Why Twitter’s army of ‘Mechanical Turks’ will not conquer breaking news

Twitter revealed this week that it uses Mechanical Turk — a crowdsourced pool of people — as an innovative way to help identify and classify search queries as soon as they’re trending. For example, the Mechanical Turks could associate the phrase “Big Bird” with a Presidential debate.

Twitter’s announcement prompted a tech blog to proclaim, “Watch out CNN, new Twitter search capabilities will rule breaking news.”  The premise: if humans can help organize trending content on Twitter — perhaps in its Discover tab — then “why would anyone get breaking news from another source?”

But there’s a big distinction between trending content and breaking news. While Twitter’s Turks will help bring much-needed context to the platform, they’re not journalists who verify whether something is true.  As we’ve seen with the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and Superstorm Sandy, Twitter rumors ran rampant.  Some rumors turned out to be true, but many were inaccurate or even malicious.  Some were important, others were trivial.

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At Breaking News, we rely on experienced journalists (that’s one of them, Stephanie Clary, above) to verify real-time reports and prioritize their importance.  We also add context, associating reports with ongoing stories, topics and locations.  But accuracy and importance — along with speed — are the essence of breaking news for any news organization.

Let’s take an example from Twitter’s own blog post: the tweet with a photo of Flight 1549 floating in the Hudson River from January 2009.  Using Mechanical Turk, they would be able to associate that tweet with searches for “plane crash,” for example, as well as elevate it on its Discover tab.  But Twitter won’t know whether the tweet and photo are real or fake.

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It turns out that Breaking News’ Lauren McCullough discovered that tweet when she worked at The Associated Press, quickly verifying its authenticity (and obtaining permission) before it was published — the first news organization to do so.  As it ran on the AP wire, hundreds of newsrooms picked up the photo, bringing a trustworthy story to the masses.

In recent years, Twitter’s platform has attracted a growing wave of eyewitness news reports scattered among a firehose of other tweets.  Its audience is growing, too.  Verification and prioritization matter more than ever.  That’s one reason Breaking News exists: we provide a verification layer over the crush of real-time reports, boiling it down to what’s true and what’s important to you.

We believe Twitter is not a sweeping substitute for breaking news, but a complement.  Some consumers get their breaking news from Twitter — that’s why @breakingnews is there — others get their breaking news directly from trusted sources.  Others do both interchangeably.  Twitter will not replace news organizations, but as it has, it will work in concert with them.

Just as Twitter is taking steps to become more relevant for its users, so are we.  We believe breaking news is broken in many ways — a broadcast-style of journalism grafted to the web — and we’re working on a new version of Breaking News reinvented around the mobile device. 

Stay tuned!  (Post by @corybe)

The most retweeted stories of 2012

Breaking News’ Twitter account, @breakingnews surpassed 5 million followers on New Years Eve, and we thought it would be fun to look back over 2012 and list our retweeted stories of the year.  As you’ll see, this is surprisingly different than your standard top stories of the year list.  Without further ado, here we go in reverse order:

5. Whitney Houston

4. Gangnam Style

3. Gangnam Style (again!?)

2. Derrick Rose

1. Neil Armstrong

That last tweet generated over 8,900 retweets, which is double our RT record from 2011: the death of Steve Jobs.

Why it’s OK for journalists to be human on Twitter

Sky News has issued a new policy that restricts how employees use their personal Twitter accounts, The Guardian reports. Sky News staff can no longer retweet rival journalists or post news updates outside their own beats.  An email to staff explains, “Always pass breaking news lines to the news desk before posting them on social media networks” with the goal “to ensure that our journalism is joined up across platforms.”

