Covering breaking news on Twitter

Imagine if a broadcast or print journalist covering a breaking news story tweeted each element of the story as soon as the information is verified.

No more waiting for scheduled bulletins or publishing deadlines.

Get the information out ASAP. Delivering the facts as they are confirmed to wherever the audience is.

Pushing information out to the audience fact by fact and as soon as possible.

  • Check facts, write headline, tweet it
  • Check facts, write first paragraph, tweet it
  • Check facts, write second par, tweet it…
  • And so on…

Imagine if those tweets from the journalist at the scene of a breaking news story slotted neatly into a web page which displays those tweets paragraph-by-paragraph as the story builds.

Deconstructing news stories and news gathering into tweet sized chunks and splicing those tweets into news stories.

Taken a step further, if the news organisation is a broadcaster, the same text could be picked up and adapted for a radio voice piece or a TV voice over.

Each paragraph of the online version of the story could have retweet buttons so that readers could forward the parts of the story that interests them and which are likely to interest their social network.

A great way of finding out what elements of the story really hit the spot with the audience.

Possible benefits

  • Speed of delivery to the audience
  • A fresher, more immediate real time feel about the news
  • Delivery of that information directly to the social network and viral distribution space
  • Increase in traffic to the news organisation’s website
  • Traffic targeted at individual paragraphs, revealing audience interest in specific facts rather than the piece in general
  • Cost savings through reducing the need for reversioning material and duplicating effort for online delivery
  • Consistency of the news brand’s editorial line across all platforms
  • Keeping up with changing audience behaviour

Possible Risks

  • Mistakes – the speed v accuracy issue
  • Looks cheap – consumers of traditional news website format put off
  • Hearts and minds – traditional, mainstream media journalists might not buy in

Changing audience behaviour

Some turn to websites for their breaking news and to follow a developing story, some turn to Twitter and other social networks, some, like me, will be doing both.

For the website user the news is usually made up of breaking news alerts and a developing online story that grows with new updates or versions as more and more information comes in and is verified.

For those relying on Twitter for their breaking news the format is a series of short texts which they may follow as and when they come in or more proactively follow using hash (#) tags and key words, filtered depending on the system they are using in order to gather the tweets they are following.

Some will use a desktop tool such as TweetDeck to aggregate and search through those results in order to make sense of them.

There will be those who want to see both the verified and sourced facts and some of the early, non-verified rumours. They are the news consumers who may want to graze on rumours and feed on facts.

Interestingly, those tweets, strung together, can make a fairly informative script.

Stringing tweets together into a script

Blogger and journalist Ali S. Novruzov kept a transcript of the recent arrest of Azerbaijani youth leaders Adnan Hajizada and Emin Abdullayev (Milli).

The transcript is an interesting read. It's not perfectly laid out as an online news story would be, but it gets the point across and it has a sense of a developing story.

Not all people tweeting are journalists and will not necessarily be bound by the journalistic editorial ethics of accuracy, balance, impartiality, objectivity.

But based on what Ali S Novruzov produced, could a collection of tweets sent by a journalist covering a live event appear in a page as a finished piece of online journalism and make sense?

The story format works. Journalists should be delivering verified facts answering the questions who, why, when, where, what and how. A story should be able to be cut at any point and still make sense.

In fact, the basic rules I was taught as a newspaper journalist more than 30 years ago are spot on for Twitter journalism, or rather journalism for digital distribution across multiple platforms/devices .

All it needs is for journalists to learn to deliver their news coverage in 140-character sentences.

Writing a story into tweetable bite-sized chunks

For this exercise I have taken the story from BBC News Online dated Saturday 4 July about the North Korea missile tests

I have added two hash tags for those tracking this story #northkorea and #missiles and put a character count at the end of each tweeted paragraph.

I have allowed 20 characters of the 140 for a shortened URL (typically 20 characters long) linking to the online story. This means that each tweet, including hash tags, needs to be no longer than 120 characters.

Below we have:

  • The North Korean missiles story copied from BBC News Online with suggested tweets inserted between paragraphs
  • The new tweet story with all the tweets left in and the original text removed.

North Korea missile tests defy UN

North Korea has test-fired a series of missiles in an apparent act of defiance on 4 July, American Independence Day.

Tweet: North Korea test-fires missiles with a range of 500km. #northkorea #missiles (76 characters)


Reports say at least five Scud-type ballistic missiles were fired, with a range of about 500km (312 miles).

Tweet: Reports say at least five Scud-type ballistic missiles fired by North Korea. #northkorea #missiles (99 characters)


South Korea and Japan called the latest tests, which follow several others in recent weeks, an "act of provocation".

Tweet: South Korea and Japan say launch of missiles "act of provocation". #northkorea #missiles (67 characters)


North Korea is banned from all ballistic missile-related activities under UN sanctions imposed after a second underground nuclear test in May.

Tweet: The missile launch defies UN sanctions imposed after May’s second underground nuclear test.  #northkorea #missiles (115 characters)


South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the missiles were fired from one of the North's east coast launch sites on Saturday morning.

Tweet: South Korea says missiles fired from country’s east coast launch sites on Saturday morning. #northkorea #missiles (114 characters)


All landed in the Sea of Japan, known in South Korea as the East Sea.

Tweet: All North Korean missiles said to have landed in the Sea of Japan. #northkorea #missiles (89 characters)


"Our military is fully ready to counter any North Korean threats and provocations," the JCS said in a statement.

