Twitter, the micro-blogging / social-networking sensation, with 50-million user accounts and counting, created history when it registered a 1,500 per cent growth in its user-base this March (San Francisco Chronicle, 2010) - but Twitter is no success story as yet, at least according to a recent report by a California, USA based web security firm Barracuda Networks.
The Barracuda report on Twitter usage patterns states “a whopping 73% of Twitter accounts have tweeted fewer than 10 times” (CNN Money.com),suggesting that most Twitter accounts follow other accounts on Twitter rather than posting [140-character long] messages themselves.
As of December 2009, a meagre 21% of Twitter account holders were what Barracuda defined as “true users”. The term “true users” refers to Twitter users who have at least 10 followers, follow at least 10 other people and have tweeted at least 10 times (Pepitone, 2010).
Paul Judge, Barracuda's chief research officer and the author of the report was quoted as saying that Twitter could be turning into “more of a news feed than a social network” (Pepitone, 2010).
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It's quite clear that Twitter has its share of problems at the moment - about growing and make money simultaneously; and getting ‘passive followers' to be ‘active tweeters'.
Not everyone's unhappy. The Barracuda report spells ‘good news' for those in the news, newspaper and publishing businesses. In the light of the current development, newspapers, magazines and 24/7 television news channels that operate Twitter accounts might see more value in strengthening their presence on the micro-blogging site, more now than before.
After its launch in 2006, the last four years has seen several media organisations and newspaper titles take to tweeting breaking news, including The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, in a bid to attract more visitors to their websites.
WSJ Asia was shown as the most widely read daily Asia-wide with a 17 per cent share of the elite business readers' pie in a recent readership survey; the Financial Times' share stood at 12 per cent Asia-wide. (Eaton, 2008). Business news is a niche in itself. The Wall Street Journaland the Financial Times have been seen as exceptional, since they are “must-read [newspapers] for businesspeople around the world, some of whom are able to write off or expense their subscriptions” (Benkoil, 2009). The BE:Asia survey clearly shows that WSJ Asia is the preferred choice among top executives in Asia. With respect to ‘important business reading' Asia-wide, WSJ Asia at seven percent was a percentage point higher than FT. The survey's results paint a slightly different picture in the Singapore context. Both WSJ Asia and the Financial Timesenjoy equal importance among Singaporeans - they each have a 17% share of the elite business readers' pie. However, with respect to ‘important business reading,' FT scores higher than WSJ Asia at 11 percent vs eight per cent.
This paper examines The Wall Street Journal Asia's Twitter account from a Singapore context.. WSJ Asia was chosen over FTbecause the former has a dedicated Twitter account for its Asian edition. In particular, this paper examines, whether Twitter is a timely technology for business newspapers in Singapore? This question, in this paper, is directed towards news organisations that are fighting to weather the storm that has engulfed the newspaper business in many countries - falling readership, lower advertisement revenues and declining circulation.
The Web 2.0
The term ‘Web 2.0' has its origins in an article - Fragmented Future - written in 1999. The author of the article, Darcy DiNucci, in her analysis of the Web, opined that the “static” Web, would be replaced by a “front end, where the Web will fragment into countless permutations with different looks, behaviours, uses, and hardware hosts. The Web will be understood, not as screenfuls of text and graphics but as a transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity happens.” (DiNucci, 1999)
DiNucci (1999) predicted the Web would transcend the computer screen, to become an all pervasive technology available on TV screens, hand-held game machines and car dashboards.
The term Web 2.0 was popularised by O'Reilly Media Inc. Dale Dougherty in 2004, a vice-president at O'Reilly Media (famous for its technology-related conferences) used the term ‘Web 2.0' at a team discussion, when they were trying to come up with a suitable name for an upcoming conference about the Web (O'Reilly, 2005 quoted in Anderson, 2007). The Web was “more important than ever” after the dot-com boom and subsequent bust, with newer applications and Web sites emerging on the scene (O'Reilly, 2005, p. 1 quoted in Anderson, 2007).
