Aussie #Spill Breaks Down Wall Between Journalists, Audience

The spectacular demise of the Australian conservative party's leadership in November 2009 was a turning point for political journalism in the country. This is the third and final installment in a special MediaShift series (read part one here and part two here) about the transformative impact of the biggest Australian political story of 2009, which became known simply by its Twitter hashtag, #spill. The series is based on a case study featuring tweeting Canberra Press Gallery journalists, eight of whom I surveyed in the immediate aftermath of the story.

The conservative leadership spill, which unfolded in real time over two of the longest weeks in the history of the Liberal-National coalition, highlighted the emergence of a new form of political communication via Twitter. This was characterized by instant, multi-contributor, user-controlled information feeds. These feeds accommodate the transmission of breaking news; instant reaction, critiques and analysis; and live interaction between the the Fourth Estate and citizens, with occasional input from politicians. The aggregation of Twitter discussion about the leadership crisis using the #spill hashtag enhanced Twitter's role as a journalistic platform for broadcast and audience engagement, and highlighted its emergence as a critical news source for Press Gallery journalists.

Participatory Democracy

"Now when it comes to politics, there's virtually no difference between journalists camped outside the party room and voters in Sydney, Perth or on the other side of the world. Instantaneous live coverage is just a tweet away," wrote Crikey's Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane in the grip of the #spill. He was speaking about the collapsing of boundaries between political journalists and "the people formerly known as the audience," as Jay Rosen famously wrote.

Australian journalist and consultant Bronwen Clune re-purposed Rosen's quote, telling the Sydney Media140 conference last year (just a few weeks before the #spill erupted) that "journalists are the audience formerly known as the media." During the coverage of the #spill, it became clear that tweeting Australian political journalists _were _ playing a new role: as audience members and consumers of citizen-generated political observation and commentary.

The aggregation of #spill tweets under one hashtag had a leveling effect: The tweets of Press Gallery journalists intermingled with those of political scientists, politicians, bloggers and ordinary citizens using Twitter as a platform for democratic participation. This was a point acknowledged by Keane, who described the effect as a "flattener...ironing out the differences between members of the public, even on the other side of the world, and veteran insiders in Parliament House."

The process also facilitated engagement, predominantly between external commentators and observers (both professional and amateur) and Press Gallery journalists. While talk show hosts are used to having direct contact with audiences, professional journalists -- particularly those occupying well-insulated senior positions inside large news organizations -- have historically been shielded from direct engagement with their audiences and, to an extent, the reactions of people on whom they report.

The breaking down of the barriers between the professional journalist and the media consumer is a significant change being facilitated by Twitter. #Spill played a major role in helping bring this change about.

Real-time Feedback for Media Messengers

One of the most interesting aspects of the affect of Twitter on professional journalism is the impact of real-time feedback on those used to being in control of the message -- the chance for an instant critique. As The Age newspaper's Misha Schubert observed: "Once upon a time newspaper readers would call us or write lovely long letters in spidery handwriting suggesting directions for a story, or relating great anecdotes. Now that process also happens instantly on Twitter."

But while some #spill commentators used Twitter as a tool for correcting the record -- pointing out mistakes and misperceptions to journalists, for example -- and complaining about an angle, there was a common theme of gratitude towards tweeting journalists. Stephen Murray, a politically engaged Australian Twitter user, tweeted, "Thanks to @latikambourke @annabelcrabb @samanthamaiden @David_Speers for letting us tweeters in on the 1st draft of history." What Murray and others really appreciated was being given front row, interactive seats to view the drafting process.


Schubert also alluded to the 3D effect of Press Gallery journalists' tweets. "I think (they) drew readers into the parliament, giving them a chance to follow events as if they were cantering down the halls along with those of us lucky enough to do this for a living," she told me.

But how do the journalists feel about receiving instant feedback? While some privately express resentment at being subjected to harsh criticism from consumers of their work, those I surveyed said they enjoyed the experience.

"I like the direct audience feedback," said ABC Radio's chief political correspondent Lyndal Curtis. "I like that people can get a sense of what it is like to be a journalist in the eye of a storm like a leadership challenge. I think it is worthwhile for people outside the bubble to see it."

