Category Archives: Reynolds Journalism Institute

Introducing Real-Time Social Journalism at RJI’s MobileFirst Symposium

Note: The following text is a transcript, more or less, of my remarks to the Mobile First Symposium held at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, March 31 and April 1, 2014. Executives from leading national and regional news organizations were on hand to discuss strategies for reaching rapidly-changing, always-on, typically-mobile audiences.  Details of the conference are well recapped here.  


On a cold Sunday evening in February, John Walton (@thatjohn) took a break from binge watching House of Cards Season 2, and logged on to an aviation forum to catch up with colleagues a half a world away.  A freelance aviation journalist, Walton and his friends were watching air traffic when it became clear that an Ethiopian Airlines 737 had flown dramatically off course.  As they listened in to air traffic control, the reason for the misdirection became clear: the aircraft’s pilot had hi-jacked the plane and was seeking amnesty in Geneva, Switzerland.

This journalist knew he had a story and he knew he had it hours before any other reporter was likely to. He didn’t, however, have a printing press or a broadcast tower or even a well-trafficked web site, for that matter.  He did have Twitter and more than 3,000 followers.  So, at 8:25p.m. EST on February 16, John used the only publishing platform at his disposal to break the news.

John Walton ET702 initial tweet

John and his colleagues in the aviation forum had formed a virtual newsroom of sorts, using various online resources to confirm their suspicions, listen in to air traffic control, and otherwise follow and accurately report this story over the next three hours.  When mainstream media did  pick up the story they used John and his colleagues as sources.

After the fact, some media analyst suggested that Twitter had broken the news.  Twitter didn’t break this news; a journalist broke the news using Twitter.

#ET702 is not, of course, the first story to break on Twitter.  Janis Krums is a name you might otherwise never known except that he was on a ferry boat on the Hudson River when a US Airways plane landed on the water in front of him.  David Eun was a passenger on the Asiana Airlines flight that crashed at San Francisco International Airport.  His stunned tweet did as much as a cloud of smoke to alert area news outlets that something was amiss on that runway.  Indeed, we have become accustomed to ordinary people taking to social media, usually from a mobile device, to break the news.

Nor is it unusual for news organizations to take to Twitter to announce a breaking story.   All but one of this country’s top 25 newspapers (by circulation), regularly promote their stories on Twitter, and about a third of them use some form of the hashtag #BREAKING to highlight unfolding stories.  Typically, though, they are not breaking news on Twitter so much as announcing on Twitter that the news has been broken on their web pages.

The ET702 story is different. ET702 establishes the case for Real-Time Social Journalism.

This isn’t a Twitter story; it’s a journalism story. It’s not a mobile first, or even a social first, story, either. It’s about a fundamental disruption to the way news organizations deliver news.

Over much of the last decade, technology innovations have profoundly disrupted the business of news journalism. We have the opportunity to gather up the disruption dealt to news organizations by the rapid advance of social media technologies – technologies that have put in every citizen’s hands the ability to break news, in order to deliver a new kind of news product:  Real-time Social Journalism.

So just what is Real-time Social Journalism? It is:

Molecular’s David Cohn calls this “atomization,” the chunking of a story into bits that build upon one another.  Maybe it is semantics, but I think of it more as a molecule in which pieces of information bond to one another to complete a substantial story.  It is molecular within the story, as pieces build to each other, combine and recombine to build the story, an as pieces link to external references to provide additional context. In the #ET702 story, for example, John Walton provide links to air traffic maps that showed the flight path of the hijacked plane.

Fast and Unfolding

Which makes it messy.  Facts are not always complete and often not very clear.  This means the story will unfold over a period of time.  Facts will be updated, assertions confirmed or corrected. It will be essential to recap the Known, periodically, all the while reporting in real time as the story happens, even when the picture is not complete.

Real Time Social Journalism is not unlike a breaking broadcast story, – think of the Navy Yard Shooting – but rather than filling long pauses with suppositions and repeating the few known facts until audiences are numb, Real-time Social Journalism leverages to the tools of social media to trickle out a well-reported, of-the-moment, story that is captured in the context of time.  Real time has advantage over on scene because Audiences can dial back the clock or jump in mid-stream and have the news delivered completely.

Iterative and Self-correcting

Real-time social journalism assumes that the facts of the story are murky and frames itself that way, using social media tools and norms to identify confirmed from unconfirmed information, make corrections, recap and re-assert information, as the story builds.

#ET702 story is an incredible example of this being done well and intuitively by a journalist who is as comfortable with social media as he is with reporting the news. (John did a thorough post-mortem on his story here and is well worth reading by anyone interested in learning the mechanics of real-time social journalism.)

It is essential that journalist establish and follow norms for social journalism in order to bring clarity to the story and credibility back to news brands. Since the mid-70s, the news business has seen a precipitous drop in credibility ratings. Interestingly, steep declines accompany rapid introduction of new sources. In the late 70s, as cable news networks came online, consumer confidence in the news dropped 20 points.  In 2004 and 2005, as new digital-only media brands and countless bloggers emerged, credibility took another 20 point hit. By making  transparency to the story-telling process the price of entry for real-time social journalism, the industry has the opportunity to restore some of that broken trust.

 Renegade and Disciplined

Real-time social journalism breaks rules and circumvents the processes of most newsrooms. It is organic, taking the chance to report what is known, and even perhaps what is assumed.  As journalists, we have to become comfortable with a different set of rules to break news in real time, while still embracing our discipline and dedication to the craft of journalism.  So even while real-time social journalism takes more risk than traditionally reported news, each molecule of news has to be framed in a way to cue the audience in how to read and interpret the story.

Audience Above Platform

To be clear, real time social journalism is not about using social media tools to promote news that has been published on other digital platforms.  It is about using social media and other digital platforms as a means of reaching your audience.


Real time social journalism will be the norm within 24 months.  If established news organizations do not adopt social media to deliver news in real time, their upstart and entrepreneurial competitors will.

For this to happen well, however, we need some new tools. At RJI, I’m working with a capstone class of bright seniors to identify and specify best practices.  We are documenting all that can be learned and much of what can be assumed – from stories like #ET702, among other practices of leading news organizations.

I am championing as a place to document and debate formats and hashtags that enable audiences to consume real time social journalism with greater confidence in the veracity of the product.   That work will be compiled into an online and e-book lexicon and promoted to news organization for their use.

And, I suspect, journalists and news organizations will need enhanced, professional-grade tools to report and deliver real-time news.

This is not  just a grand experiment in a new form of reportage.   Real-time social journalism is a response and re-creation of news journalism in the face of dramatic change in the industry. Social technologies are profoundly disrupting the business of news. And as everyday people use their mobile devices to capture and consume news, news organizations need to regain audience trust and attention by establishing new roles in each link of the value chain of news, breaking news in real-time, leveraging platforms that reach audiences where they are, and wrapping news in context that better informs and enriches audiences.

Real time social journalism creates new value for organizations – value that can capture new audiences – and new revenue —  as old business models fail.


The slides that accompanied this talk are available here:  MobileFirstPreso.Shipley.Revised


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