On its surface, that may sound like a good strategy, but the distributed world of journalism has changed the game.  For example, take Neal Mann, a journalist who has broken many stories on his personal Twitter account, ranging from Libya and Egypt to the London riots.  He’s best known as @fieldproducer, amassing nearly 40,000 followers in his role as digital media editor at Sky News.  We’ve retweeted and linked him several times on BreakingNews.  His fast, distributed style of social reporting has made him the face of Sky News on Twitter — or as one journalist put it, “No one has promoted the Sky News brand on twitter better than @fieldproducer.”

There’s something to that idea. The International Journal of Communication conducted an in-depth study that looked at how people responded to Twitter reports from news brands and journalists during Arab Spring.  TheNextWeb summarizes, “While all major mainstream media outlets have a strong presence on Twitter, some with millions of followers, when it comes to how information spreads through Twitter – when it’s coming from personal, individual accounts, it is likely to reach a larger audience.”

Humanizing our own @breakingnews account is one of our priorities, and we openly encourage our editors to freely tweet on their own accounts by pointing out other reporting, providing context and openly engaging with people who have questions or concerns.  We’d like our editors to be known as experts in breaking news, and expertise thrives beyond the confines of a single news organization’s reporting.  In social media, old broadcast rules do not apply.  And it’s OK to be human.

(Written by @corybe)

Steve Jobs news rockets across the social web: Early yesterday evening, we started seeing several Steve Jobs rumors floating around Twitter.  But when Breaking News editor Stephanie Clary (@sclary) saw the sad news confirmed in an Associated Press alert, she published a six-word tweet seconds later, sparking shock and disbelief across Twitter.
In fact, that tweet was RT’d more times than any other tweet in @breakingnews history: nearly 11,000 times, according to Twitter analytics.  Subsequent tweets were shared thousands of times, as well.  And @breakingnews added over 10,000 new followers yesterday alone.
We also simultaneously published the news on Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.  In each case, the story was one of our most-shared and commented ever.  We collected some of the reaction on BreakingNews.com.
The social outpouring exemplifies how Steve Jobs touched so many lives in a profound way.  We’ve heard from several people who first discovered the news on their mobile devices, either via Twitter, Facebook or by a “push alert” from apps by Breaking News and other news organizations. Then quickly, they shared the news with their friends — sometimes with their own memories of Jobs — propelling the story around the world.
President Obama said it best.  “There may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his pass on a device he invented.”#RIPSteveJobs
(Post by @corybe. Photo by Robert Galbraith / Reuters)

Steve Jobs news rockets across the social web: Early yesterday evening, we started seeing several Steve Jobs rumors floating around Twitter.  But when Breaking News editor Stephanie Clary (@sclary) saw the sad news confirmed in an Associated Press alert, she published a six-word tweet seconds later, sparking shock and disbelief across Twitter.

In fact, that tweet was RT’d more times than any other tweet in @breakingnews history: nearly 11,000 times, according to Twitter analytics.  Subsequent tweets were shared thousands of times, as well.  And @breakingnews added over 10,000 new followers yesterday alone.

We also simultaneously published the news on Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.  In each case, the story was one of our most-shared and commented ever.  We collected some of the reaction on BreakingNews.com.

The social outpouring exemplifies how Steve Jobs touched so many lives in a profound way.  We’ve heard from several people who first discovered the news on their mobile devices, either via Twitter, Facebook or by a “push alert” from apps by Breaking News and other news organizations. Then quickly, they shared the news with their friends — sometimes with their own memories of Jobs — propelling the story around the world.

President Obama said it best.  “There may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his pass on a device he invented.”

#RIPSteveJobs

(Post by @corybe. Photo by Robert Galbraith / Reuters)

@BreakingIrene is now @BreakingStorm

On Friday, we created @BreakingIrene to give you a concentrated feed of real-time Hurricane Irene updates, alerts and eyewitness media curated by our editors. It was very much an experiment for us. We were already covering the story on BreakingNews.com, @BreakingNews and our other social media channels, but we suspected many users would want to consume and share information about the hurricane on Twitter.

That seems to be the case. By mid-day Sunday, @BreakingIrene had more than 12,500 followers. We’ve sent more than 500 tweets - and we’re not done yet.

