July 10, 2009

Imagine if a journalist writing a breaking news story online tweeted each element of the story as soon as the information were verified.

The work flow would look something like this:

  • Check facts, write headline, tweet it.
  • Check facts, write first paragraph, tweet it.
  • Check facts, write second paragraph, tweet it.
  • And so on …

Imagine if the tweets from a journalist at the scene of a breaking news story slotted neatly into a Web page displaying those tweets as a paragraph-by-paragraph build-up of the story, complete with any tweeted images needed to illustrate it.

Taken a step further, if the news organization is a broadcaster, the same text could be picked up and adapted for a radio voice piece or a TV voice-over.

Each paragraph of the online story would have retweet buttons so that audience members could forward only the parts of the story that interest them and are likely to interest their social network.


  • Speed of delivery to the audience
  • A fresher, more immediate real-time feel about the news
  • Delivery of that information directly to the social network and viral distribution space
  • Increased traffic to the news organization’s Web site
  • Traffic targeted at individual paragraphs, revealing audience interest in specific facts, rather than in the piece overall
  • Cost savings through reducing the need for revising and duplicating content for online delivery
  • Consistency of the news brand’s editorial line across all platforms
  • Keeping up with changing audience behavior


  • Mistakes — The speed vs. accuracy issue
  • Looks cheap — Consumers of a traditional news Web site format may be put off
  • Hearts and minds — Traditional, mainstream media journalists might not buy into the practice

Changing audience behavior

Some turn to Web sites for their breaking news and to follow a developing story. Others turn to Twitter and similar social networks. Some, like me, enjoy doing both. For Web site users, the news is usually made up of breaking news alerts and a developing online story that grows with new updates or versions as more information comes in and is verified.

For those following breaking news on Twitter, a developing story is made up of updated tweets that they follow using hashtags and keywords. The information is filtered depending on the system they are using to gather the tweets they are following.

It’s presumed that journalists who tweet are applying the same editorial ethics of accuracy, balance, impartiality and objectivity to their work as they would if they were preparing a report for broadcast on-air, online or in print.

But could one system satisfy both needs? Could a story written for an online audience be delivered in tweet-sized paragraphs, as it is written, and still make sense as a whole?

And could a collection of tweets, sent by a journalist covering a live event, or written by a journalist in the newsroom, appear in a page as a finished piece of online journalism?

The answer to the first question has to be yes. Journalism should be about delivering verified facts. It should address the key issues of the story — the who, why, when, where, what and how. A story should be able to be cut at any point and still make sense. In fact, the basic rules I was taught as a newspaper journalist more than 30 years ago are spot-on for Twitter journalism.

The answer to the second question has to be yes, too. All it needs is for journalists to relay their news coverage in 140-character sentences. The tweets already appear in the twitterer’s Twitter page, although in reverse order, with the most recent tweet appearing first. All one would need is for these tweets to be delivered in reverse order to an online page built in real-time as information comes in.

Of course this wouldn’t work as well with features and lengthy pieces offering context and analysis, but there seems no reason why it would not work for breaking and developing news stories.

There are a number of minor issues to iron out first, such as the need to repeat key words in tweets to ensure context, but this can be done with the hashtags mentioned above. For the sake of this exercise, I’ll wade straight into my idea.

Writing a story in tweetable bite-sized chunks

For this exercise I have taken a July 4 BBC story about the North Korea missile tests and deconstructed it into tweets.

I have added two hashtags for those tracking this story — #northkorea and #missiles — and put a character count at the end of each tweeted paragraph.

I’ve allowed 20 of the 140 characters for a shortened URL (typically 20 characters long) linking to the online story. This means that each tweet, including hashtags, needs to be no longer than 120 characters. Below I’ve taken part of the BBC article and written it out in the form of tweets.


“North Korea has test-fired a series of missiles in an apparent act of defiance on 4 July, American Independence Day.”

Tweet: North Korea test-fires missiles with a range of 500km. #northkorea #missiles (76 characters)

“Reports say at least five Scud-type ballistic missiles were fired, with a range of about 500km (312 miles).”

Tweet: Reports say at least five Scud-type ballistic missiles fired by North Korea. #northkorea #missiles (98 characters)

“South Korea and Japan called the latest tests, which follow several others in recent weeks, an ‘act of provocation.'”

Tweet: South Korea and Japan say launch of missiles “act of provocation.” #northkorea #missiles (88 characters)

“North Korea is banned from all ballistic missile-related activities under UN sanctions imposed after a second underground nuclear test in May.”

Tweet: The missile launch defies UN sanctions imposed after May’s second underground nuclear test. #northkorea #missiles (113 characters)

“South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the missiles were fired from one of the North’s east coast launch sites on Saturday morning.”

Tweet: South Korea says missiles fired from country’s east coast launch sites on Saturday morning. #northkorea #missiles (113 characters)

“All landed in the Sea of Japan, known in South Korea as the East Sea.”

Tweet: All North Korean missiles said to have landed in the Sea of Japan. #northkorea #missiles (88 characters)

“‘Our military is fully ready to counter any North Korean threats and provocations,’ the JCS said in a statement.”

Tweet: South Korea says military ready to counter any North Korean threats following missile launch. #northkorea #missiles (115 characters)

“A South Korean defence official said Saturday’s tests were of greater concern than four short-range ones on Thursday, as the missiles had longer ranges.”

Tweet: South Korea expresses concern at long-range capability of North Korea test missiles. #northkorea #missiles (106 characters)


When combined, these tweets could hold together as a piece of journalism. The hashtags and the character count at the end of each sentence would not need to appear in the automated online version.

Just think of the improved work flow and cost savings this type of reporting could yield in a converged newsroom. Apart from the efficiencies it could help deliver, it may also help traditional mainstream media keep in touch with an audience whose behavior is changing day by day.

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Former managing editor of BBC News Online and CNN Interactive Europe, Middle East and Africa. Now assisting independent media in emerging democracies with the BBC…
David Brewer

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