Political Engagement

Along with citizens and journalists, the third essential prong for democratic engagement is the politicians themselves. During the #spill, one of the conservative leadership contenders, Joe Hockey, interacted with constituents via Twitter, although too many Australian politicians use Twitter like an old telex service for distributing press releases.


One of their objectives in using the medium is to bypass the journalistic information gate-keepers. Ironically, instead they find themselves entwined with journalists in a three-way political communication process which is ultimately controlled by the voters. Instead of being held to account only by professional journalists, they're also being questioned, corrected and challenged by active citizens.

Kristina Keneally, the premier of New South Wales, the biggest Australian state, discovered this recently when she responded to Twitter questions from journalists and constituents challenging her excuse for being absent from Parliament during a vote on gay marriage.

Risks of Political Tweeting

The journalists who participated in this survey acknowledged some downsides associated with tweeting political news. Two out of the eight journalists I spoke with mentioned the problem (or perception) of inaccuracy often associated with the medium.

"There is no doubt that Twitter updates, being of the moment, can be incomplete," said Annabel Crabb, the ABC's chief online political correspondent. "They are sometimes inaccurate. They are easily superseded."

But she went on to highlight the benefits of real-time reporting of political news, particularly fast-paced stories like the #spill. She said this provides "an insight into the minute-by-minute business of politics, and in times like the last fortnight, I think such an insight is definitely worthwhile."

ABC Radio's chief political correspondent Lyndal Curtis pointed to the internal editorial impact of Twitter on her capacity to cover the #spill accurately from her Canberra Press Gallery front row seat.

"I had to spend some time talking to my colleagues in Sydney and telling them that what they were seeing on Twitter was wrong," she said.

Her colleagues based in Sydney (the home of the programs Curtis files for) partly formed their reading of events on the basis of Twitter feeds from journalists attached to competing media outlets.

"Sometimes it's not the fault of the journalists -- in a fast moving and bizarre story as this one was...things have to be checked with more than one person...something you may believe to be right can be wrong the next minute," Curtis explained.

Inaccuracy or Realities of Real Time?

What Curtis is highlighting is not necessarily inaccuracy, but rather the reality of real-time reporting where facts change rapidly. This creates the impression of inaccuracy when a story shifts. It's is a common peril of live broadcasting, which compels journalists to go to air with what they know, when they know it. It's also a reality of print journalism: When a newspaper is put to bed at night, the front page may accurately reflect a changing story, but then appear inaccurate in the morning thanks to facts that emerged overnight.

This is not to diminish the importance of fact-checking (either individually, collectively or via crowdsourcing), but to point to the nature (and perils) of rolling or iterative reporting. As Samantha Maiden noted: "I suspect you would find in such a chaotic, fast-moving environment that mistakes were made in old and new media alike."

The speed with which mistakes can spread via the re-tweet function of Twitter, and the associated need for quicker correction, was noted by three of the journalists. Radio 2UE correspondent Latika Bourke also pointed to the competitiveness between journalists on Twitter as a factor.

"There is even greater pressure to be first and the pitfalls of being wrong are greater, because of the ability to re-tweet, which can send your mistake farther than you can imagine, before you've even had time to correct, or delete," she said.

As more than one journalist has already discovered, you can never really delete an inaccurate tweet, and doing so can create the impression of dishonest reporting. However, journalists' Twitter slip-ups were limited during the #spill coverage thanks in part to an informal peer-review process that also ensured necessary corrections were made almost immediately, according to Crikey's Keane.

bernard keane.jpg

"Given that journalists on Twitter knew they were being monitored and relied on by their peers, I suspect that played a role in keeping the tendency to report poorly-sourced information or rumors down," he said. "There were only a couple of occasions when outright wrong info was circulated, and it was retracted by those who had done so once they realized it was wrong."

What Does the Future Hold?

This snapshot of a case study of Australian political journalists' use of Twitter as a reporting tool highlights the transformative effect the micro-blogging platform is having on journalism practice: Sharpening competitiveness, collectivizing reporting efforts, and rendering processes transparent.

