Braking News

End breaking-news alerts delivered through e-mail? Not so fast

Traditional news got beat yesterday. First, the professional celebrity-stalkers over at TMZ broke the news—a full hour before any other news outlet did—that Michael Jackson had died. Then Wikipedia, in a reprise of the role it played upon Tim Russert’s death last year, updated its MJ entry to reflect the news—before major news outlets posted anything about the story. And news of the death—based on TMZ’s reporting, which traditional news organizations apparently weren’t able to confirm independently—fired through the Twitterverse before even a whiff of it reached the home pages of traditional news organizations.

“We saw more than double the normal tweets per second the moment the news broke—the biggest increase since the US presidential election (and Twitter has grown tremendously since then),” Biz Stone noted of that firestorm, in an e-mail to The New York Times.

As a result of all that, today we’re being treated to many different specimens of Twitter Triumphalism. The most prominent of those being Robert Niles’s declaration, posted to the Online Journalism Review, that “It’s time to drop e-mail as a breaking news medium.”

E-mail remains a great way to communicate with readers who prefer that medium. Many readers love to get regular updates on what is available on a website, so that they can keep in touch no matter whether they’re able to check the site on their own or not. And e-mail’s also an excellent choice to let readers know about enterprise stories or other exclusives that the news organization is breaking.

But doing as Buttry described, and sending a “breaking news alert” hours after everyone from Helsinki to Honolulu has been tweeting the news just embarrasses the news organization. There’s no better way to reinforce the message, “Hi, just to remind you: We’re clueless and slow!”

Better not to send the e-mail at all. Twitter’s become the go-to medium for breaking news. It’s past time to retire the e-mail “breaking news” list for these kinds of minute-by-minute events. Leave e-mail as a follow-up to expose readers to truly unique reports and perspective, once you have them reported and available.

Okay, sure: all that is buzz-worthy, certainly, a proposal for innovation-by-force whose audacity alone is pretty much guaranteed to give it attention. And none of its claims are, strictly speaking, wrong.

But its assumptions are. Niles’s proposal, even as it acknowledges e-mail’s viability as a medium for communication, assumes an equality between the platforms in question as news-delivery vehicles. Twitter is faster than e-mail in breaking-news situations, he argues, and therefore better. Game over. The future wins.

Except, of course, the equality Niles assumes is a false one. The media’s widespread Twitter myopia notwithstanding, Twitter is still very much a niche platform. As of March 2008, Twitter had about 1 million users, total—with some 200,000 of them using the platform each week. Compare that to the much smaller number of people currently using Twitter for news consumption, as opposed to pure conversation. Consider how many people would miss out on breaking-news updates if news organizations were, indeed, to take Niles’s proposal to heart.

Which is not to say that things will always be that way. Twitter, to be sure, has the potential for more widespread dissemination—to become broadly used among the whole population (not just among early-adopting new-media-philes)—in the months and years to come. But it’s by no means there yet. And it’s premature—however buzz-inducing—to make pronouncements about Twitter’s overtaking of the news-delivery world simply because it’s faster than its (pseudo-)counterparts. Speed, as we’ve said before, isn’t always the bottom line.

The fact that such speed-uber-alles pronouncements are being made and circulated in the first place, however, points to a social aspect of the digital divide: the tendency of future-of-news speculators to assume that the media-consumption habits of the broad population are, basically, like to theirs. The false consensus effect, social theorists call it: the tendency to believe that others’ beliefs and behavior are akin to your own. Niles, rather famously, loves theme parks; it’d be inaccurate and rather absurd of him to assume, however, that the broader population shares that affinity (the obvious awesomeness of Six Flags notwithstanding). By the same token, while Niles and many (or even: most of?) the people he knows may be on Twitter, it by no means follows that, you know, everyone is on Twitter.

To lose sight of that fact—to assume commonality when none broadly exists—is to lose sight of what national news organizations are all about: serving their audiences. All of them. And the segment of the population that Niles is concerned with—those residing in the tiny sliver of the Venn diagram where “Twitter addicts” and “e-mail alert subscribers” intersect—is insignificant compared to the broader universe of news consumers. Which includes, of course, not merely people who get news from the Web, but also those who rely on TV, radio, and the like for their information.

Niles writes that “sending a ‘breaking news alert’ hours after everyone from Helsinki to Honolulu has been tweeting the news just embarrasses the news organization.” Hey, maybe it does—but only in the eyes of the small subset of the population who use Twitter regularly. Everyone else is likely happy to have the information. (I, for one, was glad to have the breaking-news e-mails as confirmations of all the Twittered chatter.) Where or how news is broken is a tangential question, as is the personal pride of individual news outlets; all that matters is that news is broken in the first place—and that the information in question is accurate.

Which is to say: Niles’s logic holds only if news organizations’ primary concern is public relations. If their primary concern is public information, however, then keep those emails coming.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.