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The term ‘Web 2.0', in the early part of the 21st century, was not the generic term used to identify a group of technologies, the way it is today “but an attempt to capture something far more fluid.” (Anderson, 2007). Tim O'Reilly's infamous paper, What is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software), highlighted the now familiar characteristics of the Web 2.0, like “ harnessing the power of the audiences; rich user experiences; the user as a contributor,” among others (O'Reilly, 2005). Examples of Web 2.0 technologies include web-based communities,hosted services,web applications,social-networking sites like Facebook and Twitter,video-sharing sites like YouTube and Google Videos,Wikis,blogs,mashups, and folksonomies. (Wikipedia).
Lev Grossman's 2006 article in Time, titled ‘Person of the year: You,' defines Web 2.0 as we know it today,
“The new Web is a very different thing. It's a tool for bringing together the small contributions of millions of people and making them matter. Silicon Valley consultants call it Web2.0”
Gorssman, Time, December 13, 2006
But the inventor of the Web argues that Web 2.0 is just ‘a piece of jargon' because it is actually an extension of Web 1.0. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, responding to Scott Laningham at IBM's developerWorks Interviews, opined that,
“If Web 2.0 for you is blogs and wikis, then that is people to people. But that was what the Web was supposed to be all along.”
Laningham (ed.), developerWorks Interviews, 22nd August, 2006.
Going by media monitor Dean Rotbart's estimates, the USA had just a few thousand business journalists in 1980. By 1988, their numbers had risen to about 4,200 in the top fifty newspaper markets and at national business publications. By the year 2000, "Clearly over 12,000" in the USA alone according to Rotbart. (Henriques, 2000)
A number of newspapers began focussing on business and economics coverage in the late 1970s. Some of the big titles in the USA had expanded their business news teams by1980. A number of factors contributed to the “explosion of economic news” in America - the wage-prices freeze, the Oil crisis, a growing interest in personal finance, all around the time of a recessionary economy. (Henriques, 2000)
“The ground was ripe for the move,” writes Henriques (2000) because the economy, according to Paul Steiger, “was so worrisome, that people wanted to read more about it.” Talk about interest rates and investing in real estate, he says, was occupying prominence in cocktail party chatter by ordinary folk. (Steiger as quoted in bizjournalismhistory.org, 2009)
“The price surges [in the USA] were made worse by two gasoline crises, the first in 1973-74 and another at the end of the decade, when oil supplies from the Middle East were cut off. By the early 1980s, America was suffering from a recession...with both unemployment and inflation in double digits.”
Steiger as quoted in bizjournalismhistory.org, February 16, 2009
Trained to write politics, many journalists were unprepared to report the crisis of the 1970s. They lacked the vocabulary to explain the day-to-day happenings in industry, stock movements or the banking sector, and this expertise was built over a considerable period of time. Journalists were caught off guard when they were asked to report on corporate governance, include hostile takeovers and mergers and acquisitions. They also took some time to understand how they themselves were being manipulated in corporate takeovers. Globalisation and the unknown world of the Internet was the next big test for business journalists world over - the exam actually was about technology that is changing the way people work, communicate, trade stocks, conduct advertising campaigns, buy and sell nearly everything and, incidentally, gather their daily news (Henriques, 2000).
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Digitalization of journalism has changed business journalism for good. Business journalism in this age is symbolic of data and stories being thrown at you from your TV screen, computer screen or smaller handheld devices like the Blackberry. The question now is, how does one deliver business journalism? According to Austin Kiplinger, “it has to be electronic in some form or another, whether it's from a Blackberry or the Web, or the bug in your ear.” (Kiplinger as quoted in bizjournalismhistory.org, 2009).
Do note that as of now, revenues from online advertising are not comparable with revenues from the print business. The New York Times for example, has around 20-million unique online visitors per month compared with 1-million readers per day for its daily edition, but online revenue is a fraction of print revenue. (Hirschorn, 2009). On the other hand the Internet i.e. the online medium now provides many a tools to newspaper publishers, looking to attract eyeballs and increase page views, who see no other option but tapping newer resources like Twitter for survival. Some publishers say they are ready for the challenge. “Our real business isn't printing on dead trees,” News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch toldThe Guardian. “It's giving our readers great journalism and great judgment (Luft, 2008).
