Untangling the Web: Tweeting the Mideast

A new Jpost column on the ever-changing world of news online: Social media stakes its place via Iran protests, Haiti's quake and the Arab Spring.

Wael Ghonim twitter 311 (photo credit: Screenshot)
Wael Ghonim twitter 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
Since its commercialization in the 1990s, the Internet has had a role to play in the development of every sector, and journalism is no exception. While some believe that the industry committed commercial suicide by putting content online for free some two decades ago, most agree that the move away from hard copy to digital products is progress in some way, even if there have been, and continue to be, difficulties in monetizing the product.
As a news junkie, both at home and at work, as well as something of a facebook fan, this move suits me just fine. Tweets, “likes” and online sharing appeal to my generation, and as an online editor, any development which brings sources together into one place is welcome.
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In recent months, Egypt's "Facebook revolution" shone a bright light on the influence of online journalism; foreign correspondents in Japan reported on the threat of nuclear disaster via Skype and reporters started tweeting updates on breaking stories. Avid current affairs consumers have watched, most likely with trepidation, as news providers the world over took the leap to explore the concept of paid content, videos began to take over the written word, and news sites started looking less like newspapers and more like social network sites, with registration systems, talkbacks and “likes” integrated into news stories.
There's a new world order taking hold in online news media; unlike in traditional journalism, tools which would have been unheard of yesterday are the new hits of tomorrow, and opportunities for creativity and thinking outside the box abound.
Take for example February's unprecedented protests in Cairo's Tahrir Square and the subsequent ousting of Hosni Mubarak. With shaky Internet across Egypt, reporters who flocked there were forced to file their dispatches in any way possible, and many opted to use media such as Twitter and Audioboo to post written and audio updates: They simply couldn't rely on being able to file polished final versions in time for deadline. Ironically, the Internet cuts put these 21st century journalists in similar situations to their pre-Internet predecessors.
Simultaneously, there was far more reliable, up-to-date information coming from social media sites and private blogs than from more traditional sources like news agency wires and phone updates from correspondents in the field. A notable exception from the traditional media was Al Jazeera, thanks to successful integration of eyewitness reports from the field, dispatches from correspondents and “new media” into its Egypt coverage. The satellite network’s English website also ran, and continues to run, a live feed, an asset which no other satellite network, let alone news site, could offer viewers.
Within a few short weeks, reliable and credible means of researching, filing and reporting news stories evolved significantly.
Probably the best updates that the The Jerusalem Post Internet desk received during this time were filed in real time via chat and email from two of our correspondents who traveled to Egypt to cover the protests. While juggling television reports, radio and online broadcast both local and foreign, various translations from Hebrew and Arabic, floods of talkbacks, copy editing text and uploading photos, Jpost.com Breaking News Editors were able to put together news briefs and stories from conversations over gchat. In the most absurd such situation, one of the reporters was hiding out in the stairwell of a Cairo hotel taking advantage of a rare wireless connection.
Aside from being an exciting and challenging time for journalists and journalism worldwide, it seems the biggest impact of the period was to legitimize social media and to help it stake a place in the news industry.
Whereas a few months ago twitter seemed to be just a strange microblogging site popular among celebrities and celebrity-followers, it is now crucial to online journalism –  for editors, reporters and news junkies alike. And for the the team at Jpost.com, having such sites open on work computers is now mandatory, rather than something likely to get you sent into the boss’ office, like in days gone by.
The recent unrest in the Middle East, however, did not mark twitter's first foray into the field. The anti-government demonstrations in Iran following the June 2009 presidential elections were nicknamed the “twitter revolution,” as protesters used tweets and other social media as their main means of communication with each other. And further afield, in January 2010, the first pictures of the devastating earthquake which struck Haiti came to us via TwitPic. In fact, for weeks after the massive tremor, the thousands of posts from Port-au-Prince which flooded Facebook and twitter were often more up-to-date than the reports from news agencies and major networks. Instead of Facebook users posting New York Times articles, Fox News was quoting twitter users in a Third World country.
Now, on a day-to-day basis, there is an organic symbiosis developing, whereby media outlets are integrating with social media sites and posting their own updates, and even using tweets, blogs and Facebook status updates as leads on breaking stories worldwide. While the full extent of this evolution remains to be seen, it's clear that creativity will be key, both from social media sites and from online news desks the world over.
The writer is the Internet desk manager at Jpost.com