News Finds Fresh Niche On Twitter
Site's Users Spread The Word in Real Time

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 2009

Is Twitter no longer an ultra-hip refuge for the perpetually plugged-in?

Now that Time's cover has certified it as part of mass culture, the quirky little Web site can hardly be dismissed as a mere oddity. And the masses that have jumped from MySpace to Facebook to Twitter might at any moment decamp for some hot new hangout.

But the site is less important than the way its users are changing the media culture. They are exchanging more than just 140-character bursts of blather about their daily lives: They are guiding their friends and followers to the latest news, information, gossip, snark and a pulsating, real-time debate. Old-style news outlets would kill for that sense of belonging.

When I mentioned on my Twitter page that I would be talking on the air about Conan O'Brien taking over "The Tonight Show," I got a flood of messages. Some called him a genius, others think he's a goofball. What I quickly learned is that O'Brien is a polarizing figure in the late-night world, loved and loathed with equal fervor.

The speed is often blinding as people tap updates from their phones. "If you're looking for interesting articles or sites devoted to Kobe Bryant, you search Google," Time's Steven Johnson wrote. "If you're looking for interesting comments from your extended social network about the three-pointer Kobe just made 30 seconds ago, you go to Twitter."

Twitter's 17 million monthly visitors -- up from just over 1 million a year ago -- are shaping their environment, such as making discussions easily searchable by including the hashtag or pound (#) symbol. They create an echo-chamber effect by "re-tweeting" -- that is, repeating -- noteworthy observations or links. But as with Facebook, whose redesigned news feed now resembles Twitter, the ultimate appeal is forging connections. USA Today last week lamented the sheer banality of most status updates, but even these provide a sense of someone's routine, interests and sense of humor.

The guilty pleasure of peeking into another person's life is heightened when said person is prominent, whether it's a network anchor, a politician or the likes of Shaq, Oprah or Ashton Kutcher. Oh look, Chris Cuomo's daughter is sick. Hey, Bonnie Fuller got drenched while lugging bags around Central Park and her hair got mega-frizzy.

Not everyone buys the notion that this is a step forward for mankind. "For celebrities, Twitter is a gigantic ego stroke," writes CBS Sports columnist Gregg Doyel. "It's a game of narcissist strip poker, and you're the thong."

Sure, the boldfaced names may provide carefully calibrated glimpses, but some actively engage with their fan base.

I became friendly with Mariel Hemingway when the actress began following me on Twitter. When I began checking out her page, I was struck by how often she shared the details of her life, from her hiking to her bedtime. Without any handlers or publicists, we agreed to meet for a CNN interview when I was in Los Angeles.

"I'm a very private person," Hemingway told me. "But I find it wonderfully comforting to know that there's just people out there to connect with that -- yes, they don't know me, but . . . I think you feel a closeness with people, and it's a great way to kind of get what your message is out there." In her case, that includes promoting her new cookbook.

The instant feedback is also having an impact on reporting. I asked my Twitter followers last week what they valued about the site, and was deluged with responses that would have taken days of calling to collect:

Amy Salit: "Twitter is a great newsfeed; a blog that you can fashion to fit your own interests, with the potential to be much more."

Mary Dellaporta: "Twtr certainly offers insight into the exponential lack of substance that IS the banal journalism of neo TV anchors & pundits."

Jon Braunstein: "Twitter feeds our desire for real-time play-by-play of the world. Instant, impressionistic news."

Joan Stephens: "A lot of interesting links to stories the MSM doesn't cover."

Newsjunkie365: "Since Twitter my web surfing for news has greatly decreased. Now the news comes to me."

D Tollison: "I like it because I feel like I'm 'in the room,' like when I read your tweets."

Jamie White: "In many ways it is replacing 'over the fence' and chatty phone calls."

Such comments capture the digital ethos: news hand-delivered and informally rendered by people you like (or like to argue with). The New York Times, which has hired a social media editor, recently launched Times People, which allows readers to follow Times reporters, click on articles they recommend and respond to other commenters.

A number of operations are exploiting the phenomenon known as crowdsourcing. Take the consumer review site Yelp, where legions of ordinary folks in metropolitan areas evaluate restaurants, shopping and nightlife.

On his Recovering Journalist blog, former Washington Post reporter Mark Potts calls Yelp "a very powerful tool. . . . Why grapple with clumsy newspaper entertainment-guide and calendar interfaces, and take the word of a single, over-stretched reviewer, when you can quickly see what the crowd is saying on Yelp about the place you want to go?" Of course, the wisdom of the crowds is not always infallible, and reviewers often bring experience and discernment to the table.

The connective tissue here is a network of strangers whose opinions you come to value. On Twitter, I follow people as varied as ABC's Jake Tapper, AOL founder Steve Case, cultural critic Touré and comedian Sarah Silverman. But I also hear from all manner of partisans, bloggers, publicists, politicos, students and stay-at-home moms.

Twitter has its tedious side. I don't have something fascinating to say every few minutes, and neither does anyone else. But in this era of corporate downsizing, journalists had better get good at making friends.

Not Safe for Work

The Huffington Post, a strikingly successful site with all manner of news, blogs and video, has been playing up photos of exposed female flesh.

When Natalie Portman, Beyoncé and Pamela Anderson have wardrobe malfunctions, Arianna Huffington's site provides the evidence. There has been a spate of pictures and slideshows with such headlines as "Guess the Celebrity Breast Implants."

Washington City Paper's Amanda Hess finds this jarring for a liberal site. Readers, she writes, "care so much about nipples that the Huffington Post devotes pages and pages of photographs to them when women accidentally (or, you know, against their will) reveal them to the public. In that way, there's no difference between the religious conservative who is scandalized by a bare breast popping up in the middle of his football game and a liberal Web site which devotes its resources to naked chicks. A woman's body part is a priority. Real women's issues, not so much."

Huffington dismisses this argument by e-mail, calling it "silly and highly limiting to assume that all progressives can't wait to get to the orgy and all conservatives have a chastity belt in their drawer. . . . As the Washington City Paper's blogger herself points out, we have a wide range of news and opinion on all our sections -- including our Entertainment section.

"Looking for hidden political agendas in every article and every photo on HuffPost will lead to some very convoluted conclusions. As Freud said, 'Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar' -- and a nipple slip is just a nipple slip."

Liberal Comeback

Progressive radio returns to Washington this month as Air America takes over 1050 AM, which had been Federal News Radio, under a deal with Bonneville International. The station, which plans to add local programming, launches months after Redskins owner Dan Snyder pulled the plug on ratings-challenged OBAMA 1260.

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