Our generation is caught in the Web and there's no changing that. Palfreman (2006) says that before the Web became ubiquitous, storytelling was platform specific. Print-only publications focused on text and photos, the radio used audio, and television took to moving images and sounds. “Each platform has its tools and specialized skill sets, advantages and disadvantages. The Web forces these platforms to integrate. Today's best media websites are multimedia productions combining text, stills, audio and video” (Palfreman, 2006).
Cairncross (1997) noted that the web provides a forum where people “performing the same job or speaking the same language in different parts of the world” can come together to establish communities of practice. In terms of news, the online format allows readers to comment on and link to news pieces, thus “removing the central control points” (Weinberger, 2002). While mainstream newspapers that have migrated online do provide interactive features, their core content remains tightly controlled. Weblogs, orblogs, “a type of website, usually maintained by an individual with regular entries of commentary, descriptions of events, or other material such as graphics or video”("Blog," 2009, para. 1), have evolved to cover news and views on a wide variety of topics--for the most part without any of the gatekeeping controls of mainstream media. Simultaneously,citizen journalism, defined by Rosen (2008) as “when thepeopleformerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another,” is emerging as an alternative to mainstream news in the news domain.
Thurman (2008) saw the emergence of blogs as a strong indication that “those who have traditionally consumed news are increasingly ready and willing to produce content,” citing Wikinews,a “collaborative news publishing experiment,” as an example of citizen journalism that has transcended individual efforts.
Mainstream journalists seek to present accurate and unbiased news such that audiences can make their own decisions on the basis of the new knowledge and their understanding of it (Singer, 2003). Some non-mainstream online news organizations also seek to provide objective news coverage--even to carry the concept further. Thorsen (2008) studied objectivity inWikinews, which has set for itself the lofty goal of improving on “the traditional sense of journalistic objectivity, in the way that it is both defined and implemented.” The website's “neutral point of view” policy sets forth how this is to be achieved, though Thorsen (2008) concludes that in practice the results are mixed.
Bloggers are producing massive volumes of news and commentary, mostly unfiltered. Technorati, a blog search website, said in its 2008 State of the Blogosphere report that it had indexed 133 million blogs as of August 2008, and that 900,000 blog entries were posted in a typical 24-hour period (Wynn, 2008).
Telegraph.co.ukeditor Richard Burton (2004) contrasted blogs with traditional media by asserting that the former typically emphasize the personality of the writer over the message itself, whereas in traditional media, the norm that the messenger should be anonymous holds firm sway, because “the message is the only thing that is important. No one knows you, no one cares about you. The reader wants information.”
Twitter & [Business] Journalism
Twitter, publicly released in August 2006 by San Francisco start-up Obvious Corporation, is a Web site that lets any Internet user post condensed messages, known as ‘tweets', to groups of self-designated followers, for free.
Tweets can be posted and viewed on Twitter from computers or mobile phones such as the iPhone. Twitter has grown with astounding speed, attracting 50 million accounts to date (Pepitone, 2010).
News organizations and journalists have been quick to take to tweeting. The reason, says Farhi (2009) is its “speed and brevity” that make it an ideal platform for “pushing out” news as it breaks, to technology-savvy readers.
Wilmington, USA, based Star-News's circulation stands at around 48,000 copies per day. The day Hanna hit North Carolina, Robyn Tomlin, the newspaper's Executive Editor was at her duplex, just two blocks from the ocean. She, like her colleagues, was sitting at home and tweeting about the storm, and using Twitter to “connect with people all over the community” (Schulte, 2009). Star-News, according to Tomlin, re-worked its online strategy and created a Twitter feed for its reporters and the community to post their own eyewitness accounts or their queries during the storm.
Tomlin says that tweeting about Hanna drew a lot of attention “because it was happening in that moment.” New York Times co-owned Star-News now manages 15 Twitter feeds, while 30 staffers have their own Twitter accounts to promote their work and to connect with the community, apart from digging out story ideas.” (Schulte, 2009).
TheWall Street Journal (WSJ) puts out stories and gathers information through some 100-odd Twitter feeds. (Schulte, 2009).