It's also demonstrated the Twitterization of political news consumption, which delivers real-time access to the corridors of power, with engagement between journalists, between citizens, and between citizens, journalists and politicians.

But is the change permanent, or is this just a fleeting shift in times of great industry upheaval? I contend that the lessons being learned and the change being wrought is likely to have a permanent affect. But Crikey's Keane suspects the transparency Twitter has delivered will ultimately prove short-lived.

"What I suspect will happen more and more is that journalists will treat Twitter the same as other media -- they'll start hoarding info for commercial advantage," he said. "We're in an unusual spot on Twitter...but more traditional media practices will kick in soon enough."

Nevertheless, he concedes Twitter will continue to be front and center in fast-paced stories like the dramatic leadership challenge that was the #spill, "where a certain competitiveness overtakes everyone to see who can report via Twitter whatever they've found ASAP."

The very popular political tweeter Latika Bourke said Twitter, or something like it, is here to stay. "Maybe the platform will change over time, but having seen the hunger for coverage of the #spill (my followers doubled to more than 2200 in a week), I don't think Twitter, or it's equivalent, will ever disappear," she said.

The last words in this MediaShift series belong to Keane, who wrote of the impact of Twitter on political reporting within 24 hours of the story breaking: "This is fundamental change in political journalism...Sometimes all that rubbish we go on with about media revolutions is actually true."

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She's been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.

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The Case Of The Missing Hip-Hop Laptop, And The Twitter Beatdown Aftermath

Look. You don’t mess with these hip-hop dudes. To quote Black Star’s Mos Def and Talib Kweli:

1, 2, 3
It’s kinda dangerous to be an MC
They shot Tupac and Biggie
Too much violence in hip hop. Y-O.

And Kweli should know. He dropped some serious sh*t on this Australian guy over Twitter last weekend.

Kweli was in Melbourne Saturday doing a show with Jean Grae. The next day, trouble.

“yo Melbourne we have a problem. Who opened for me and Jean last night?” he tweeted, followed shortly by “Someone came in Jean Graes dressing rm last night, stole my laptop & phone. They was with the opener whos dressing rm was next to mine.”

And it was on. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will point you to the following clues.

1) The Twitter accounts of Talib Kweli, Jean Grae, Corey Smyth of Blacksmith, and, of course, Naughty By Nature. (Genius tweet from NBN: “There’s absolutely no excuse for stealing Other People’s Property!…”)

2) This low quality picture and this high quality one.

3) This security video.

4) This blog play-by-play.

5) The Facebook account of the alleged perpetrator, Amir Elashir.

Solve the mystery yet, Sherlock? You can see the solution, Encyclopedia Brown-style, at the bottom of this post.

The whole affair was fascinating to watch in real time. (Full disclosure: I’m a big Talib fan- seen him in concert, can expound on his better and less-better albums – so I was rooting for him. Oh, and I’m also a fan of justice.)

That the crime-fighting played out over Twitter (and Twitpic, and Twitter video sharing tools) is like the 2010 celebrity version of the guy who wanted to get his friend’s Sidekick back. The Root notes the strong presence of the black community on Twitter; in this case, engagement on Twitter leveraged digital media and real world relationships to resolve the issue.

And let’s be honest – it’s amusing to contrast how this played out with stereotypes of the hip-hop community. I mean, do you think Eazy (or a pre-Are We There Yet Ice Cube) would have tried handling this in 140 characters? Kweli isn’t what elderly white people would call “gangsta rap”, of course, but, still.

Long story short, Kwe – we survivalists turned to consumers just to get by. Just to get by.

And sorry that you didn’t get your fitted Yankee cap back.