Tweet: South Korea says military ready to counter any North Korean threats following missile launch. #northkorea #missiles (116 characters)


A South Korean defence official said Saturday's tests were of greater concern than four short-range ones on Thursday, as the missiles had longer ranges.

Tweet: South Korea expresses concern at long-range capability of North Korea test missiles. #northkorea #missiles (107 characters)


"Thursday's missile tests were apparently made as part of a military drill but today's launches, which came on the eve of the US Independence Day, are believed to be aimed at political purposes," the official told Yonhap news agency.

Tweet: South Korean news agency says missiles a political statement on US Independence Day.  #northkorea #missiles (115 characters)


The South Korean government condemned the launches for being in breach of the recent UN security council resolution.

Tweet: South Korea claims the North’s missiles test is a break of UN Security Council resolution. #northkorea #missiles (112 characters)


The BBC's John Sudworth in Seoul says the launches are seen there as part of North Korean efforts to ratchet up the tension.

Tweet: BBC correspondent says North Korea missiles an effort “to ratchet up the tension” #northkorea #missiles (104 characters)


The missiles' estimated 500km reach - although still technically short-range - brings most of South Korea withing striking distance, our correspondent says.

Tweet: North Korea’s missiles 500km reach seen as threat to South Korea. #northkorea #missiles (88 characters)


Japanese and South Korean media have reported that North Korea may be preparing to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Tweet: Japan and South Korea fear North Korea preparing to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile. #northkorea #missiles


Our correspondent says there are no signs that such a test could be imminent.

Tweet: BBC says no signs North Korea is preparing to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile. #northkorea #missiles (115 characters)


Pyongyang is banned from testing ballistic missiles under UN resolutions but launched a long-range rocket in April, which many governments saw as a thinly disguised test of Taepodong-2 missile technology.

There are fears that North Korea is trying to produce nuclear warheads small enough to put on missiles.

Tweet: Fears that North Korea trying to produce nuclear warheads small enough to put on missiles. #northkorea #missiles (113 characters)


After six-nation talks aimed at curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions broke down earlier this year, Pyongyang said it would "weaponise" its plutonium stocks and start enriching uranium.

On 12 June the UN Security Council approved a resolution allowing inspection of air, sea and land shipments in and out of North Korea suspected of carrying banned arms and weapons-related material.

The North has said it will treat any interception of its ships as a declaration of war.

Tweet: North Korea says it will treat any interception of its ships as a declaration of war. #northkorea #missiles (108 characters)

The Twitter version of the same story

So now let’s pull all the tweets out of the story and see if they hang together as a piece of journalism.

The hash tags and the character count at the end of each sentence (below) would not need to appear in the automated online version.

Tweet: North Korea missile tests defy UN. #northkorea #missiles (57 characters)

Tweet: North Korea test-fires missiles with a range of 500km. #northkorea #missiles (76 characters)

Tweet: Reports say at least five Scud-type ballistic missiles fired by North Korea. #northkorea #missiles (99 characters)

Tweet: South Korea and Japan say launch of missiles "act of provocation". #northkorea #missiles (67 characters)

Tweet: The missile launch defies UN sanctions imposed after May’s second underground nuclear test.  #northkorea #missiles (115 characters)

Tweet: South Korea says missiles fired from country’s east coast launch sites on Saturday morning. #northkorea #missiles (114 characters)

Tweet: All North Korean missiles said to have landed in the Sea of Japan. #northkorea #missiles (89 characters)

Tweet: South Korea says military ready to counter any North Korean threats following missile launch. #northkorea #missiles (116 characters)

Tweet: South Korea expresses concern at long-range capability of North Korea test missiles. #northkorea #missiles (107 characters)

Tweet: South Korean news agency says missiles a political statement on US Independence Day.  #northkorea #missiles (115 characters)

Tweet: South Korea claims the North’s missiles test is a break of UN Security Council resolution. #northkorea #missiles (112 characters)

Tweet: BBC correspondent says North Korea missiles an effort “to ratchet up the tension” #northkorea #missiles (104 characters)

Tweet: North Korea’s missiles 500km reach seen as threat to South Korea. #northkorea #missiles (88 characters)

Tweet: Japan and South Korea fear North Korea preparing to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile. #northkorea #missiles (120 characters)

Tweet: BBC says no signs North Korea is preparing to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile. #northkorea #missiles (115 characters)

Tweet: Fears that North Korea trying to produce nuclear warheads small enough to put on missiles. #northkorea #missiles (113 characters)

Tweet: North Korea says it will treat any interception of its ships as a declaration of war. #northkorea #missiles (108 characters)

So, does it work?

Almost, sort of, certainly well enough to have a stab at perfecting.

Just think of the workflow cost savings for a converged newsroom.

Apart from the efficiencies it could help deliver it may also help traditional mainstream media keep in touch with an audience whose behaviour is changing day by day.

It will deliver news as it happens to those in the audience who may want raw facts rather than wait for polished pieces.

They may want to take those facts away to their preferred social networking space, interact with their chums and add their own context and analysis.

All the paragraphs that have been retweeted will act as traffic drivers bringing that audience back to the media organisation putting the news together.

At the very least it will help keep a news organisation relevant to those who want short form journalism at speed.

David BrewerThe author of this piece, David Brewer, is a journalist and media strategy consultant who set up and runs Media Helping Media. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast and online. He delivers journalism training and media consultancy services worldwide.



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