The Journal tweets both its free news content and its subscriber-only content, with a note that [advises] readers to pay for content that's behind the pay wall. Alan Murray, executive editor, online for The Wall Street Journal, believes that present-day journalists should consider it their job to write, distribute and market their stores and “find an audience for it” because “in the new world, the journalist has a responsibility for the whole set.” Last September, the Journal briefed its bureau chiefs and reporters extensively to help them adjust to this so called “new world” order (Schulte, 2009).
Farhi (2009) believes Twitter can be a serious aid to journalists. The micro-blogging service, according to him, could provide immediate access to “hard-to-reach newsmakers” like government officials or corporate executives as it gets around the intermediary i.e. the PR person.
Because Twitter allows users with similar interests to ‘follow' each other, the Journal is urging “selected reporters to start Twitter feeds to interesting stories to help drive traffic to the site.” Murray uses his feed to bring up to date his [5,000] followers, of Journal stories, that don't get play on the homepage. One example is a survey, on the eve of President Obama's visit to Denmark, asking readers which city should host the 2016 Olympics. A meagre 20 per cent picked Chicago and this Murray thought made an “interesting” tweet. (Schulte, 2009). But there's a catch here. Schulte (2009) writes that the Journal is discouraging reporters from setting up personal Twitter accounts out of worry that off-the-clock ideas and opinions could be misinterpreted.
At present, the news business is plagued with challenges inherent in a technology that is fast evolving, aggravated by decisions (such as putting news content online for free) made a decade or two ago that got in the way of prompt and effective responses to a changing business environment.
As mentioned in the foremost section, this paper examines, whether Twitter is a timely technology for business newspapers in Singapore? This section critiques WSJ Asia's Twitter account in the Singapore context to answer the above-mentioned question. The reasons for choosing WSJ Asia as the case study are mentioned in the foremost section of this paper.
The Wall Street Journal's current owner, Rupert Murdoch, took charge in 2007. That December, four months after Murdoch's News Corp purchased the Journal, the paper had a “holiday party”. Each news department was ushered into a conference room, where Robert Thomson, the new Australian editor hired by Murdoch addressed each gathering, saying that the Journal “was up seven percentage points” and that “they were moving the needle”. (Featherstone, 2009)
Featherstone (2009) says this focus on ‘moving-the-needle' is about giving more importance to breaking news, over and above the more “considered coverage” that has for long been the WSJ-trademark. Last March, in a memo to staffers, Thomson urged increased cooperation with the company's newswires, reasoning that “a few seconds head start” would be of greater value to readers.
This is probably where a Twitter strategy fits in - to bring up to date subscribers [and non-subscribers] with business or general news as it breaks across the world, including in Asia. “WSJ Asia's Twitter account merely sends out links tostories, the first few paragraphs of which are free. (They also have a biz feed which does much the same.) This is likely automatically generated. For some users this may be enough, though it doesn't exploit the possibilities of Twitter fully,” says Jeremy Wagstaff, a technology columnist formerly with The Wall Street Journal, in his email response to my queries on WSJ Asia.
WSJ Asia's average net circulation (January-June, 2009) stood at 85,822 copies, a 6.34 per cent increase over the corresponding period of 2008 (Hong Kong Audit Bureau of Circulation) and the average net circulation in Singapore (January-June, 2009) stood at 11,055 copies (wsj-asia.com). The Asian edition operatestwo Twitter accounts, ‘WSJAsiaBiz' with 1,740 followers, as on date, and ‘wsjasia' that has 1,652 followers, as on date. A study by the Pew Research Center claims that the number of people using networking services like Twitter to get their news fix is still low - a meagre 10 per cent of all the people with social networking profiles. But this is expected to grow fast. (Schulte, 2009).
WSJ Asia's circulation, as mentioned earlier averages a little over 11,000 copies in Singapore over a six-month period. Most content is behind a pay-wall. How does a Twitter account fit into the picture?
“If you subscribe to the print WSJ, you get a complimentary subscription to the online version, and the easiest way to get WSJ news is to go directly to the site. Twitter followers can get major headlines throughout the day, so for a subscriber, following WSJ Asia or one of the other WSJ feeds, there's one for China, for instance, Twitter can be seen as a value-add.