˙unɟ sı ɥɔıɥʍ ‘ǝɹnʇɐu ʎq ʎʇɥbnɐu ɥʇıʍ spuǝıɹɟ s,ǝɥ ‘osןɐ ˙ʞɔɐq ɟɟnʇs ǝɥʇ ǝʌɐb ǝɥ ˙ɹıɯɐ ʎnb ʇɐɥʇ sɐʍ ʇı ‘ɥɐǝʎ :uoıʇnןos

How #Spill Effect Brought Color, Collaboration to Media Tweets

Twitter distinguished itself as an important new platform for breaking political news in Australia during the Great #Spill of 2009. This is the second installment in a MediaShift series on the "#spill effect." (You can read the first part here.) It draws on a case study of the event and includes online interviews with eight tweeting journalists who are prominent members of the Canberra Press Gallery.

"#Spill" was the hashtag used to amalgamate Twitter coverage of the scalping of federal conservative leader Malcolm Turnbull, and the elevation of Tony Abbott to the leadership of Australia's opposition party, the Liberal-National Coalition. But behind the frenzied tweeting of the spectacular unraveling of the Turnbull leadership was another story -- a story about the coverage itself, which demonstrated the transformative effect this micro-blogging platform is having on Australian political journalism. It's a story that made news again last week when Malcolm Turnbull announced his resignation from politics, via Twitter, of course.

How Twitter Impacts Australian Reporting

I've concluded that Twitter is having a transformative effect on Australian political reporting -- but not all Press Gallery journalists agree. While acknowledging the emergence of journalistic audience engagement via Twitter, Samantha Maiden, the chief online political correspondent for Rupert Murdoch's The Australian, described it as just another reporting platform. She downplayed the impact of the #spill story on political reporting.

"Ultimately, Twitter is just a means...of delivering the news. In that sense it is silly to suggest [the #spill] reinvented the wheel in some way," she said.

Nevertheless, Latika Bourke, a Press Gallery correspondent for national commercial radio, who watched her Twitter followers double during the week-long story (to more than 2,000), said Twitter's role in the coverage proved it's here to stay as a journalistic tool.

"For many of us, Twitter was the aside, or extra-curricular part of our job; but now there will be the expectation that when the big stories are on, we'll be there, tweeting as a priority," Bourke said.


Sky TV's David Speers -- who demonstrated the central role of Twitter in the coverage of the story by tweeting live to air in the middle of an interview and using his smartphone to read the tweet of a competitor mid-commentary -- said Twitter adds to the value of coverage and the reporting experience, rather than detracting from them.

"Obviously speeches, debates and essays will always be important," he said. "And they will always be there. Twitter isn't taking anything away from traditional political discourse. It's adding something new. And it's fun."

The Need for Speed & Color

Speed was the most commonly described effect of Twitter on the political reporting process. It even out-paced frenetic radio news reporters. "I thought working in radio [that] I knew what 'instant' meant, but that's been completely redefined now that I've covered the spill via Twitter," Bourke observed.

The Age's political correspondent, Mischa Schubert, agreed that Twitter-speed was a factor in the #spill coverage.

"It accelerated the pace of coverage, that's for sure," she said. "Where once a lot of details would have been hoarded for the next day's newspapers, color that wouldn't hold was broadcast instantly in tweets and on [media organizations'] websites."

The benefits of value-adding tweets with "color" was also highlighted by others. "If you took a straw poll on which journalists were the most popular -- and this was debated by Twitter users -- journalists breaking news with a mix of color and telling observation were always in the top three," Maiden said. "Users aren't that interested in someone who just tweets a couple of lines from a doorstop or the Senate debates."

But some political news reporters are "coloring" outside the lines on Twitter. Australian Associated Press's (AAP) Sandra O'Malley said opinion and commentary are seeping into news reporters' tweets.

sandra.jpg"There was...much more opining on the political players than during 'normal,' straight reporting," O'Malley said of the #spill coverage. She highlighted the impact of the clash of the personal and the professional in the space, and the challenge it poses to traditional journalistic values like objectivity, as I've previously reported.

However, Lyndal Curtis, the chief political correspondent of ABC Radio's current affairs programs, said the act of tweeting political news hasn't altered her reporting habits, such as an unbending commitment to fact-checking; but she's pleased to have "another audience to speak to," and she acknowledges the humanizing effect of tweeting.

"It allows me some more latitude to be a person, and an outlet for some humor," she said. The amusement value of Twitter -- and Press Gallery journalists' tendency to merge satire and reportage in the interests of entertaining one another and their new, individual audiences -- was mentioned by several of the interviewees.

