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June 25, 2009 began like any other Thursday. Millions of people woke up, checked the news, went to work, and started their days. But that afternoon, a major story went viral: Michael Jackson had died.
Hundreds of thousands of fans flocked to Twitter to discuss the pop icon's passing, and at one point, the site crashed because of the unprecedented influx of users. But while Jackson's death marked a historic loss for the entertainment industry, it also surfaced a technological revelation: News had never spread this fast, let alone digitally.
Eight years later, this shift has been further complicated by the vast number of sources that now exist. With an estimated 328 million users—a major increase from 2009's 18 million—Twitter's rise poses new questions: How do we find sources breaking news, which sources can we trust, and how does a newsworthy story break amidst the noise?
News dissemination has taken a different path since the advent of the internet. When major news broke in the past, it took a day or more before many people knew about it. For example, when the Watergate Scandal was brought to light in 1972, reporting came exclusively from what we now call traditional news sources; The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Time led the investigative reporting. While it took months to fully understand the depth of the illegal activities, it's likely that if social media had existed the story would have come to light sooner.
How Twitter has changed journalism
With this modern paradigm comes new complexities. 2.5 billion people have social media accounts and 1.8 billion are active users. So, how can you catch that one grain of sand that contains the story?
While trending topics indicate which news stories are top of mind with consumers, the real value in Twitter for journalists is its role as the tripwire for breaking events across the globe. By design, Twitter is uniquely suited to allow sources to create and disseminate content about what's happening now.
News stories do emerge on other social networks—including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Telegram, VK and Whatsapp—but Twitter reigns supreme. Due to its short, rapid-fire updates and its prompt, What's happening?, in the status update box, Twitter remains the top source for breaking news, while others are more focused on personal updates, interactions, and sharing within networks.
Predicting news before it happens
The clear value of Twitter as a news platform was demonstrated on September 2, 2014. That was the day independent journalist Brian Krebs tweeted that Home Depot “may be the latest credit card breach victim."
It turns out that Home Depot was indeed hacked, and customer data from more than 50 million cardholders was stolen from the company's servers. Home Depot spent tens of millions of dollars cleaning up the mess. While we didn't know what the fallout would be, Wall Street didn't hold back its reaction.
It took roughly 15 minutes from the time Krebs tweeted before the event hit newswires, but in that time Home Depot shares had already fallen 2%—or $3.72 billion in market valuation based on today's share price.
News can come from anywhere
In addition to reporters tweeting news before it hits the wires, citizen journalists are increasingly breaking and contributing to the news cycle. A recentand found that two in five alerts worldwide came from eyewitnesses reporting from the scene of breaking news.
At the start of the decade, The Arab Spring movement developed, in part, thanks to social media. And when manmade and natural disasters strike, social media now plays a vital role in distributing information and coordinating responses and relief efforts—and its impact isn't going anywhere any time soon. When Hurricane Harvey dropped feet of rain on wind-battered Houston, people went to social media first. The same was true of record setting Hurricane Irma that smashed into the Florida coast days later. While traditional journalists were reporting the story, so were millions of others.
News can break from anyone, anywhere, anytime — but with 500 million Tweets sent daily, identifying critical information in the sea of updates is challenging. Understanding this changing information landscape and the technology that helps you separate the news from the noise is critical for the journalist of today to be prepared for the news cycle of tomorrow.