Daniel Petty, who became the Post’s first social media editor in April, agreed with Coffield’s policy. He said that he saw Twitter as an incredibly valuable source of information, but only as a starting point for reporting. He added that no newspaper could possibly be as fast in putting out information as Twitter users are, but that that that isn’t a newspaper’s role. “Twitter is a raw stream of information,” he said. “Our job is then to be tapped into these networks, to use the power of the community and crowdsource that information, and then go check it out…. Our job is to put things in context.”
So Petty doesn’t, as a general rule, re-tweet anything unless it’s been confirmed, and he doesn’t recommend that Post reporters incorporate unconfirmed tweets into their articles, either in print or online. “We have so many followers and our audience is so wide, to put something out that’s potentially not accurate, would be really irresponsible,” he said.
Petty and Coffield both said, when pressed, that they might worry about potentially losing online audience if their reporting was not fast enough, but that the alternative was not worth the risk. They do want the Post to be the place where people go first for information, but they want it to be right.
“All we have is our credibility,” Coffield said. “If we put out inaccurate information, how do we un-ring the bell? There’s no correction file for a Twitter feed.”
Petty added that if they lost some audience because their reporting wasn’t as fast as Twitter, they may have gained some others, as he tweeted links to Post stories online throughout the week. (For further reading: Petty wrote an article for the Post about the use of social media during the fire, which can be found here, and he and Sandra Fish also debated this topic on Twitter – read their back-and-forth here.)
The Daily Camera, for its part, was even more short-staffed than the Post during the fire, and did not have anyone specifically reading every tweet, said editor Kevin Kaufman. But in a kind of compromise, the Camera did host a Twitter deck on its home page, an aggregator displaying a feed from the #boulderfire tag.
Kaufman, like Petty, said he thought that his paper’s limited participation in the Twitter conversation drove audience to his site. “I think Twitter users understand that they’re just getting little bursts of information, and if they want more, they’re going to have to go elsewhere,” Kaufman said. “So I think it increased our traffic if anything.” He added in a follow-up email that most of the tweets from residents in the #boulderfire stream that week during the fire were “headlines from and links to the work of journalists in the mainstream media, the Camera being among the most referenced.”
Yulsman also acknowledged the lingering sway of traditional sources of information. Not everyone in Colorado is on Twitter, after all. Case in point: Yulsman wrote a post on his personal blog and linked to some satellite photos of the area affected by the fire. He said when he tweeted the link and put it on Facebook, the hits on that page went up from a daily average of about 250 to more than 2,000. Then someone at the local news television station, 9 News, saw it and linked to it from 9News.com; over the next three days, Yulsman’s blog post had 20,000 page views.* So social media promotion certainly gave his blog a boost, but in the end, what really drove traffic was still mainstream media.
It’s interesting that the Fourmile Fire—a case study of sorts in the changing ways media reports on fast-breaking news—has been playing out at the same time as the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Colorado at Boulder undergoes a kind of existential crisis. Reports have come out in the past few weeks that the school is considering closing its journalism program in order to facilitate a massive restructuring and modernization.
The politics of academia have no doubt inspired a healthy debate between the old guard and the new, highlighting a fundamental difference in philosophy between the ink-stained and the digitized. Far from bringing those two sides to a consensus, though, the occasion of the Fourmile Canyon Fire seems to have reinforced the divide. The most vocal social media proponents see their crowdsourcing efforts as a wake-up call for traditional media. But those mainstream media outlets are holding their ground: not because their reporters are already overworked, but because of their dedication to accuracy and context. They maintain that the risks to their credibility and to their readers’ well-being far outweigh the risk of diminishing their traffic, and their relevance, online.