The need for even greater multi-tasking by journalists in the age of the real-time web was also noted.

"One observation that amazed me was watching a few people -- @sarahwiley8 @latikambourke @bennpackham -- standing at doorstops with their digital recorder in one hand and single-handedly tweeting with the other!" O'Malley said.

A number of the journalists commented on the fact that Twitter, with its live reporting capacity and its aggregated news feeds, has enabled them to be less tethered to their desks. They can roam to gather information face-to-face and more accurately assess atmospherics, all while staying informed.

karen middleton tweet.jpg

This, in turn, encouraged the journalists to practice what I've observed elsewhere is the tendency to lay bare reporting the process on Twitter by discussing journalistic strategies, dilemmas and difficulties. In the case of the #spill, this was demonstrated by the journalists complaining about efforts to keep them away from the Coalition Party Room, where Malcolm Turnbull's fate was ultimately sealed.

Twitter Collegiality

One of the strongest themes to emerge from my survey of the eight tweeting Press Gallery reporters who covered #spill was a deepening of relationships between journalists from different media organizations. They spoke of the increased camaraderie and collegiality fostered through the sharing of skills and information.

"We all shared information, respected each other's scoops by re-tweeting them, and [as a result] the relationships and trust between journalists deepened," Bourke said.

crabb.jpgSenior Press Gallery journalist Annabel Crabb agreed, noting that, "It brings competitors closer together, in that we read each other's updates. I certainly was glued to @samanthamaiden, @latikambourke and @David_Speers as well as talking to my own colleagues."

Instead of having to finagle details of their competitors' reporting progress and framing of the story, they just watched their tweet streams. This was particularly beneficial to junior Press Gallery reporters like Bourke, who said she was able to break news of the leadership ballots' likely outcome as a direct result of following the very connected Speers' Twitter feed.

"It was like suddenly having all the pieces to a puzzle that I only needed to put together, instead of having just a few, and trying to paint in the blanks," she said.

Speers was unconcerned by this development.

"Journalists usually save any information they have for the stories they're writing," he said. "But on Twitter, political journalists share what they know. I think this is mostly driven by the competitive urge of journalists to be the first to break news, even if it's only a minor development."

Collaborative Storytelling

This collaborative storytelling between journalists from competing outlets is one of the most significant changes in political reporting that has come as a result of Twitter. As Crabb said:

The fracturing media market means that we now assume our readers are shopping around. I think the healthy aspect of this -- and it's a great outcome for consumers -- is that journalists are dropping the traditional and childish approach of pretending that their competitors do not exist -- ignoring a rival's scoop, and so on. I will happily retweet a competitor's update if I think my readers will find it interesting. I think this is an emerging and refreshing trend.

But, as much as Twitter is breaking down old modes of competitiveness in political reporting, it's also fostering a new, sharper edged form of competition for news-breaking.

"Already, newspapers are racing to bring online updates to their websites ahead of their competitors, but Twitter brings a second-by-second competitiveness that is even more challenging," Crabb said.

And this resulted in media outlets like the ABC running an aggregated tweet-stream (via Twitter lists) of Press Gallery journalists' Twitter feeds, including those from rival outlets, on the ABC website. This caused concern within some sections of the ABC News and Current Affairs department, because journalists from competing networks are not bound by the same editorial policies and standards as ABC reporters. There was a feeling that this aggregation threatened the independence and credibility of ABC News' website content. Legal risks associated with carrying competitors' unchecked and unfiltered tweets were also raised.

Consequences of Kicking Down Walls

There's a potentially significant downside to what Crikey's Bernard Keane identified as Twitter's "flattening effect" for commercial media. He fears it will further undermine traditional media business models.

"What's the point of a newspaper site, or even Sky News, if you can get a direct feed virtually from inside the party room?" he said. "It's true that quality political coverage remains one of the few competitive advantages old media has over new media."

In other words, political reporting may be one of the niche beats that is able to justify pay wall protection -- but the unrestrained sharing of information across media stable walls by competing journalists via Twitter may make that unsustainable.

