Twitter distinguished itself as an important new platform for breaking political news in Australia during the Great #Spill of 2009. This is the second installment in a MediaShift series on the “#spill effect.” (You can read the first part here.) It draws on a case study of the event and includes online interviews with eight tweeting journalists who are prominent members of the Canberra Press Gallery.

“#Spill” was the hashtag used to amalgamate Twitter coverage of the scalping of federal conservative leader Malcolm Turnbull, and the elevation of Tony Abbott to the leadership of Australia’s opposition party, the Liberal-National Coalition. But behind the frenzied tweeting of the spectacular unraveling of the Turnbull leadership was another story — a story about the coverage itself, which demonstrated the transformative effect this micro-blogging platform is having on Australian political journalism. It’s a story that made news again last week when Malcolm Turnbull announced his resignation from politics, via Twitter, of course.

How Twitter Impacts Australian Reporting

I’ve concluded that Twitter is having a transformative effect on Australian political reporting — but not all Press Gallery journalists agree. While acknowledging the emergence of journalistic audience engagement via Twitter, Samantha Maiden, the chief online political correspondent for Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, described it as just another reporting platform. She downplayed the impact of the #spill story on political reporting.

“Ultimately, Twitter is just a means…of delivering the news. In that sense it is silly to suggest [the #spill] reinvented the wheel in some way,” she said.

Nevertheless, Latika Bourke, a Press Gallery correspondent for national commercial radio, who watched her Twitter followers double during the week-long story (to more than 2,000), said Twitter’s role in the coverage proved it’s here to stay as a journalistic tool.

“For many of us, Twitter was the aside, or extra-curricular part of our job; but now there will be the expectation that when the big stories are on, we’ll be there, tweeting as a priority,” Bourke said.

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Sky TV’s David Speers — who demonstrated the central role of Twitter in the coverage of the story by tweeting live to air in the middle of an interview and using his smartphone to read the tweet of a competitor mid-commentary — said Twitter adds to the value of coverage and the reporting experience, rather than detracting from them.

“Obviously speeches, debates and essays will always be important,” he said. “And they will always be there. Twitter isn’t taking anything away from traditional political discourse. It’s adding something new. And it’s fun.”

The Need for Speed & Color

Speed was the most commonly described effect of Twitter on the political reporting process. It even out-paced frenetic radio news reporters. “I thought working in radio [that] I knew what ‘instant’ meant, but that’s been completely redefined now that I’ve covered the spill via Twitter,” Bourke observed.

The Age’s political correspondent, Mischa Schubert, agreed that Twitter-speed was a factor in the #spill coverage.

“It accelerated the pace of coverage, that’s for sure,” she said. “Where once a lot of details would have been hoarded for the next day’s newspapers, color that wouldn’t hold was broadcast instantly in tweets and on [media organizations’] websites.”

The benefits of value-adding tweets with “color” was also highlighted by others. “If you took a straw poll on which journalists were the most popular — and this was debated by Twitter users — journalists breaking news with a mix of color and telling observation were always in the top three,” Maiden said. “Users aren’t that interested in someone who just tweets a couple of lines from a doorstop or the Senate debates.”

But some political news reporters are “coloring” outside the lines on Twitter. Australian Associated Press’s (AAP) Sandra O’Malley said opinion and commentary are seeping into news reporters’ tweets.

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“There was…much more opining on the political players than during ‘normal,’ straight reporting,” O’Malley said of the #spill coverage. She highlighted the impact of the clash of the personal and the professional in the space, and the challenge it poses to traditional journalistic values like objectivity, as I’ve previously reported.

However, Lyndal Curtis, the chief political correspondent of ABC Radio’s current affairs programs, said the act of tweeting political news hasn’t altered her reporting habits, such as an unbending commitment to fact-checking; but she’s pleased to have “another audience to speak to,” and she acknowledges the humanizing effect of tweeting.

“It allows me some more latitude to be a person, and an outlet for some humor,” she said. The amusement value of Twitter — and Press Gallery journalists’ tendency to merge satire and reportage in the interests of entertaining one another and their new, individual audiences — was mentioned by several of the interviewees.

The need for even greater multi-tasking by journalists in the age of the real-time web was also noted.

“One observation that amazed me was watching a few people — sarahwiley8 latikambourke @bennpackham — standing at doorstops with their digital recorder in one hand and single-handedly tweeting with the other!” O’Malley said.

A number of the journalists commented on the fact that Twitter, with its live reporting capacity and its aggregated news feeds, has enabled them to be less tethered to their desks. They can roam to gather information face-to-face and more accurately assess atmospherics, all while staying informed.

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This, in turn, encouraged the journalists to practice what I’ve observed elsewhere is the tendency to lay bare reporting the process on Twitter by discussing journalistic strategies, dilemmas and difficulties. In the case of the #spill, this was demonstrated by the journalists complaining about efforts to keep them away from the Coalition Party Room, where Malcolm Turnbull’s fate was ultimately sealed.

