet the funny, mundane or trivial. People like to feel they are having a conversation with you as if they were standing around a braai. Don’t just tweet formulaic dispatches from the front line.” And balance this with the awareness that you are visible and audible to lots of people, he adds.
Secondly, be multi-talented. “Journalism these days no longer means what it used to mean… Social media are blurring rigid boundaries. Take someone like Greg Marinovich, who is a photojournalist, but also writes very compellingly,” says Silber.
Since Twitter makes it possible to publish content instantly, journalists don’t have time to send their copy through the usual gatekeepers – sub-editors, and even news editors. So reporters must play these roles too. “What makes this harder is that journalists may not have the experience of judgement – things that have been traditionally decided by the editorial staff. Journalists have to think quickly on their feet, be savvy and not make mistakes about accuracy. Journalists have to start thinking like editors and editors need to be au fait with social media,” says Silber.
Thirdly, it’s not just reporters who should be tweeting. Everyone in a news organisation should be active on social media, from mahogany row down.
“Former Mail & Guardian editor Nic Dawes is a good example. He was a very active tweeting editor. He would tweet on Wednesday or Thursday nights about the buzz in the newsroom. It was brand building and it makes the M&G seem active and dynamic, and gives us a behind-the-scenes sense of the newspaper.”
Twitter may seem intimidating to the uninitiated. But in fact it’s just an extension of what journalists should do anyway, says Silber. “As a journalist you should be interested in people; you want to connect and engage with people. It’s important to follow lots of different people… Twitter mirrors our democracy – it’s an important mini-parliament.”