Australia is gearing up for a national election in 2010 and a core group of influential political journalists in the elite Canberra Press Gallery are tweeting their way along the campaign trail — and bringing an engaged public along for the ride.

Press Gallery journalists are among the most active Australian reporters on Twitter, which entrenched itself Down Under as a mainstream media reporting platform in the context of breaking news early in 2009.

As part of my ongoing research into the impact of Twitter on journalism, I’ve been investigating the role and experience of Australian political reporters on the platform. I’m currently preparing a case study on Twitter coverage of one of the biggest crises to afflict Australian conservative politics: The Liberal Party leadership collapse that was immortalised by the trending topic #spill in the last days of the 2009 parliament. (I will present a snapshot of this research in a peer-reviewed academic paper at the World Journalism Education Congress in South Africa this July)

I’m in the process of analyzing the thousands of tweets generated when the story unfolded, moment by moment, on Twitter. But more interesting are the experiences of political journalists who used the platform to augment their coverage of the leadership spill as it played out in late November/early December last year.

In the immediate aftermath of the story, I surveyed eight prominent tweeting Press Gallery journalists about their experiences. Their responses, and my ongoing assessment of the Twitter coverage, have strengthened my hypothesis that Twitter is having a transformative impact on journalism. this is taking place against a backdrop of institutional upheaval and audience demands for increased engagement with both journalists and the stories they report. This became clearer to me as I observed and actively participated in the #spill coverage as a content curator and commentator

Key Findings

My key preliminary findings are:
Twitter is becoming a vehicle for participatory democracy in Australia thanks to its ability to create unmediated interaction between political journalists, engaged citizens and politicians.
In the race to tweet, journalists are knocking down the walls that have in the past segregated media outlets within the Press Gallery. This is happening via content-sharing and cross-pollination between fiercely competitive commercial and public broadcast networks, newspapers and wire services.
Collegiality is being fostered between tweeting political journalists.
Conversely, competitiveness has a new, sharper edge.
Tweeting renders political reporting processes more transparent.
Twitter is a new dissemination point for breaking political news.
Twitter has broken through barriers that have historically isolated political journalists from media consumers.
While journalists continue to re-examine professional fundamentals as they negotiate their way through the Twitterverse, they, in general, view the benefits of the platform as outweighing the risks.
The upcoming Federal Election will be Twitterised

I’ll elaborate on these findings in my next post for MediaShift. For now, here’s a look back at the #spill story, and what it means for Twitter and journalism.

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The Press Gallery Joins Twitter

Last June, Canberra Press Gallery journalists successfully campaigned for the right to take mobile devices and laptops onto the floor of the parliament to enable live-tweeting of Question Time, the daily slanging match between the government and opposition parties. This followed the development of a significant following for the journalist-led Twitter discussion around Question Time, aggregated by the hashtag #QT, which effectively engaged an active online citizenry. This change brought about an end to a decades-long ban on communication devices within the parliamentary chambers. And, as a result, politicians began joining the #QT chat from their leather benches.

Highlighting the traction Twitter has gained within Australian politics as a recognised political reporting platform, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd cited the tweets of Sky TV News political editor, David Speers, while taunting the opposition on the floor of the House of Representatives last August.

“Twitter is a welcome addition to the political landscape in my view,” Speers told me. “It’s encouraging journalists to be faster, wittier and more collegiate.”

The Story of #Spill

The flow of Press Gallery journalists onto Twitter accelerated during a leadership crisis that ultimately cost the opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, his job. Turnbull’s attempts to offer bi-partisan support for a controversial emissions trading scheme resulted in an historic schism within the party and an ugly leadership meltdown that ultimately shifted Australian conservative politics further to the right. It was a riveting story.

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But what made this political crisis even more spectacular was the way it played out on Twitter. Press Gallery journalists poured onto the platform, and political watchers were glued to journalists’ Twitter streams. A politically engaged Twitter electorate was taken directly into the eye of the storm by journalists live-tweeting every twist and turn within the halls of power. They also interacted with their followers. Prominent political players in the crisis, including the deposed leader and one of his key challengers, also used Twitter to engage directly with voters and canvas public opinion.

