If we ever thought the newspaper industry was tough in its treatment of employees, the behaviour of digital companies demonstrates how relative these things are. We suspected there was a price for those playrooms and cool workstations and organic cafes in Silicon Valley. With 11,000 jobs for the chop at Meta and Elon Musk walking into Twitter to whack half the workforce, we see that the new world believes no more in free lunches than the old one.
Having paid £39billion – put that in your pipe and smoke it, old media companies – he can do what he likes, though those who liked Twitter the way it was fear he will achieve only its destruction. Several self-important media commentators have announced its imminent demise, naturally choosing the site itself as the vehicle for their views. Given the gap between what many UK national newspapers – right and left – preach about freedom of speech and their response when the wrong people practise it, perhaps we should admire a man who promotes saying what you think to the point of having his workers say what they think of him.
Journalists tend to be ambivalent about Twitter. For sure, it has many of the faults attributed to it, allowing the rapid promotion of stories that aren’t true, encouraging fantasists to believe they have an audience, creating a mob mentality. It is, argue its critics, an echo chamber that has no relevance in the world of real people. Yet it has given many journalists the bigger platform they crave and an opportunity to reach an audience without the intervention of editors and producers, freed from print deadlines and broadcast schedules. Worried that the story won’t hold? Eager to show you are ahead of the pack? Then get it up on Twitter.
Many have built their own “brands”. The stand-out star is Piers Morgan, who refers frequently to his eight million followers. Unfortunately, they seem to be more useful to his sense of self than to his employer, News UK, which is paying him handsomely for a television show that very few watch. Does interaction on social media compensate for tiny audiences on telly? Others, notably the ITV political editor Robert Peston, use Twitter as a live feed, breaking news and opinion in between his channel’s bulletins. Sometimes we are reminded why editors and producers have their uses, as in the most recent Conservative Party leadership election, when the BBC’s political editor Chris Mason tweeted that Boris Johnson had gained 100 backers before there was proof of his doing so, this at a time the former prime minister was seeking to build momentum.
The site has also been useful as a source of breaking news, for the first instinct of many citizens coming upon an accident, natural disaster or terrorist attack is to post footage online. It’s where big figures go to announce something important. There are also funny videos and ready-made arguments to repurpose. Spats on Twitter make good page leads, requiring reporters only to cut and paste the comments. As a result, many reporters who might once have spoken to flesh-and-blood people spend hours scrolling the site Occasionally, they find something lovely: it was touching to see Katy Perry’s sentimental praise of papers so widely reported, as if the singer-songwriter’s 108million followers might take themselves off to the newsagent to buy one.
But almost without our noticing, the site has had a more profound effect on journalism. First, that breaking news threatens to render obsolete the traditional functions of newspapers and news bulletins. We could keep abreast of recent political events in the UK more efficiently on Twitter – posts from politicians, knowledgeable observers and, yes, journalists – than by waiting for news bulletins or the next day’s paper. Second, the oftenhysterical opinion that is currency on social media has infected news channels. A front-page headline communicating a fact is no longer enough, because the fact is old. Some newspaper titles appear to have lost their minds, printing front pages that presented three successive Conservative leaders as saviours of the nation and comment columns extolling the ideological purity of tax changes seen days later to have been disastrous.
The industry is traditionally insouciant about such 180-degree turns – “never wrong for long”, as they say on television rolling news, “tomorrow’s fish and chip paper” at newspapers – but it must raise its game if it is to keep the advantage over social media that professional reporting and thoughtful editing are meant to give it.