Twitter and Breaking News

Twitter can be maddening in many ways, a cacophony of voices with a lousy signal-to-noise ratio—does anybody really care what somebody else had for breakfast?

But one thing that Twitter excels in is breaking news. Its broadcast, real-time, 140-character headline nature makes it a perfect vehicle for the latest news, whether it's being generated by on-the-spot observers (or participants) and retweeted far and wide, or whether it's being used by news organizations to blast out their latest headlines.

The latter seems a slamdunk use of Twitter by news organizations—it's just a great headline distribution medium. You'd think that news media outlets would be taking advantage of this functionality to increase their reach and influence. But that's not necessarily the case.

Sure, just about every news organization has a Twitter feed or two. But not all of them promote them well (or tend them well). As a result, a list of breaking news feeds on Twitter shows a large disparity in the number of followers for the various sources. This list isn't meant to be comprehensive, though it includes most of the major news brands. But it is representative:

Source       Followers
New York Times  1,993,474
Time  1,670,519
NPR Politics  1,585,066
Breaking News Online  1,325,832
CBS News  1,286,393
Newsweek  925,910
ABCNews  787,833
CNN  547,785
HuffingtonPost  247,841
ESPN  180,473
NPR News  130,433
Fox News  107,818
Wall Street Journal  99,291
Reuters  43,886
MSNBC Breaking  36,228
WashingtonPost  34,556
Google News  24,576
Politico  22,089
YahooNews  4,004
AP  1,552

As you can see, there are some well-known news brands at the top—and some equally well-know news brands at the bottom. The New York Times, Time, NPR and CBS are reaching vast new audiences via Twitter; The Washington Post, Yahoo News and the AP (which should be a natural for a breaking-news headline product), not so much. Some big Web-only names like HuffingtonPost are doing well; others, like Google News, Politico and Yahoo News (the #1 Web news site), are also-rans.

But one of the big names on the list is not like the others: Breaking News Online, the upstart Twitter-only news headline service that has muscled its way near the top of this list, with more than 1.3 million followers. Run by a 19-year-old Dutch entrepreneur, Michael van Poppel, BNO has become an invaluable neutral source for news headlines as soon as they happen. Van Poppel and his small team scan major media sites (and do some of their own reporting) to produce BNO's breaking news feed, pumping out bite-sized news breaks in a manner that will bring a smile to any wire-service or news-radio junkie. They seem to have pitch-perfect news sense, which is essential for any good headline service.

The result: A startup news company with an audience that rivals those of the big traditional news sites on Twitter. Not too shabby. You have to wonder what also-rans like The Washington Post and MSNBC are thinking when they see a teenager beating them qualitatively and quantitatively in distributing breaking news to Twitter's news-junkie-heavy audience. As PaidContent recently wrote, "Hey Media Company. Buy BNO News. Now. Really."

Is there a business model for breaking news on Twitter? At first blush, you'd think not, since there doesn't seem to be any sort of business model for Twitter at the moment. But van Poppel may be a step ahead here, too. BNO now has an iPhone app that sells for $1.99—plus a 99-cent-per-month subscription fee. That might be a decent model to convince breaking news buffs to pay, gasp, a subscription fee for news on their phones (a natural mobile app). It will be interesting to see if BNO can make its subscription model work. At least it's trying.

In the meantime, Breaking News Online is another example of mainstream media being outflanked by an aggressive online startup. You'd think, given the popularity of Twitter among news types, that every major media outlet would have a mega-popular Twitter news operation. But only some do—and the rest are taking a backseat to a clever 19-year-old kid. Tweet that.

Addendum: Some Twitterati argue that inclusion on Twitter's Suggested User list—which new Twitter members see after signing up—skews the popularity of certain sites. Sure, the list—which has hundreds of suggestions, in random order—is probably one factor in driving popularity. But there are many others, and a big news organization that can only garner a few thousand Twitter followers is clearly just not taking advantage of the medium or marketing its feeds well (including lobbying Twitter for inclusion on the suggested list!). And now it appears Twitter is considering eliminating the Suggested Users list. That would level the playing field.

7 thoughts on “Twitter and Breaking News

  1. Exactly Mark. As a correspondent, I used to rely heavily on very expensive news aggregators to find out what was happening on my patch. Twitter has replaced that and I think I’m even more on top of things (read: I’d be happy to pay for some of the feeds or the service in general).
    Every time my friends bag on Twitter I point out how it’s revolutionized my job. The papers that don’t Twitter? I don’t quote their scoops because their competition copies them — and twitters them — before I ever get around to checking non-twittering papers as secondary slow-day sources.

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  2. This is the future of Journalism. Time to adjust as new social media entries are evolving into alternative journalism resources.

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  3. The suggested user list seriously does skew your chart (which is oddly missing the Chicago Tribune’s @ColonelTribune with 680,000+ followers) — However, your point about news organizations at the bottom of this list is right on. They should be doing more to actively promote their feed and gaining followers.
    My Web site http://www.breakingtweets.com has grown specifically because of Twitter & breaking news so I felt the need to chime in here. If I can gain 12,400+ followers in eight months, merely from posting quality content and breaking news, why can’t traditional news organizations?

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  4. Thanks, Craig. Good catch on @ColonelTribune, which I’ve written about before, though it’s not strictly a breaking news feed. As I said, it wasn’t meant to be a comprehensive list, just a snapshot. But your point is correct—there’s really no excuse for a major news organization to be at the bottom of this list with a small number of followers.

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  5. Hi Mark. My name is Steve Abbott and I work at guardian.co.uk. We realised a while back that we were not signposting our Twitter accounts very well on our site so we launched a page in our Community section called ‘Find us on Twitter’. Here is the URL:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/users/2009/may/07/find-us-on-twitter
    I also believe that your figure of 2,729 followers for the Guardian might be taken from the following account:
    http://www.twitter.com/guardian
    Unfortunately this is not us. We are in conversation with Twitter about getting this account suspended and we are also looking to verify our other main accounts so that people can be sure that it is really us.
    A quick way to spot the official Guardian accounts is that all of them have colour variations on our Guardian favicon. For example, check out http://twitter.com/guardiantech – our most popular account – which has one of our favicons and, at the time of writing, 1,352,398 followers.

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  6. Mark,
    Interesting post, but you’re underestimating the power of Twitter’s Suggested User List.
    The Austin American-Statesman’s main account was tracking along almost exactly in follower numbers with @ColonelTribune until the Colonel was put on the list. @BreakingNews had about 25,000 followers (still impressive) before it was put on the list. It vaulted through the roof in a matter of weeks once listed. When a new user signs up for Twitter, the default is to follow the accounts on Twitter’s list. There’s just no way to build the types of numbers that are on this list without Twitter giving organizations that lift.
    That being said, I think your point about properly caring for a Twitter account is spot-on. At the Austin American-Statesman, we have been using Twitter to interact and collaborate with our community for more than a year. Without the benefit of Twitter’s list, we have 60+ newsroom accounts, with a total of more than 80,000 combined followers. If anything, I think some of those accounts at the top of your list aren’t doing things the right way. There’s little-to-no interaction with readers. No “social” use of social media. Twitter shouldn’t be a one-way street, in my opinion.

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