Twitter Collegiality

One of the strongest themes to emerge from my survey of the eight tweeting Press Gallery reporters who covered #spill was a deepening of relationships between journalists from different media organizations. They spoke of the increased camaraderie and collegiality fostered through the sharing of skills and information.

“We all shared information, respected each other’s scoops by re-tweeting them, and [as a result] the relationships and trust between journalists deepened,” Bourke said.

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Senior Press Gallery journalist Annabel Crabb agreed, noting that, “It brings competitors closer together, in that we read each other’s updates. I certainly was glued to samanthamaiden, latikambourke and @David_Speers as well as talking to my own colleagues.”

Instead of having to finagle details of their competitors’ reporting progress and framing of the story, they just watched their tweet streams. This was particularly beneficial to junior Press Gallery reporters like Bourke, who said she was able to break news of the leadership ballots’ likely outcome as a direct result of following the very connected Speers’ Twitter feed.

“It was like suddenly having all the pieces to a puzzle that I only needed to put together, instead of having just a few, and trying to paint in the blanks,” she said.

Speers was unconcerned by this development.

“Journalists usually save any information they have for the stories they’re writing,” he said. “But on Twitter, political journalists share what they know. I think this is mostly driven by the competitive urge of journalists to be the first to break news, even if it’s only a minor development.”

Collaborative Storytelling

This collaborative storytelling between journalists from competing outlets is one of the most significant changes in political reporting that has come as a result of Twitter. As Crabb said:

The fracturing media market means that we now assume our readers are shopping around. I think the healthy aspect of this — and it’s a great outcome for consumers — is that journalists are dropping the traditional and childish approach of pretending that their competitors do not exist — ignoring a rival’s scoop, and so on. I will happily retweet a competitor’s update if I think my readers will find it interesting. I think this is an emerging and refreshing trend.

But, as much as Twitter is breaking down old modes of competitiveness in political reporting, it’s also fostering a new, sharper edged form of competition for news-breaking.

“Already, newspapers are racing to bring online updates to their websites ahead of their competitors, but Twitter brings a second-by-second competitiveness that is even more challenging,” Crabb said.

And this resulted in media outlets like the ABC running an aggregated tweet-stream (via Twitter lists) of Press Gallery journalists’ Twitter feeds, including those from rival outlets, on the ABC website. This caused concern within some sections of the ABC News and Current Affairs department, because journalists from competing networks are not bound by the same editorial policies and standards as ABC reporters. There was a feeling that this aggregation threatened the independence and credibility of ABC News’ website content. Legal risks associated with carrying competitors’ unchecked and unfiltered tweets were also raised.

Consequences of Kicking Down Walls

There’s a potentially significant downside to what Crikey’s Bernard Keane identified as Twitter’s “flattening effect” for commercial media. He fears it will further undermine traditional media business models.

“What’s the point of a newspaper site, or even Sky News, if you can get a direct feed virtually from inside the party room?” he said. “It’s true that quality political coverage remains one of the few competitive advantages old media has over new media.”

In other words, political reporting may be one of the niche beats that is able to justify pay wall protection — but the unrestrained sharing of information across media stable walls by competing journalists via Twitter may make that unsustainable.

This was also an issue raised by Lyndal Curtis, ABC Radio’s chief political correspondent. “I think it’s my responsibility to write and file first for the organization that pays me … and that audience,” she said. “So I didn’t put anything up of an exclusive scoop nature on Twitter that I hadn’t already filed.”

But Speers disagrees.

“It’s not like journalists are simply giving away their work,” he said. “Their tweets often point to a story they’ve just posted on a website or broadcast on radio or TV. So it can still direct traffic to the outlet paying their salary.”

It’s also true that, in the social media age where the real-time web reigns supreme and mashing up information from myriad sources seems like an irreversible trend, news organizations will have to come to terms with this sort of content aggregation and amalgamation in a way which best serves their audiences and their bottom lines.

Backlash from the AAP

In fact, in the aftermath of the publication of first installment of this series on MediaShift, Sandra O’Malley’s employer, AAP, issued an edict requiring Press Gallery reporters to get permission prior to tweeting about their work — even from their personal Twitter accounts. The fear was the wire service’s journalistic brand and competitive edge would be eroded by reporters’ real-time tweeting and cross-stable collaboration.

The AAP crackdown foreshadows the likely development of anachronistic Reuters-style guidelines for tweeting reporters. Censoring journalists’ tweets when they’ve been at it for many months smacks of trying to re-stable a horse that’s bolted, and also raises questions about the rights of journalists to free speech. (The subject of a future post.)

However, while some Press Gallery journalists’ coverage of the Twitter effect on political reporting highlights residual pockets of change-resistance, proof of its impact came this week in the form of one of the country’s most celebrated political reporters, the 9 Network’s Laurie Oakes. He became an active tweeter and filed an insightful The #Spill Effect – Twitter Hashtag Upends Australian Political Journalism

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She’s been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.