I was sitting at my desk at the San Jose Mercury News on Tuesday when I first heard about the Los Angeles earthquake through an inter-office message from a colleague. My next instinct was to click over to my Twitter account to see what was going on.

Like a lot of folks who have developed a cultish appreciation for the microblogging service, I’ve increasingly found that Twitter has become the place get breaking news before it hits online news sites or television.

I follow Twitter through a desktop application called Twhirl. Since I only follow a limited number of folks who are in Los Angeles, I switched over to Summize, a Twitter search service that was recently acquired by Twitter. I typed in “earthquake” and Summize pulled up a list of all tweets containing the word earthquake.

To get a sense of the volume of tweets, here’s a graph of earthquake tweets by minute compiled by tweetip.com:

tweetip

The focus of my work here, The Next Newsroom Project, is to try to think about the newsroom of the future. What’s exciting about the era we’re entering is that there will be many next newsrooms. The beauty of Twitter is that it enabled one version of that: An instant, virtual, citizen journalism newsroom that immediately posted thousands of updates.

On Twitter’s blog, co-founder Biz Stone discussed the notion that Twitter was becoming the new newswire, noting the first tweet came nine minutes before the Associated Press pushed out its first story on the quake.

How much does that nine minutes really matter? This has always been a fundamental, unanswerable question, whether we’re talking about TV news and which cable station has a 30 second head start on a story, or which wire service is first with new financial news. Over time, though, it builds a reputation and a mindset among members of certain communities and trains them where to get news first. So if it happens consistently, then it will matter over time.

That said, Twitter remains the tool of a narrow, very connected set and has a long way to go before it gets the attention of the mainstream.

Still, as Twitter evolves into this role and gains a wider audience, it’s worth understanding what’s good about this development, and what limitations exist.

As I attempted to follow the tweets, there were often more than 100 coming in every minute. So there’s an overwhelming volume that can be hard to process at times. I was mentally trying to stitch together the larger picture of what was happening but was left wondering what gaps existed. For instance, I’m guessing the Twitter demographic has not penetrated as deeply into low-income and minority neighborhoods. If Compton was burning, would there be someone there tweeting it?

And because the tweets are uncurated, you get the good, with, well, updates likes this:

ijustine

On the other hand, there was an instant army of civilians that emerged to cover the event. It’s the kind of crowd that other organizations could only dream of organizing.

As the tweets flew by, I asked my followers if there was a way to know who had the first tweet on the earthquake? In other words, who broke the news? This turns out to be more difficult to track down than you’d think. There were so many tweets at that point, that flipping back through a search engine like Summize meant plowing back through hundreds and hundreds of pages of search results.

Stone himself tweeted that the first earthquake tweet this one:

firsttweet1

(I’m not posting the actual tweet from Nicholas Hawkins since it includes profanity, but you can find it here.)

But on his blog post Tuesday, Stone later said the first tweet was actually this one:

firsttweet2

Does it matter who gets credit? Not really in the larger scheme of things.

For some perspective on this Twitter posse, I also began checking the Los Angeles Times website. Initially, it was inaccessible, most likely due to a flood of traffic. In fact, executive editor Meredith Artley said in an email that latimes.com had 5.6 million page views Tuesday, up from the usual 4 million. And the forum question, “did you feel it?” attracted more than 1,000 comments.

Ideally, latimes.com would have had more provisions for such events, but this apparently only knocked them down for a few minutes. It appears their first official post about the event came at 11:56 a.m., just 14 minutes after the first tweet. Also, very quickly, the L.A. Times site had maps, live video feeds, and hundreds of comments. It’s an impressive performance, and it’s a reminder that when big news breaks, people still turn to their local newspaper web site for the story.

Of course, if were up to me, I would have placed a Twitter feed on the front of latimes.com, though as noted above, that’s not without some risk given the lack of filtering. And I would have created an earthquake tag and had someone trying to aggregate all the other media people were probably loading at places like YouTube, flickr, etc.

Fortunately, it appears the quake was not catastrophic, certainly not approaching anything on the scale of the China quake earlier this year. But still, the other limitation of Twitter’s newsroom is that it’s got a short attention span. It’s unlikely that Twitter posse could be expected to do follow ups on victims, watchdog pieces on the work of emergency responses, and any other broader issues that might be raised.

But it’s okay if Twitter’s not great for everything. What matters is that by being exceedingly strong in one area – breaking news – it builds the larger news ecosystem, which hopefully improves the overall reporting and flow of information for everybody.