This was also an issue raised by Lyndal Curtis, ABC Radio's chief political correspondent. "I think it's my responsibility to write and file first for the organization that pays me ... and that audience," she said. "So I didn't put anything up of an exclusive scoop nature on Twitter that I hadn't already filed."

But Speers disagrees.

"It's not like journalists are simply giving away their work," he said. "Their tweets often point to a story they've just posted on a website or broadcast on radio or TV. So it can still direct traffic to the outlet paying their salary."

It's also true that, in the social media age where the real-time web reigns supreme and mashing up information from myriad sources seems like an irreversible trend, news organizations will have to come to terms with this sort of content aggregation and amalgamation in a way which best serves their audiences and their bottom lines.

Backlash from the AAP

In fact, in the aftermath of the publication of first installment of this series on MediaShift, Sandra O'Malley's employer, AAP, issued an edict requiring Press Gallery reporters to get permission prior to tweeting about their work -- even from their personal Twitter accounts. The fear was the wire service's journalistic brand and competitive edge would be eroded by reporters' real-time tweeting and cross-stable collaboration.

The AAP crackdown foreshadows the likely development of anachronistic Reuters-style guidelines for tweeting reporters. Censoring journalists' tweets when they've been at it for many months smacks of trying to re-stable a horse that's bolted, and also raises questions about the rights of journalists to free speech. (The subject of a future post.)

However, while some Press Gallery journalists' coverage of the Twitter effect on political reporting highlights residual pockets of change-resistance, proof of its impact came this week in the form of one of the country's most celebrated political reporters, the 9 Network's Laurie Oakes. He became an active tweeter and filed an insightful mainstream TV news report on the "Twitterization" of Australian politics.

In the third and final installment of this MediaShift series, I'll examine the role of citizen tweeters, participatory democracy and audience engagement in coverage of the #spill, along with the political reporters' management of the issues of accuracy and verification, which are so often seen as downsides of Twitter journalism.

More Reading

The #Spill Effect - Twitter Hashtag Upends Australian Political Journalism

Julie Posetti is an award winning journalist and journalism academic who lectures in radio and television reporting at the University of Canberra, Australia. She's been a national political correspondent, a regional news editor, a TV documentary reporter and presenter on radio and television with the Australian national broadcaster, the ABC. Her academic research centers on talk radio, public broadcasting, political reporting and broadcast coverage of Muslims post-9/11. She blogs at J-Scribe and you can follow her on Twitter.

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Doctor Who Getting Early Online Debut in Australia, Thanks to iView

Good news for online Australian sci-fi fans: The upcoming fifth season of British Doctor Who, which will premiere Sunday, April 18 on ABC1, will actually make its first Down Under appearance two days earlier on iView, the Australian Broadcasting Company’s iPlayer equivalent.

The one-day head start that online Aussie fans are getting probably won’t do much in the way of preventing piracy, as episodes will premiere in Australia two weeks after the UK (in the United States, BBC America will be on a similar schedule). It’s a much improved delay, though, from the past, when fans outside Britain would wait for months after the UK premiere for their fix — or learn how to use torrents.

But fighting piracy, or creating a buzz for the show, doesn’t seem to be the goal here: as opposed to Warner Bros and ITV’s decision to release episodes of The Vampire Diaries ahead of their British airing, it appears that the purpose of debuting Doctor Who online early is to get Australians using the free video service.

According to Kim Dalton, director of Television at the ABC, “iView is a fantastic offering, an additional way for Australian audiences to watch ABC TV’s content — generally after, but in this special case before, its television broadcast. We hope the lure of Doctor Who — and what a fun and exciting lure it is — will provide incentive for more viewers to discover iView, and experience how convenient and easy to use it is.”

iView first became available in July 2008, and is available on the PS3 through the Playstation Network. So, hey, f you’re reading this and you’re in Australia, we’d love to find out whether you’ve used the iView service, and what you think of it, in the comments!

