I remember feeling annoyed when I was forced to create a Twitter account in 2009 as part of my job co-hosting The Takeaway at WNYC. At the time, it felt like journalists were having to both cover an endless stream of new social media platforms and use them to publicize our work, only to see many of them fail and disappear. You may not remember FriendFeed, Google Buzz, Meerkat, Friendster or Vine, but I do.
Years later, Twitter is one of the few platforms that has survived and become fairly indispensable for both finding news sources and communicating directly with our audience. While the news cycle has moved on and reporting on the inner workings of Twitter has died down, I would caution my colleagues not to take their eyes off of this ball. If Twitter is doomed to fail, as many experts believe it is, we should be thinking now about what might replace it.
The platform has been in turmoil since Elon Musk purchased it for $44 billion, using money from investors like Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, loans against Twitter, and sales of his stake in Tesla. He closed the deal Oct. 27, one day after inspiring mockery by carrying a sink into the company’s San Francisco headquarters in a bizarre attempt to make a joke.
I won’t go into the extensive list of questionable decisions Musk has made since then, though there are plenty of great articles available if you want to get those details. My focus is on Musk’s relationship with journalists.
First, some context: Twitter is not among the most powerful social media platforms. It doesn’t rank in the top 10 for active users worldwide, nor is it among the most profitable.
An analysis from May 2022 showed Twitter barely squeaking into the top 10 for revenue, but it’s only there because non-U.S. platforms were not included. Twitter was showing an annual revenue of about $5.4 billion, and I’ll remind you that Musk paid $44 billion.
What made Twitter significant was not the number of users (only 23% of Americans use it even occasionally), but the number of journalists who used it to publicize their reporting and engage with the public on important news stories. Despite the relatively small number of tweeters who post regularly (75% of users produce just 3% of all tweets), most Americans say the platform has increased their understanding of current events. That’s entirely due to the journalists who embraced the platform.
For years, journalists made up the largest number of Twitter’s verified users. They, along with news organizations, have also been the most active group on Twitter, and journalists follow more users on the platform than average.
In 2015, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey thanked journalists, saying, “Journalists play a critical role in our society: keep the world honest and balanced. They are true servants of the people. After the tech early-adopters, journalists were next to take to Twitter. They used it as a source, to break news, and to link their work. Journalists were a big part of why we grew so quickly and still a big reason why people use Twitter: news. It’s a natural fit.”
Since Musk bought the company, Twitter has started a conflict with its most important users, and journalists are fleeing the platform in droves. Twitter has suspended the accounts of not just Gil Duran, opinion editor of the Sacramento Bee, but Donie O’Sullivan of CNN, Ryan Mac of the New York Times, Matt Binder of Mashable, independent reporter Aaron Rupar, Drew Harwell of the Washington Post and many others. The American Civil Liberties Union said, “It’s impossible to square Twitter’s free speech aspirations with the purging of critical journalists’ accounts.”
Twitter needs the group — journalists — that makes it influential and consequential. The only reason CEOs and politicians care about what happens on Twitter is because that’s where reporters are. It’s where breaking news is often announced, where journalists comment on current events, and where news stories are shared and sometimes go viral. For several years now, Twitter has been the only platform I’ve used regularly, besides posting an occasional dog pic on Instagram.
The Sacramento Bee’s Duran wrote an op-ed after his Twitter account was suspended. One of the most distressing details in his piece is that he was told he could regain access to Twitter if he deleted a tweet that bothered Elon Musk. The offensive tweet was sent in response to Twitter’s suspension of another account. Duran wrote: “Is tweeting about a banned account now prohibited? How about tweeting about an account that was banned for tweeting about a banned account?”
I can’t think of any justifiable reason for objecting to that message, except that it obviously irritated the new CEO. As Duran said, “It’s an honor to get canceled by Musk, who is welcoming neo-Nazis back to Twitter while banning reporters. Still, it’s admittedly terrifying to see him cross the bright red line of declaring outright war against freedom of the press.”
Some of my colleagues have already started experimenting with alternatives. Mastodon is a relatively popular option, as it is designed to decentralize moderation decisions. But because it’s open source, every server has its own rules, and using it effectively requires a fair amount of knowledge and comfort with the technology.
The Cohost platform is still very new. Like Mastodon, it does not use an algorithm, so it displays posts from the people you follow in the order they were posted. It also doesn’t sell ads, so it makes money when users choose to subscribe for a few dollars each month. Whether this becomes a rival for Meta and Twitter is yet to be seen.
I suspect that nonprofit news outlets will ultimately need to find a platform that allows us to promote our reporting, find experts and connect directly with our audience without being tied to a corporation that secretly sells private information or whose leader fires workers who criticize them. A group of former Twitter employees calling themselves Better Platform will host a virtual discussion this week about what to do now that “the Twitter we depended on is gone.” That may be a good place to start sharing ideas about what comes next.
As we begin this conversation about what comes next for our profession, it’s crucial that we remember how much power we have. More and more Americans understand that credible news coverage is expensive. A new report from the Media Insight Project found that a majority of millennials and Gen Zers are paying for news. Social media needs us, and we have more leverage than we think.
If Elon Musk is trying to make Twitter less valuable and consequential by attacking its most active user group, he’s doing a great job. Regardless, the journalistic community shouldn’t wait for the platform to become more problematic or fail entirely before finding another solution that allows us to connect with our audience, network with each other, and uncover new stories and sources.