This commentary is the modified text of a speech given to the Insight Exchange’s Twitter’s Impact on Media & Journalism event in June 2009.
In my daily professional life, I often feel as though I am a medieval knight who has been called into action to defend with sword and shield the honour of a great lady of noble birth.
That lady’s name, of course, is Journalism.
Now, there is no doubt that she is currently beset on all sides.
Her bountiful wealth of gold and silver is speedily disappearing as digital mediums demolish her traditional revenue models. Her social media rivals for our attention grow ever more beautiful as time goes on. And of course her virtue is beset by public relations professionals, whose numbers are legion.
And yet, I take solace from the fact that she has chosen the right champion.
I am not one of the traditional defenders of journalism.
I am not a 60-something newspaper editor who cannot understand the internet. I am not the chief executive of a television studio who is suing YouTube for re-publishing his TV news clips. And I am not a media magnate with a sprawling publishing empire that needs to keep his share price up by talking up his print assets.
I am only 28 years old and I am a member of Generation Y. I have an iPhone, a MacBook, Facebook and Twitter accounts, a blog, an Xbox and a Nintendo Wii. I know what re-tweeting is and how to do it, and I am the perpetrator of many a rickroll.
As a journalist, I have been publishing professional articles on the internet for the past 10 years and am currently the news editor of ZDNet.com.au, a website which is Australia’s largest business technology publication.
In short … I am Sir Lancelot. And I and many others like me represent the future of journalism. The media industry is entering the age where Generation Y becomes management.
With this in mind, you may well ask, what is my opinion of Twitter’s impact on the media and journalism?
Firstly, Twitter is not “the death of the traditional journalist” and it does not represent a “threat” to the media. Twitter is a “playground of pleasure” for journalists and represents a fantastic opportunity to the media.
There is one simple reason why.
Twitter represents a way for journalists to get back to their grassroots history and connect with readers and audiences in the most personal way.
There is no doubt that our society’s journalism has stagnated over the past 20 years. In the 1970’s, the lady we call journalism was holding clandestine meetings in parking garages with Deep Throat to expose presidential corruption.
Thirty years later, she’s become a depressed, old and chain-smoking has-been. We know this because university studies have exposed the fact that much of what we call journalism today is in fact composed of press release re-writes.
No wonder Generation Y spends more time on Facebook than reading the Washington Post … or even the Huffington Post. Journalism has dropped the ball. But Twitter represents a way to put that diamond tiara back on journalism’s head.
Every day now, I see Australians using Twitter to connect directly with journalists that they previously had little or no access to. Every day now, I see journalists using Twitter to connect directly with readers and audiences they previously had little or no access to.
This is because Twitter is the greatest tool humanity has yet discovered for facilitating relationships between people who have never met, yet have a common interest.
The only currency it recognises is valuable information.
When journalists succeed in delivering valuable information, Twitterers reward them through recognition, increased distribution and by trusting us with confidential information that will lead to more articles. When journalists make mistakes or simply don’t do a good enough job, Twitterers curse us, demand that we do better and threaten to read the news somewhere else.
In short, Twitter is cutting the fat out of journalism.
The starkest example of this impact that I have personally seen came when, in the closing months of 2008, Australia’s IT industry went through a massive round of layoffs in reaction to the global financial crisis.
Twitter went crazy.
The first thing that I witnessed was an amazement on the part of Twitterers that the media was not investigating the redundancies with the rigour we should have been. This was a righteous anger. Isn’t it “our media”? Shouldn’t they be covering the fact that I and hundreds of others in my company have lost their jobs?
They were right.
So ZDNet.com.au swung into action. Stimulated by our readers and our newfound relationship with them via Twitter, we started investigating the cuts in the IT industry.
After the first few articles went up, we experienced a snowball effect. We started getting dozens of tips through Twitter direct messages about layoffs. We wrote dozens of stories about them. We did what the media is supposed to do; provide an information service to its readers, despite the disapproval of powerful people.
We published information that only an independent press can publish. Information that would end careers if published by those who leaked it to us. Information that demonstrated the value of journalism to society. This ‘snowball’ effect we saw during that period was in fact a strong example of the relationship between journalists and their audiences being renewed in an amazingly positive way; and much of it was done through Twitter.
And we’ve seen that snowball effect happen again and again and again since that time. Journalists being driven by the needs of their readers rather than commercial agendas.
Now you might think that all this is pretty amazing. But here’s the really mind-blowing thing.
You can take that principle of community engagement through Twitter and apply it to any issue or event, no matter how small. Audiences and journalists can and are using Twitter to work together on coverage of issues as large as national politics. But they are also using this snowball effect to build community and coverage of events as small as an under 7’s soccer game.
Any niche coverage is valuable as long as there is an audience interested in it. This sort of reporting is what many in the media industry are calling “hyperlocal journalism”.
Over the next few years you’ll hear arguments that social media can replace traditional media. And there is no doubt that in some ways it can. Twitter as a platform is currently doing a stellar job of covering the situation in Iran: a situation that traditional journalists face political challenges in reporting on.
Over time, you will see the principle of citizen reporting being used in Iran being applied to every situation in life; whether it be as big as an election or as small as a primary school soccer game.
But this won’t negate the need for professional journalists to work with the community to publish and investigate information that nobody else can. The reality is Twitter and journalists need to work together. Many of the best journalists already know this and are getting on the Twitter bandwagon. Others will fall by the wayside as they ignore the wave of the future.
Now the time has come for me to get back to work and return to King Arthur’s round table.
But I want to leave you with one thought: Twitter is not the great evil for journalists and media. In fact it is a playground of pleasure that is helping to renew journalism and bring that great lady back to her rightful throne.
This commentary is the personal opinion of ZDNet.com.au news editor Renai LeMay and does not necessarily represent the view of his employer, CBS Interactive. Renai is one of Australia’s most prolific technology journalists and twitters at @renailemay.
Formerly a senior journalist with ZDNet.com.au, he returned to lead the site’s news team in July 2008 after a stint as one of the Australian Financial Review’s main technology reporters. He has also contributed to MIS Magazine, australia.internet.com and SitePoint.