News won’t wait in the Twitter age

In a recent article, New York Times reporter Noam Cohen takes a look at how news of Tim Russert’s death spread across the Internet, despite NBC’s efforts to keep the news quiet until Russert’s family had been informed in person.

Cohen mentions microblogging tool Twitter in his article, but Poynter columnist Steve Outing later wrote that Twitter and others like it are having more of an impact than the NY Times piece implies. He says:

One thing that Cohen underplayed was Twitter, the popular microblogging service, which I believe makes holding on to news pretty much an untenable act from here on out.

Here’s the deal with Twitter as it applies to fast-breaking news: All it takes is one person with knowledge of a big-deal news event (in this case, anyone in the NBC building who learned about Russert’s death) to instantly blast it out via Twitter to blow apart any notion you may have of holding back the tide for a few minutes.

Cohen looks at the detailed records of editing changes at Wikipedia, which also had the news of Russert’s death up well before NBC had made the announcement.
It turned out that a junior-level NBC employee had posted the news on Wikipedia. Cohen writes:

NBC News said it was told the employee was fired.

The instinct of the junior-level employee, presumably, was to correct the record on Wikipedia and share knowledge with the wider world. That flash of idealism was very brief; 11 minutes later, according to Wikipedia records, someone at another Internet Broadcasting computer deleted the date of death and turned all the past tenses back to present tenses. Only minutes later, of course, none of this would matter.

With the spread of online outlets like blogs and MySpace pages and citizen journalists, it can be easily forgotten that the only thing that the Internet cannot guarantee you is an interested audience.

The moral of the story, says Outing, is that “big news holds for no network.”

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