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06.17.09

The Media Can Profit from Twitter's Big Week

The micro-blogging service is leading the Iran election coverage and is even breaking big sports news. But its newfound dominance doesn’t have to be bad news for traditional news organizations, says Larry Kramer.

Plus, read more insight on Iran's election from other Daily Beast writers.

As if the year hasn’t been tough enough for the media, the press’ role in disseminating news took some harsh blows this week.

Consider this lead on a wire story on CBSSports.com on Wednesday:

“MINNEAPOLIS—Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love says on Twitter that Kevin McHale will not return as coach next season.

“In an update posted early Wednesday, Love tweeted, ‘Today is a sad day…Kevin McHale will NOT be back as head coach this season.’”

Media will no longer be the filter through which all news must pass. That genie is out of the bottle.

These words were not followed by any official confirmation, but by this:

“Upon seeing the posting, a person in the league was told McHale sent a text message to Love indicating he was not coming back. The person requested anonymity because no official announcement has been made.”

So one Tweeter goes on the record to say the coach has been fired, and a worldwide news organization, even after the information is public, is reduced to a secondhand rumor from an unnamed source.

“P.S. I am not a breaking news guys...” Love further tweeted, according to the wire report…which I assume is at least reporting the tweets accurately. “I had no idea no one knew…I’ll tell them I stayed at a holiday inn express last night. Always works...”

This is just the latest incident to highlight the growing role the general public is taking in news dissemination. Raw, unfiltered, and without any known standards to follow, news on Twitter from nonprofessional journalists can be inaccurate and even dangerous. But even knowing that, the public is quickly gravitating toward interactive social networks and devices like Twitter.

Go back just one day and look at what is happening in Iran. Twitter became the delivery method of choice for news out of Iran. The only action the Obama administration took to try to ensure the free flow of information out of Iran over the last couple of days was to ask the Web programmers who work on Twitter to delay a planned upgrade that would have shut down the system during daylight in Iran.

The White House made no pleas to give our news agencies access or protection to do their job. The State Department knew where people were getting their information—and knew that Twitter was difficult for any government to control.

What does this mean for traditional news organizations?

For one thing, they can’t afford to be lazy or continue to ignore their readers. Form matters as much as substance now. News consumers want news on demand and in formats that work for them. They know a tweet is real-time and they like its precision and efficiency. And they like the feeling they are being put right on the scene. They can feel the emotion.

The old image of the City Hall reporter with his feet up on his desk, being handed a press release and turning it into a story without ever having to move, may be a bit unfair, but it doesn’t matter. Media will no longer be the filter through which all news must pass. That genie is out of the bottle.

Basketball player Kevin Love’s tweets are interesting to the public—more interesting than what the fifth, sixth, or seventh beat reporter covering the Timberwolves is giving them. In fact, sometimes more interesting than what the No. 1 beat writer is giving them. People don’t need a reporter to give them access to what a person of interest is thinking.

The media needs to find its place in the new-media world. It will be needed. There were already concerns that the Iranian government was sending out disinformation on Twitter in Iran. Just as Twitter becomes an effective medium, it will surely be co-opted by evildoers and hucksters who can take advantage of its lack of filtering. There will be a need to curate the growing tsunami of information.

But the media is learning the hard way that the tsunami can’t be ignored. It is changing the world as we know, and we have to find a way to make it better and to be part of it…not cling to our old ways of doing it. And the media needs to improve. In the throes of cutback after cutback, the content being presented is suffering. Newspapers have allowed themselves to become largely irrelevant.

While it is true that news will not be delivered 12 hours later on a printed and delivered piece of paper, it is just as true that boring news, or news that doesn’t advance what a reader already knows, will be just as useless.

Editing and context will be valued, but only to the point where readers/viewers believe it’s helping to advance their absorption of information. Smart opinions and firsthand reports will grow in value.

Our news organizations need to understand these audience changes and become part of the new ecosystem in a way that enhances these living streams of information, not ignore them.

Larry Kramer is senior adviser at Polaris Venture Partners, a venture-capital firm. He served as the first president of CBS Digital Media. Prior to joining CBS, Kramer was chairman, CEO, and founder of MarketWatch Inc. Kramer spent more than 20 years as a reporter and editor at the San Francisco Examiner, the Washington Post, and the Times of Trenton.