Just why do journalists love Twitter so much?

Om Malik highlighted a survey by Muckrake which shows a bigger proportion of journalists expecting to spend more time on Twitter in the next year than less:

To anyone following the trajectory which Twitter under Musk has taken this makes no sense at all. The service suspended the accounts of journalists who criticised him. It curtailed efforts to prevent attacks on women journalists, leading to an upsurge in more attacks. It reinstated the accounts of far right activists who had been suspended because of threats to journalists. It has deliberately reduced the reach of posts mentioning Substack, a platform which many journalists use to directly reach audiences.

And of course this is in addition to providing a safe harbour for bigots, racists, homophobes, transphobes, anti-semites, anti-vax myth peddlers, climate change deniers, and mass murderers who have been charged with war crimes.

So why do journalists appear so reluctant to even reduce their time on Twitter, let alone abandon what’s obviously a dying platform which is slowly choking on the hate that Musk is encouraging?

There are a few factors at play. The first is that most journalists are incredibly conservative when it comes to new technology of any kind. Journalists were slow to understanding blogging and how it was going to change publishing. They were slow to social media: as Anil Dash points out, “prestige media won’t go to the fediverse for another 2 years, same lag where they didn’t think Twitter existed until after Ashton Kutcher legitimized it.”

The second is that almost universally journalists overestimate the amount of engagement and traffic which accrue from Twitter versus any other kind of social media. When I worked in audience development, I would often ask journalists who weren’t familiar with traffic numbers where they thought social traffic came from. Universally, they would put Twitter at the top.

In fact, referrals from Facebook dwarf Twitter, and they always have. Facebook accounts for 90% of social media traffic for publisher and news websites, 10x that of Twitter:

That red smudge? That’s Twitter. The grey whale? Facebook.
That red smudge? That’s Twitter. The grey whale? Facebook.

If what you care about is ordinary people reading your stories, you will get 10x the results from effort put into Facebook vs Twitter.

What you won’t get – and this is the important point – is 10x the attention from other journalists. Journalists love Twitter because it connects them to other journalists. It’s talking shop, and shop window for themselves and their work. Some journalists have made their careers through being noticed by other journalists on Twitter: there is an entire coterie of political journalists, for example, who have become “big beasts” because of the attention they get there, not from ordinary people, but from other journalists.

Journalism is an intensely social and sociable practice. It’s also often – particularly in newspapers – run on a “who you know” basis, which is one of the reasons that over half the top 100 journalists in the UK went to public school. Being able to parade your engagement skills on Twitter in front of your peers has helped people get jobs, and, at the very least, it can establish your name.

So no, I’m not surprised that journalists are clinging to Twitter like a life raft, despite the direct attacks from Musk, the bigotry, and the clear decline in the platform’s importance to ordinary people. It’s not about the plebs. It never was.

What is an “editorial line”?

Journalism isn’t the most transparent of trades. And a trade it is — despite the best efforts of all involved in my working education, I’ll never think of journalism as a profession. But like all trades, it has its methods and modes of action, and people who aren’t journalists often don’t know what they are. One of the elements we don’t talk about is the editorial line, what it is, and how it manifests itself in publications.

An editorial line is a set of beliefs about what is essential to your audience and desires to make that audience understand that certain things are important. Good journalism is balancing the two. Journalism which is only about what the audience cares about, is really just entertainment. Journalism which is only about what you believe is vital for the audience to start thinking about, is really just propaganda.

Editorial lines have an impact in two places. First, there’s the selection of stories you choose to publish. “Magazine” comes from the Middle French word “magasin”, which means a warehouse or store, and like a warehouse, it’s a collection of disparate things chosen by humans. And, also like a warehouse, it’s not finite: you can’t publish every possible story. So instead, you must decide what stories to put together in your collection. So you are always choosing which stories to publish based on that balance of what the audience wants and what you believe is important for the audience to know or believe.

The second place the editorial line manifests is in the angle of the story. Every story has an angle, a direction which the writer wishes to take the reader along. Although the first duty of any reporter is to report the facts, you can’t write all the facts: facts are interlinked and often rely on more facts to prove they are true. So you have to choose what facts to report.

And, of course, you have to interest the reader, which means moving them along in the story, keeping them engaged with it as you go. This is why salaciously-written stories are often so successful: salacious comes from the word salire, which means to leap on something with lust. Salire is also the root of salient, as in “the salient point” — something all good reporters get to as quickly as possible to draw the reader into the story.

How you draw people into a story — how you choose which points are salient, whether something needs to be salacious, and so on — depends on the editorial line. But, of course, you might not have an explicit editorial line on every topic. Still, you have a good idea of what the audience is interested in, which is how the audience feels about the world and what things your publication believes they need to care about more (or less). Based on that, you can understand what points are salient to them in a story.

Are editorial lines set by the politics of the owner and editor? Partly: but more important in any publication is the politics of the intended audience. Remember, you’re not trying to brainwash them: if you are, then you are propagandists, not journalists.