Answers for Smaller Newsrooms After Twitter
Larger players aren’t at the same risk. Is aggregation headed for a comeback?
Welcome to Second Rough Draft, a newsletter about journalism in our time, how it (often its business) is evolving, and the challenges it faces.
There’s been a lot written in recent weeks about Elon Musk’s degradation of Twitter— the erratic behavior, sympathy for bigotry and authoritarianism and cruelty to employees— and even some about what feels like the almost inevitable loss of Twitter will mean to various aspects of our society, as well as where Twitter users should go (Mastodon? Post?) or what they should do (download archives, promote their Substacks (!)). But there’s been relatively little said about what news organizations should do about this mess. That’s what I want to talk about this week.
Some have opined that the disappearance of Twitter won’t be a big deal, that it only accounts for a tiny share of traffic, etc. I think that significantly understates the problem for some news outlets. For one thing, it’s based on direct traffic, putting aside Twitter as perhaps the leading device for the discovery of journalism by other journalists, who, in turn, generate much of the follow-up and derivative coverage that fuels Google search, which is a much larger traffic driver. (This is why the journalistic narcissism of and about Twitter is important—even while it remains narcissistic.)
Who wins, who loses?
Next, the question isn’t the aggregate loss, but which organizations are put at risk. My guess is that the difference to the largest newsrooms will be slight. Some may even benefit at the margins, as former Twitter users add a subscription or two, either to entire publications or perhaps to newsletters, as a way to avoid missing out on stories they used to discover through Twitter.
But smaller news organizations are headed for a fall here, I think, as fewer readers learn of their stories. Start-ups are perhaps most at risk, as they cannot gain the initial awareness that makes it possible for them to launch their efforts inexpensively and effectively. (This looming gap is why the Substack app and network have become increasingly critical to efforts like this newsletter, and may become more significant still.) The distribution of frantic tweets anticipating the end of Twitter have reflected this—they haven’t come from the New York Times or Washington Post or the Atlantic or New Yorker, but have from myriad smaller publishers.
So much for relative winners and losers. What can those most at risk, and especially many smaller news organizations, do about it?
The best way to think about this, I think, is to begin by asking what is being lost. As already noted, one big thing is the discovery of stories. But a second, for many smaller newsrooms, is one of their largest direct connections to readers. (Even the larger news organizations almost all have more Twitter followers than subscribers, or even monthly users.) If you have more active Facebook fans or YouTube or Instagram followers or even text recipients than Twitter followers, good for you, but that’s not the norm.
Distinctive newsletters, urgent alerts?
Newsletters are one appealing solution to which I think many smaller publishers will and should turn. But it’s not realistic to expect that someone who followed 50 news organizations or their reporters (as a pretty fanatical but choosy news junkie, I recently counted 57 publications among those I followed) to now volunteer to get bombarded by 50 newsletters. So, as with so much else in our business, the question comes back to how make your newsletter distinctive.
One thing—a bit of a throwback to earlier days in publishing—which I think smaller publishers should consider (or reconsider) is original aggregation of the content of others. Aggregation done right—well curated, attractively presented, truly distinctive—seems to me to likely to be at a premium in a post-Twitter ecosystem. If you can identify a subject or a geography or other interest on which you can offer a discovery device of your own, there may be a supply of newly-interested readers who formerly relied on Twitter.
I hesitate to say this, simply because I find them intrusive and often excessive, but I also think news alerts may proliferate in the world after Twitter. It is probably the case that more smaller newsrooms should offer them to readers. But be careful: in the same way that even CNN eventually learned that calling all news “BREAKING” exhausts people and trivializes the product, smaller newsrooms should confine themselves to calling out developments that readers will actually want to learn about urgently.
Absent Twitter, it may also make even more sense for smaller news entities to partner on stories with larger ones. When they do so, they should place a premium on cross-referrals for newsletters, which can bolster their distribution on a continuing basis. And if Google wants to walk its own frequent talk and support news-gathering, it could redouble its efforts to prioritize the true originators of stories on search— something it claims to value, but on which results have long been inconsistent.
Accepting no substitutes?
One thing I don’t think smaller news organizations should count on is the prompt emergence of an effective Twitter substitute at scale. There are business reasons why Facebook (for all its huge moral failings, always run far better than Twitter as a business) has been moving away from news for years. Twitter itself made a profit in only two years, 2018 and 2019; the losses since then have almost certainly wiped out those profits, even not counting the debt burden Musk piled on, or the many years of losses that preceded the two of profits. For these and other reasons (lack of an opportunity for profit, fear of regulation, a traditional corporate desire to avoid controversy) Facebook, which could easily fill the void, almost certainly won’t, either with its flagship product or Instagram.
For some users, especially younger ones, TikTok may be a substitute, but it is fundamentally a video service, while, at least for news, the heart of Twitter remained in text (as does that of most smaller newsrooms). Donald Trump, who at times seems to have gotten a third of the country to live in an alternate universe, was only able to get perhaps one-thirtieth of US Twitter users to come to his Truth Social. He had more than 18 times as many followers on Twitter when he was reinstated by Musk after a 22-month suspension than he had amassed on his own platform. New entrants may aspire to fill the Twitter void, but achieving the necessary scale at this later date in the evolution of the internet will be very difficult, even if not impossible.
In any event, the self-destruction of Twitter under the reign of a mad, bad king is a sad moment for journalism, and likely a genuine loss for the ability of citizens to find quality news, especially locally. We urgently need more creative thinking about how to fill the void. I hope these early ideas may, in a small way, help spur that effort.
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This couldn't have been more timely. Thanks for this. I run a U.S.-Mexico border related Substack newsletter and have been really pondering what to do with the implosion of Twitter. I have thought about aggregation and providing this service on our newsletter but not sure our two-person outfit has the capacity. I used Twitter to follow other border news, and it was very useful for keeping tabs on work that was out there. Look forward to hearing more from other small outlets about what they are doing.
As the publisher of a small newsroom, I’m grateful for these ideas. Our aud dev director and editors are starting to pull together a new strategy now that it does appear Twitter is on its deathbed.
In the months/year before the Twitter implosion, we had started to see an uptick from search traffic relative to social -- so it could be that small newsrooms should go more all-in on that. We also use free-to-nonprofits Google ads with some success.
We have 3 newsletters with ~52K subscribers so that helps but also agree another newsletter may not be what consumers want. We also use Push.ly. And we are on SmartNews, Flipboard, Apple News and Microsoft Start.
Agree with you on TikTok for a variety of reasons: China -- ugh; the fact that it’s a video platform and not a text platform; and the fact that my 24- and 27-year-old sons – the kinds of young news consumers we need – can’t be bothered with it.
Thanks for starting this discussion!