News Orgs Embrace Twitter, But Vary In Its Use, Value

TwitterBird-Twitter feeds have become a regular feature of the online news landscape, often serving as a ticker for breaking news. A new study shows that news organizations typically limit tweets to their own content, but vary widely in how actively they have embraced the popular micro-blogging tool.

The findings from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism are based on an analysis of 3,600 tweets over the course of a week at 13 news enterprises, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, ABC News and The Daily Caller. 

The study, conducted with George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, revealed that news outlets use Twitter mainly as a means of disseminating their own material. On the main news feeds studied, Ninety-three percent of the postings during the week linked to a story on the organization’s own site.

News sites were much less likely to use Twitter as a reporting tool or to curate or recommend information that originated elsewhere. Only 2% of tweets were focused on information-gathering, seeking views or firsthand accounts from readers.

While alike in tapping Twitter to expand the audience for its own content, news providers differed widely in the range and pace of updates they posted via the service. On average, they offered 41 different organizational feeds. The Washington Post was tops with 98, while right-leaning Daily Caller had only a single Twitter feed. Newspapers in general had more feeds than other types of news entities.

The ratDe of posting also ranged widely. The average was 33 tweets a day on the main organizational Twitter feed, but that number varied from close to 100 a day to fewer than 10 depending on the outlet. The Washington Post again led the way with 664 tweets for the week, followed by The Huffington Post (415) and The New York Times 391). MSNBC was last, with 33 tweets for the week.

There is apparently no direct correlation between tweeting and popularity on Twitter. The study found that Fox News had the highest growth in Twitter followers between February and October 2011 -- more than doubling its total -- although it only sent out 48 tweets during the week. Fox News has about 1.1 million followers compared to about 700,000 for The Washington Post.

The Twitter habits of individual reporters weren’t much different than those of their employers.

Looking at the Twitter feeds of 13 individual journalists -- the most followed at each outlet -- found that only 3% of the tweets solicited information -- about the same as the institutional Twitter feeds. The rate was a bit better on retweets of postings from outside entities, at 6%, compared with 1% by news organizations.

Focusing on the Twitter feeds of one particular beat -- health -- the Pew study found that journalists covering that area made more reportorial use of Twitter, with 6% of tweets soliciting information.

The research organization also noted that news staff may be using Twitter to tap into public sentiment by other means, like regularly tracking their own list of Twitter feeds. “Still, these findings reveal limited use of the institution’s public Twitter identity -- one that generally takes less advantage of the interactive and reportorial nature of Twitter,” the report stated.

Pew estimates that as of June, 13% of American adults online use Twitter, up from 8% in November 2010. Globally, Twitter says it has more than 200 registered users. While Twitter’s overall growth creates the potential for larger news audiences, the report questioned the value of racking up followers.

“What is not known, though, is whether people ever look at the posts that get sent their way, or whether they actively use their own Twitter account. Thus, the value of a follower is unclear,” it stated. “Nonetheless, having more followers is generally regarded as one sign of success in this realm.”

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