We’re converting @BreakingIrene to @BreakingStorm, effective immediately.

@BreakingStorm will be an ongoing real-time resource throughout the hurricane season. You can expect similar tweets to our Irene coverage, though we expect the volume to ebb and flow depending on the news.

One last note: Irene may have dissipated, but the storm’s effects are still being felt up and down the U.S. East Coast. We’ll continue to cover these stories, and you can follow specific updates on the Irene topic page on BreakingNews.com.

(Post by Lauren McCullough, @lfmccullough on Twitter)

Introducing @BreakingIrene

We’ve been curating real-time news about Hurricane Irene since the storm formed in the Atlantic on Aug. 20. All of these updates have been published to BreakingNews.com, our mobile apps and a good portion of them have also been shared to our social channels - @BreakingNews, Facebook, Google+ and Tumblr.

As Irene heads toward the East Coast of the U.S., we want to experiment with delivering this news to you through a new Twitter channel: @BreakingIrene.

This Twitter account will push out a concentrated feed of real-time Irene updates, alerts and eyewitness media curated by our editors. We know many of you will be consuming and sharing this story on Twitter over the next few days. For many of you in the path of the storm, Twitter may become your only option for some time.

@BreakingIrene is an additional account for us. You’ll still get the full-value BreakingNews experience on BreakingNews.com, @BreakingNews and our other accounts. It’s very much an experiment and we hope you’ll share feedback on what you like and would tweak about the approach.

(Post by Lauren McCullough, @lfmccullough on Twitter)

Fast-tracking Twitter tips to BreakingNews: We’re excited to announce a new feature that allows news organizations to fast-track news tips straight to BreakingNews.com and potentially, @breakingnews on Twitter.Here’s how it works. Once we’ve whitelisted a news organization’s  Twitter account, appending @breakingnews or #breakingnews anywhere in a  tweet will pop it in front of our editors on this page.   If it’s a breaking story with national or regional interest — and it’s  the first we’ve seen of it — we’ll publish it on the BreakingNews.com  home page, our three mobile apps and potentially on Twitter and Facebook, too. The bigger the story, the more places it goes.For the news organization, that means a burst of traffic and perhaps a few new Twitter followers.  For us, it helps BreakingNews find stories faster (we receive a daily avalanche of Twitter replies and mentions) and give credit where credit is due.  All we ask is that the tips stick to original breaking stories that have a regional or national interest.  Our goal is to link the source of breaking stories, not rewritten copies of it.  Nearly 40 local TV stations (of all affiliations) and newspapers have opted into the program. If you’re a news organization that routinely covers breaking news of regional interest, send us a note (to the editor) with the Twitter handle on this contact form.

Fast-tracking Twitter tips to BreakingNews: We’re excited to announce a new feature that allows news organizations to fast-track news tips straight to BreakingNews.com and potentially, @breakingnews on Twitter.

Here’s how it works. Once we’ve whitelisted a news organization’s Twitter account, appending @breakingnews or #breakingnews anywhere in a tweet will pop it in front of our editors on this page. If it’s a breaking story with national or regional interest — and it’s the first we’ve seen of it — we’ll publish it on the BreakingNews.com home page, our three mobile apps and potentially on Twitter and Facebook, too. The bigger the story, the more places it goes.

For the news organization, that means a burst of traffic and perhaps a few new Twitter followers.  For us, it helps BreakingNews find stories faster (we receive a daily avalanche of Twitter replies and mentions) and give credit where credit is due.  All we ask is that the tips stick to original breaking stories that have a regional or national interest.  Our goal is to link the source of breaking stories, not rewritten copies of it. 

Nearly 40 local TV stations (of all affiliations) and newspapers have opted into the program. If you’re a news organization that routinely covers breaking news of regional interest, send us a note (to the editor) with the Twitter handle on this contact form.