The Chronicle Review

The Trouble With Twitter

Dave Cutler for The Chronicle Review

July 27, 2009

Just before the start of spring term, a friend and colleague in journalism sent an e-mail message to our department: Technology had changed, she wrote; perhaps our reporting curriculum should change with it. She planned to teach with a focus on live blogging and Twitter, and suggested that those students not particularly interested in using the new technology should be tracked into the other reporting class.

That is, my reporting class—one in which we emphatically would not use Twitter.

For those not in the know, Twitter is a microblogging service that allows members to report on what they're seeing, thinking, and feeling by posting comments that are limited to just 140 characters each. You can subscribe to someone's Twitter feed and receive what are called "tweets"—brief bits of information like "Sat through another of Prof. Hart's interminable lectures on the glories of literary nonfiction."

With its laughable name that itself suggests foolishness, Twitter has become the butt of media jokes. Doonesbury's Garry Trudeau created several comic strips mocking the inherent narcissism of its users and its inadequacy as a reporting tool. Earlier this year, Slate offered up a mockumentary of a start-up "nanoblogging" company called Flutter that allows users only 40 characters. "It just takes too long to compose a message with 140 characters," one entrepreneur says on the film, "and then you start getting bombarded by a few Tweets, and it's like hundreds of characters that you have to read."

Not everyone is laughing, though.

A few months ago, I sat across a cafe table from a local newspaper editor and watched the bewilderment on his face as he told me how the Internet has altered print journalism at his own paper. Recently some of its readers complained when they heard through word of mouth about a car accident in town but couldn't find updates on the newspaper's Web site. "We told them they had to wait until we'd investigated and could post a full report," he said, "and they demanded to know why we couldn't just Twitter the information right then." The answer, of course, is that 140 characters gives reporters just enough room to note who, what, where, why, and how in the most basic terms. That may be news, but it's not a news story.

"We're talking about laying people off," the editor added, "but hiring a full-time Internet reporter. And that person will Twitter."

With this new form of journalism to consider, I attended a lecture on "The Incredible Shrinking Newsroom" given by Martin Baron, editor of The Boston Globe. I sat sandwiched between two journalism students, both of them busily texting from their cellphones. In front of me sat another young man, bent over his laptop. I looked around and spotted even more students hunched over computers, wielding cellphones, or ready with their BlackBerrys, thumbs poised, waiting for Baron to begin his lecture. (They reminded me of a science teacher I had in high school, a man who told his students with some delight that humans were destined to evolve into an egg shape with one finger.)

The wistful editor noted how, in January 2007, he was forced to shut down all of the Globe's foreign bureaus because of declining revenue. Did the busily typing students, staring at their screens, hear the sorrow in Baron's voice as he recounted those closings, calling them "a signal of diminished ambitions"? Did those students notice the pain, fear, and indignation on the faces of their fellow audience members —older community members who had biked across town to hear the lecture, as well as 21-year-olds poised to graduate with dreams of careers in newspaper journalism? Or were they too busy Twittering?

Already, I can imagine some of my more technologically savvy friends chastising me—"Oh, Melissa, you're such an essayist." It's true: I tend to sit on a subject for a while, ruminating on it before disseminating my perspective. "You're like a cow chewing its cud," a friend once told me. "Reporters just take notes, then write the story."

To those who Twitter, the reporter who investigates a story before offering it to the public must also seem tediously ruminant. On Twitter, the notes become the story, devoid of even five minutes of reflection on the writer's way to the computer. I can see that there are times —an airplane landing in the Hudson, a presidential election in Iran—when this type of impromptu journalism becomes a necessity, and an exciting one at that. Luckily, reporters still exist to make sense of information bytes and expand upon them for readers—but for how much longer?

I worry that microblogging cheats my students out of their trump card: a mindful attention to the subject in front of them, so that they can capture its sights and sounds, its smells and tactile qualities, to share with readers. How can Twittering stories from laptops and phones possibly replace the attentive journalist who tucks a digital recorder artfully under a notepad, pencil behind one ear, and gives full attention to the subject at hand?

After Baron's lecture, I read the students' tweets. They commented on Baron's backward-looking pessimism; they noted the irony of the Globe's thriving Web site. Good, useful information—but with a lot of gaps. No one noted how the editor stood small at the podium, as if defeated, delivering what was supposed to be a rousing call to action in a voice diminished by desperation—the reason being, we found out later, the New York Times Company's threats that morning to shut down the Globe unless pay cuts went into effect immediately.

I read several tweets that focused on Baron's advice to "tell revealing stories in new ways and with dazzling new tools"—but none that described the audience, none that included observations about the hopeful young reporters who read their fate in the accounts of disappearing daily newspapers. There were no posts about the elderly man who stood up at the microphone after Baron's lecture to argue fiercely for the viability of tangible news.

I went home after the lecture and—hypocritically, I admit—updated my Facebook status and my blog to declare how much I despise Twitter. My friend in the journalism department responded by forwarding me an e-mail message she'd sent to her reporting class, showing how Twitter serves as a source of links to longer news stories. I found myself conceding this unexpected usefulness for microblogging as a source for links to complete New York Times articles on art and films, and as a venue for alerts from Powell's Books regarding upcoming sales.

Still, as a method for reporting the news, Twitter strikes me as ridiculous. It begs the question: What is news? Is it a stark factual sentence, or a well-crafted story steeped in sensory details, heavily dependent on the reporter's presence at the scene?

Arguing the latter, I sent my reporting students out to complete a digital-photo scavenger hunt on their beat—a three-block radius in Springfield, Ore. I instructed them to take public transportation, then find and photograph a list of 20 signs, shops, and landmarks. They were also to interview two strangers and ask them what they liked and disliked about their community. In this way, the students would learn firsthand about a new place and its people in order to produce engaging, thoroughly reported articles.

I worried that they'd find the assignment silly, irrelevant in this technological age. But no one countered my scavenger hunt with, "Can't we just research the community on the Internet?" Instead, with surprising good will on a rainy morning, the students set off in pairs to photograph rabbit carcasses hanging in a butcher shop, murals, graffiti, and witty signage in front of the new, controversial strip club. They interviewed strangers and reported back to me as we headed back an hour later to sit around a table in a classroom sans computers.

"I'm going back to the butcher shop to interview the owner," one young man told us, his eyes glowing. "Besides rabbit, he sells rattlesnake and alligator meat. Who buys that stuff?" Another student decided to devote the term to immersion journalism, inspired by a sign he'd seen outside a local strip club that day: "It said, 'We've got your stimulus package right here,'" he told us. "I want to investigate why these clubs thrive financially in the middle of a recession." The group continued to discuss their story ideas, and I left class that day excited to read their feature articles and profiles, reported by students eager to immerse themselves in learning about butcher shops and gun stores and diners.

If it's true that writers read in the genres they most enjoy crafting, then give me a painstakingly crafted investigative piece any day—a provocative story that challenges the reader to accompany the reporter on a path from question to revelation. Give me The Boston Globe's Michael Paulson and his incisive coverage of the election of the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Give me Sonia Nazario's heartbreaking series on a Honduran boy's illegal journey to the United States, printed in the Los Angeles Times.

Likely I'm being woefully short-sighted in my response to reporting via Twitter. Perhaps a news article really can be crafted, haikulike, in 140 characters.

My hat is off to those who can do it. I just don't want to read it.

Melissa Hart is an adjunct instructor of journalism at the University of Oregon and author of the forthcoming memoir Gringa: A Contradictory Girlhood (Seal, 2009).