28 Apr 2009 7:45 am   //   Filed under: In the news, Media, Technology

URGENT! Don’t ask why, just panic!

If Twitter (the biggest fad in journalism) can teach us one thing, it’s that the newer something is, the more valuable it is. And the best way to make a 140-word news blast even more valuable is to slap the word URGENT on it.

In some ways, the URGENT craze can be traced to cable news stations. A few years ago, CNN discovered the marketing power of the phrase BREAKING NEWS, and began applying it to every story, even ones that aren’t especially important. Digging deeper into mass communications history, Twitter honors the writing format pioneered by the Associated Press for the telegraph. Correspondents were trained send the most important stuff first, as concisely as possible, and to fill in detail later.

In the last few days, we’ve seen Twitter take this to a whole other level. The culprit: Swine flu. Every middling swine flu update rises to the level of URGENT. If this continues, people will become stressed by a constant stream of noise that sounds like bad news (think post-9/11). Either that or the word “URGENT” will lose its power.

There’s the risk that an URGENT story that’s totally false could gain a lot of traction very quickly on Twitter and cause a panic. So far this hasn’t happened in a bad way, but I see it happening on a small level with business gossip.

The worst offender is the Twitter service Breaking News Online. @BreakingNews has a small staff that monitors the newswires and sends out a Tweet every time something is happening. As of this morning, 290,253 people on Twitter are following the account. They have more subscribers than The Baltimore Sun. I follow it so I don’t miss something everybody else knows.

The problem with @BreakingNews is that it breaks news that’s not news—such as earthquakes that cause no damage. It labels almost everything “URGENT” or “BULLETIN” as soon as it happens. If the news item turns out not to be URGENT, the service rows it back a few minutes later with another Tweet. I think the people writing @BreakingNews have little or no experience at an actual wire desk, since they treat every routine story as novel. @BreakingNews often gets the news wrong, sometimes because their news sources get it wrong, sometimes because the work is too hasty. Perhaps their news judgment will improve after a few months of learning the nuances of international coverage.

Of course, even a great journalist can’t publish a serious swine flu story on Twitter. Twitter is for publishing tiny micro-stories that pop like a firecracker than disappear. Nobody is going there for detail, context or archival material. Yet readers need detail and context to understand a medical story.

This is interesting. One of the foundations of blogging and traditional news Web sites was that you could host your whole archive online and people would find this useful for context. In reality, most online news archives go unread and unused. People have short attention spands and are only interested in new content. Archival content is occasionally useful to a journalist or researcher, but it’s never become that “long tail” application it might have been. (This is why I’ve argued that news sites have their free content models backwards—if you’re going to charge people to read stories, charge for the newest ones and give away your archive as a free sample.)

Watch this space. Twitter is moving fast and spreading virally. Just like swine flu.