If you're not a subscriber, not all the links in the Twitter-feed will lead directly to the full article. You'll see the first two paragraphs and a message offering a free two-week trial of WSJ Online. There's obvious value in this for WSJ. If people like the content that comes free, they may want to subscribe--either online-only or to the print + online version. So, there's a potential subscriber in someone who started off just seeking more free content,” says a Singapore-based employee of the Dow Jones & Company that operates The Wall Street Journal, in an email response to my queries on WSJ Asia, requesting anonymity.
There's another side to this equation. Take the business [advertising] side into consideration, and anyone who follows a Twitter-feed link to the WSJ Asia site, whether they're subscribing or not, represents a pair of eyeballs that the company can claim in its pitches to advertisers. “So it's a bonus if the tweet followers decide to subscribe, but it's hardly necessary--so long as they follow the links,” says the Singapore-based DJ employee.
That sums up The Wall Street Journal Asia's Twitter strategy, in that it shows how Twitter appears to be a timely technology for WSJ Asia at this point in time.
But is Twitter a timely technology for business newspapers? “The unsatisfying answer: It all depends.” (Farhi, 2009). Twitter has some 50 million accounts. If business newspapers operate Twitter accounts, it's because they have decided Twitter has relevance. But have they decided to make Twitter an integral part of their business strategy, i.e. have they invested a lot of money and time in Twitter innovation to expand their readership? “This doesn't appear to be the case. It looks like an add-on that may help to build a reader base, increase visits to the [newspaper's] website, and which costs relatively little to maintain,” opines the Singapore-based DJ employee.
We have to agree on the fact that Twitter is used differently by different organisations. “For newspapers it's not--or shouldn't be--just a way to publicize new stories but also to interact with readers and put a human face on the news room. Too many publications simply post links to their stories there, which isn't of much use to most people, especially, as you say, if the material is behind a pay wall. A successful twitter strategy involves interaction, which requires a human to be manning the account,” says Wagstaff.
So is Twitter a valuable aid to business newspapers in Singapore?
Reporters and editors cannot ignore Twitter today, irrespective of which country they are working in or where their newspaper circulates. As business executives become savvier about micro-blogging, there will be fewer and fewer stories breaking from Blackberries in the boardroom. Nevertheless, monitoring Twitter-feeds of prominent business people would still be worth the effort. “In Singapore, executives are more disciplined with regard to leaks than in most [other] places, so Twitter is highly unlikely to prove useful to the enterprising reporter looking for a source of inside news,” according to the Singapore-based DJ employee.
But the real value on the reporting side is when new breaks where reporters are thin on the ground. This could be [after an earthquake or Tsunami,] in a country that becomes financially insolvent overnight. If no major international news organization has a reporter within a few hundred kilometres of the news epicentre, then Twitter could be the most dependable medium [source] for the first few hours, as it has in the recent past in the case of Haiti. “For news out of Singapore, this isn't particularly relevant, but for a newspaper based in Singapore trying to get news from a hard-to-reach place, Twitter can be useful,” adds the DJ employee.
“Journalists should strive to subscribe to those mavens on twitter who either provide an early warning system of stories or might prove useful sources for comment and insight. They can also interact with their readers for feedback and future story ideas,” opines Wagstaff.
To sum up this paper, Twitter, in my opinion is a timely technology for business newspapers. But I do not think Singapore presents any special case that demands a separate Web 2.0 strategy for the WSJ Asia or any other business daily. Singapore is definitely in the sweet spot - Broadband penetration is quite high already and the country's Next Generation National Broadband Network (NBN), an all new fibre network, will be fully-deployed by 2012. Internet speeds, at just about anybody's home on the island, will increase ten-fold, with the new infrastructure ‘capable of broadband speeds of up to 1-Gbps (Yun, 2009). Secondly, the country's population - everybody from Kopitiam-owners, cabbies, bankers, businessmen and of course media executives - is highly business-literate.
In Wagstaff's words, “Twitter is much more than a dumb RSS feed. The best policy is to have a social media editor whose job it is to cultivate sources and readers via Twitter and to reduce the distance between publication and subscriber. Twitter is not about readers, it's about followers: Anyone subscribing to a feed provides personal information and implies a degree of commitment to an interest in the publication (or whoever is providing thetwitter account's content) and is expressing a readiness for deeper contact. Just sending that person links to stories suggests a lack of imagination.”
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