Following NPR dispute, stations consider their future on Twitter — or off

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The spat between NPR and Twitter has prompted dozens of stations to follow the network’s example and suspend their use of the platform, spurring donations of support from audience members and allowing for a reset of priorities on social media.

More than 30 stations have announced so far that they will no longer use Twitter. Some station leaders say they made the decision to show solidarity with NPR and that they agree with NPR CEO John Lansing, who argued that the platform undermined the network’s credibility when it inaccurately labeled the network’s Twitter account as “state-affiliated media” earlier this month. NPR announced April 12 that it would stop using its Twitter accounts.

“We are worried that our continued engagement on this platform will erode public trust. So, we’re following NPR’s lead,” wrote Caryn Mathes, GM of KUOW in Seattle, in a note posted on her station’s website April 12. The station has seen “declining returns on Twitter” in recent years, she added, with the platform accounting for just 1% of its site’s traffic last year. 

Other stations are continuing to use the platform, however, with their leaders arguing that they should still serve audience members who rely on it.

“We believe the communities of Western North Carolina deserve fair, accurate, independent coverage, on all platforms—even those managed by individuals who may prioritize sensationalism over ethics,” Laura Lee, interim news director at Blue Ridge Public Radio, wrote in a statement posted Thursday on the station’s website.  

Twitter changed the “state-affiliated” label to “government-funded” after NPR objected, then removed that label Friday. It had also labeled PBS and other public broadcasters as “government-funded.” NPR and PBS have not resumed tweeting.

‘We have to stand on the side of what’s right’

The Twitter drama erupted at a time when NPR and member stations are investing millions in growing their digital audiences and donations. NPR has nearly 9 million followers on the platform. 

For Boston’s WBUR, those considerations didn’t trump a lack of confidence in Twitter as a platform for public media. “No editorial organization is going to not take seriously the loss of audience at the time when we’re trying with every fiber of our being to grow our audience and widen the circle,” said CEO Margaret Low. “And yet we have to stand on the side of what’s right and what reflects our values.”

“I don’t think that there’s a lot of faith in the platform or the leadership of the platform right now,” Low said. The station announced the same day as NPR that it would stop using Twitter. Low confirmed to Current that it will not return, even after the platform scuttled NPR’s “government-funded” label.

WGLT in Normal, Ill., is “evaluating” whether it will return to Twitter now that the label has been retired, said Ryan Denham, digital content director. Denham said WGLT followed NPR’s lead in suspending its use of the platform.

“Internally, our calculus was that we share the same philosophical concerns about Twitter,” Denham said.   

Quitting Twitter is unlikely to have a significant impact on traffic to the station’s website, he said, as it has typically driven less than 2% of the site’s traffic. “My sense is that Twitter has a pretty low penetration in our community here,” he said.  

WGLT is now looking to focus more of its engagement efforts on email newsletters, Instagram and Reddit, Denham said. Its newsletters have about 6,500 subscribers, outstripping its Twitter reach, and open rates are upward of 40%.

WGLT has also been posting more Instagram Stories, which allows it to link to its content. Those posts have enjoyed high engagement levels, Denham said, and are reaching “a different part” of WGLT’s community than it can engage on Facebook, Twitter or through a newsletter.

Posting stories to community-focused subreddits has also shown “some early success,” Denham said. “Even that by itself will probably be able to make up for a percentage point or two of traffic.”  

The station isn’t looking to join a new platform similar to Twitter, such as Mastodon, Denham said.

“I don’t know if the solution here is more allegiance to a platform that we don’t own or don’t have control over,” he said. “I would guess that we’d be more apt to spend more time and resources building email newsletter lists. That is a platform for which we have a little more control. … There’s a more permanent relationship there.”

A donation ‘in honor of Elon’

Northwest Public Broadcasting has gone dark on Twitter until at least the end of May, when the station will reevaluate its decision, GM Cara Williams Fry told Current. 

The station decided to stop using the platform in solidarity with NPR. “It just felt like it was time to take action and to stand up for a trusted editorial process and product,” Williams Fry said.

Audience members responded positively to NWPB’s decision, and the station received about 90 donations in the first 48 hours after its announcement, Williams Fry said. On the first day, the station received about a dozen donations. The next morning, Williams Fry explained the decision in an email to supporters and asked for donations to “support factual, balanced journalism,” she said. 

WBUR also saw a boost in donations after announcing it would not use Twitter, said Mike Steffon, director of membership and campaign strategy. The station received more than 100 gifts following its announcement. One donor said they were giving “in honor of Elon Musk.”

The station had already been “disinvesting” in Twitter and producing more original journalism for platforms such as Instagram and TikTok, said Dan Mauzy, executive editor of news. 

“As Twitter has become a more toxic space, we’ve seen more people leave it, and it’s a less rich place to be,” he said. 

Spending less time on Twitter has allowed the station to focus more on growing its audiences on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram. Multiplatform Editor Meghan Kelly said she’s been working more on editing videos and developing other content for those platforms, which is more time-consuming than tweeting. On Instagram, she’s highlighting the work of the station’s photographers and creating text-based posts sharing information about elections and other local issues.

Yet the station’s combined audience on TikTok and Instagram is less than a third of its Twitter followers. Replacing Twitter is going to be “really hard,” Kelly said. 

“Twitter wasn’t always necessarily about getting people to click on the link, because a lot of people don’t,” she said. “But it was about being a part of the conversation of what was happening online.”

The reasons for staying

A handful of stations have made public statements about why they’re continuing to use Twitter. Some did so while also expressing support of NPR and its decision. 

“WDET has decided to continue providing important, fact-based news and holding civil conversations on Twitter,” Mary Zatina, GM of WDET in Detroit, said in an April 14 statement on the station’s website. “We’ve discussed the issue and we determined that we are committed to getting key information to the public. Twitter is one way of doing that.”

Nashville Public Radio has been “working hard on becoming an organization that is making decisions more based on the audience, not on us,” CEO Steve Swenson told Current. “We felt that at this point as a local news organization, us going off it in support of NPR wasn’t the best way. We wanted to state our support of NPR, but we also didn’t want to stop providing information on all of our different channels.”

While the station plans to continue using Twitter, it would have left immediately if Twitter had added “government-funded media” to its Twitter account. “We would do exactly what NPR did,” he said. 

That’s not the case for KEDT in Corpus Christi, Texas, said GM Don Dunlap. Even if Twitter had labeled the station as “government-funded,” it would have continued using the platform while refuting the label, he said. 

In an email sent to a forum of station leaders that he shared with Current, Dunlap said that not using Twitter “is shirking our responsibility to standup to misinformation with the truth.”

NPR and other stations have decided to leave Twitter too quickly, Dunlap told Current. “Why would you work for years to build up your social media audience, then give them up because somebody calls you a name?” he asked. “We’re a little bigger than that, I think.” 

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