The Australian’s chief online correspondent, Samantha Maiden,) later told me that she felt politicians were generally slower on the Twitter up-take.

“I think it’s a bit of a myth that politicians were tweeting in great numbers during the spill, but I certainly know they were keeping their eye on what was emerging on twitter,” she said.

Radio 2UE’s Latika Bourke said that many politicians were obsessive about tracking the updates form journalists. “Some MPs I know were glued to the coverage, although they’ll never admit it publicly,” she told me.

Other journalists mentioned the fact that scores of political staffers were closely watching the feeds and phoning reporters, asking them to elaborate on tweets. The staffers also forwarded tweets to the politicians themselves. This confirms the legitimacy Twitter obtained during the #spill as a political reporting platform.

The journalists used Twitter for a wide range of activities. these included:
Tweeting breaking news
Live-tweeting from media conferences
Posting pictures to illustrate the atmospherics
Offering opinions
Monitoring key political players’ Twitter feeds
Linking to long-form stories on their outlets’ websites and, critically, to those of their competitors
Discussing story updates and journalistic processes with their colleagues, competitors and followers
Interacting with the public
Posing questions to politicians, or passing comments directed at them via the medium

J-Tweeting the Spill

How significant was the role of Twitter in the reporting of ‘the #spill’? Within 24 hours of the story breaking, Crikey’s Bernard Keane reflected on the impact it had already made.

“Now it’s a vast combination of news outlet, rumour mill and commentary chamber, and it’s virtually instant. Media in its purest form, with all the flaws and benefits of media similarly magnified,” he wrote.

According to Latika Bourke, a commercial radio journalist with the nationally distributed Sydney talk station 2UE, Twitter was at the heart of the coverage.

“I can’t tell you how many times I heard journos admit they ‘better get into this Twitter thing,’ that fortnight … It was the only service providing minute-by-minute updates of the very fluid situation,” Bourke said.

The journalists I surveyed spoke of colleagues overcoming their apprehensions about the time-sapping effect of Twitter as the story unfolded.

ABC Radio chief political correspondent Lyndal Curtis made efficient use of her Twitter account during the week-long crisis. “I used Twitter mainly as a content aggregator — I didn’t have time to monitor Sky [TV], other radios or the newspaper websites because I was constantly on the phone or on the air,” she said. “So Twitter was my RSS feed.”

Sandra O’Malley, an experienced political correspondent with the main Australian wire service, Australian Associated Press, said she found timely tweeting difficult given the significant deadline pressure involved in reporting for a news wire.

“Twitter was a secondary consideration for me in such a frantic environment,” she said “Interesting, however, how competitive it can be. [I] found myself quite put out when I broke a story on the wire but only managed to get it to Twitter late, or not at all, and saw others getting it out there first.”

The ABC’s Chief Online political writer, Annabel Crabb was one of the first Press Gallery journalists to begin tweeting, and she has a large following at her dedicated Question Time Twitter feed.

“(The #Spill) was an event quite well-suited to Twitter, in that it was fast-moving, anarchic, and constantly changing,” Crabb said.

She outlined how the story highlighted the real-time news value of Twitter and its capacity to offer a more detailed picture over time: “A story filed for a newspaper at the end of the day would, of necessity, be obliged to edit out some of the stranger twists and turns that occurred during the day; the deals that fell over, the partnerships that formed and disintegrated all within the space of an orthodox news cycle.”

While some said Twitter was the star of the #spill story, Keane, said it was actually part of the bigger (and more permanent) story “of the demolition of the old media model of media outlets and their journalists and editors acting as filters on what information is passed on to consumers.”

The collaborative reporting facilitated by Twitter – the “wisdom of crowds effect” – will be explored in part two of this report, along with the impact on political reporting of engagement between tweeting journalists, ‘punters’ and political pundits. The breakdown of historical divides between journalistic camps, which challenges traditional notions of competitiveness – and raises concerns about further eroding mainstream audiences by driving ‘followers’ to the websites of competing media outlets – will also be examined, along with the associated emergence of a heightened collegiality between tweeting Australian political journalists.

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