Monthly Archives: May 2008

The limits of Twitter’s 140-character limit

Matthew Ingram and Mark Hamilton have written posts defending Twitter from a backlash stirred up by some outlandish claims made after the China earthquake. Both make good not-outlandish arguments for why Twitter is important for journalism and news consumers, but after reading their posts I’m still stuck on the arbitrariness of Twitter’s 140-character limit.

Ingram points out that Twitter isn’t going to kill old media — it’s just one of many new tools that are potentially very good at one of old media’s main functions (in this case, getting the news to people in a timely fashion). He writes:

No one is suggesting that Twitter replace the emergency broadcast system, or that Twitterers should be thought of in the same breath as “first responders” such as search & rescue personnel. … But why shouldn’t we talk about how Twitter can be used to get information out about disasters?

It’s a good question, but I would follow up with one of my own: If Twitter is going to become a primary tool for getting information out about disasters, why place an artificial limit on the length of each disaster-information post?

Hamilton answers part of this question in his post. He writes:

The common argument against Twitter, IM and all the rest is that while they can provide information, they can’t provide context and depth. But when news breaks, it’s information that I want, not the narrative-nutgraf stories and not the context. The steady flow of information as the story develops is what I’m looking for (and that steady flow carries with it a lot of the context that some newspaper reporters insist only they can provide). (emphasis in original)

But what about information that’s shorter than a narrative nut graf but longer than 140 characters? In other words, why should the steady flow of information that Hamilton wants be restricted to 140-character blasts? As I wrote in this post, if it’s okay to continue a thought (or a news blast) across multiple Twitter posts, why have an arbitrary limit at all?

There’s another aspect of the 140 limit that troubles me. In that same post I wrote, “Ultimately I’m not sure why multiple 140-character Twitter posts are better than a simple live-blog.” After reading Ryan Sholin’s Twitter coverage of this week’s E&P Interactive Media Conference (where his ReportingOn project won a Knight News Challenge grant!), I’m still not sure.

Here’s a page of Sholin live-Twittering Arianna Huffington’s keynote speech. Sholin’s Twitter followers saw a page and a half of Huffington posts instead of having one post they could click on if they wanted to see the minute-by-minute updates. Plus, because of the 140-character limit there wasn’t room for any (or many) of Huffington’s actual quotes. As I said in my original post, quotes are often unnecessary in stories like these. But Twitter’s character limit means people who don’t speak in perfect pithy phrases just won’t be quoted.

Fast-forward a year or two, when many more people and news organizations will be covering news this way. If you’re following a bunch of Twitterers and three or four of them cover live events at the same time, you’d have to scroll through dozens of news posts before getting to the other people you’re following.

Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing Sholin. He did an awesome job covering the conference given Twitter’s constraints. But I think those constraints may limit the effectiveness of this kind of coverage — just as they may limit the effectiveness of disaster-news delivery and general breaking news.

Why Dana Milbank is awesome

I don’t always agree with Dana Milbank’s take on politics, but I always love reading his Washington Sketch pieces for the Washington Post. To me, he represents where newspaper journalism should be heading: reporters as honestly subjective sources unto themselves, rather than faux-objective conduits for he-said, she-said quote-getting.

My favorite Milbank pieces are sketches of congressional hearings. He’s not afraid of actually pointing out the absurdity and dulling obfuscation of government bureaucracy in action. I often wonder why the Post bothers running “straight” news stories about hearings — the kind of stories that dutifully recount “newsworthy” quotes (i.e. scripted boilerplate) — when Milbank’s sketch invariably tells you what really happened.

Milbank’s new piece on Hillary Clinton’s win in West Virginia isn’t about a hearing, but it’s one of his best columns yet. Not just because he uses Monty Python’s “Dead Parrot” sketch to frame Clinton’s dwindling candidacy, but because he finally reveals the hollowness of my all-time favorite stumping-politician move: the smarmily grinning point-and-wave (and its close cousins the grinning point, wave, and-thumbs-up; and the grinning point-and-nod, which Hillary Clinton does at the 8- and 52-second marks of this video and which Bill Clinton does three times in the first 21 seconds of this video).

Milbank’s description of Clinton running through the point-and-wave motions is almost poignant, despite the mockery of the story’s Monty Python framing:

A steep descent brings Clinton’s plane to Charleston’s hilltop airport. After an appropriate wait, she steps from the plane and pretends to wave to a crowd of supporters; in fact, she is waving to 10 photographers underneath the airplane’s wing. She pretends to spot an old friend in the crowd, points and gives another wave; in fact, she was waving at an aide she had been talking with on the plane minutes earlier.

If there’s been a more succinct, perfect illustration of Clinton’s end-game — or a better skewering of the point-and-wave — I haven’t seen it.

UPDATE: Credit Bill Walsh for the terrific headline (“This Is an Ex-Candidate”) on Milbank’s story. Walsh posted some other headlines he considered; I especially like “White Americans and the Norwegian Blue,” but I think his final headline was poifect.

The danger of lame local news

Everyone who has trumpeted hyperlocal news as the future of newspapers should read this hilariously merciless Bill Wyman post at Hitsville.

Wyman, who notes that he gets three newspapers a day, gives a brutal assessment of one edition of the Arizona Republic’s “Arizona Living” section — which includes such interesting stories as “Free burrito for teachers, ” “Post office food drive,” and “Fight Crohn’s and colitis” as well as

a short filler AP item (“Jump-start day sweetly, swiftly”) about how the Tootsie Roll company has a new product: “Maxxed Energy Pops, a cleverly packed energy drink in the form of a lollipop.” It’s almost hard to believe that life forms above the level of a somewhat dense tree sloth took part in the selection, editing, hed-writing and publishing of that piece of prose.

Yowza. I’m always wary of hyperlocal pushes because of the danger that papers will end up with lots of lame community-newsletter fluff like this. Of course there are ways to do hyperlocal that don’t result in stories-as-boring-calendar-items; Wyman himself suggests a much better approach to one of the Arizona Living stories. So let his post be a warning to journalists everywhere, hyperlocal or otherwise. Please, please, don’t end up like this:

It’s clear that everyone involved long ago had any bit of originality or innovation beaten out of them. They know that they can’t go wrong producing and designing the page to appeal to some imaginary doddering grandmother, so they scour the day’s press releases and then sit around and brainstorm to zero in on the bloodless, the trivial, and the utterly mundane.