Related GigaOm Pro Content (subscription required): Memo to Cable Cos: Cord Cutters Aren’t The Issue

The #Spill Effect: Twitter Hashtag Upends Australian Political Journalism

Australia is gearing up for a national election in 2010 and a core group of influential political journalists in the elite Canberra Press Gallery are tweeting their way along the campaign trail -- and bringing an engaged public along for the ride.

Press Gallery journalists are among the most active Australian reporters on Twitter, which entrenched itself Down Under as a mainstream media reporting platform in the context of breaking news early in 2009.

As part of my ongoing research into the impact of Twitter on journalism, I've been investigating the role and experience of Australian political reporters on the platform. I'm currently preparing a case study on Twitter coverage of one of the biggest crises to afflict Australian conservative politics: The Liberal Party leadership collapse that was immortalised by the trending topic #spill in the last days of the 2009 parliament. (I will present a snapshot of this research in a peer-reviewed academic paper at the World Journalism Education Congress in South Africa this July)

I'm in the process of analyzing the thousands of tweets generated when the story unfolded, moment by moment, on Twitter. But more interesting are the experiences of political journalists who used the platform to augment their coverage of the leadership spill as it played out in late November/early December last year.

In the immediate aftermath of the story, I surveyed eight prominent tweeting Press Gallery journalists about their experiences. Their responses, and my ongoing assessment of the Twitter coverage, have strengthened my hypothesis that Twitter is having a transformative impact on journalism. this is taking place against a backdrop of institutional upheaval and audience demands for increased engagement with both journalists and the stories they report. This became clearer to me as I observed and actively participated in the #spill coverage as a content curator and commentator

Key Findings

My key preliminary findings are:
Twitter is becoming a vehicle for participatory democracy in Australia thanks to its ability to create unmediated interaction between political journalists, engaged citizens and politicians.

In the race to tweet, journalists are knocking down the walls that have in the past segregated media outlets within the Press Gallery. This is happening via content-sharing and cross-pollination between fiercely competitive commercial and public broadcast networks, newspapers and wire services.

Collegiality is being fostered between tweeting political journalists.

Conversely, competitiveness has a new, sharper edge.

Tweeting renders political reporting processes more transparent.

Twitter is a new dissemination point for breaking political news.

Twitter has broken through barriers that have historically isolated political journalists from media consumers.

While journalists continue to re-examine professional fundamentals as they negotiate their way through the Twitterverse, they, in general, view the benefits of the platform as outweighing the risks.

The upcoming Federal Election will be Twitterised

I'll elaborate on these findings in my next post for MediaShift. For now, here's a look back at the #spill story, and what it means for Twitter and journalism.

parliament house.jpg

The Press Gallery Joins Twitter

Last June, Canberra Press Gallery journalists successfully campaigned for the right to take mobile devices and laptops onto the floor of the parliament to enable live-tweeting of Question Time, the daily slanging match between the government and opposition parties. This followed the development of a significant following for the journalist-led Twitter discussion around Question Time, aggregated by the hashtag #QT, which effectively engaged an active online citizenry. This change brought about an end to a decades-long ban on communication devices within the parliamentary chambers. And, as a result, politicians began joining the #QT chat from their leather benches.

Highlighting the traction Twitter has gained within Australian politics as a recognised political reporting platform, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd cited the tweets of Sky TV News political editor, David Speers, while taunting the opposition on the floor of the House of Representatives last August.

"Twitter is a welcome addition to the political landscape in my view," Speers told me. "It's encouraging journalists to be faster, wittier and more collegiate."

The Story of #Spill

The flow of Press Gallery journalists onto Twitter accelerated during a leadership crisis that ultimately cost the opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, his job. Turnbull's attempts to offer bi-partisan support for a controversial emissions trading scheme resulted in an historic schism within the party and an ugly leadership meltdown that ultimately shifted Australian conservative politics further to the right. It was a riveting story.

sam maiden tweet jp.jpg

But what made this political crisis even more spectacular was the way it played out on Twitter. Press Gallery journalists poured onto the platform, and political watchers were glued to journalists' Twitter streams. A politically engaged Twitter electorate was taken directly into the eye of the storm by journalists live-tweeting every twist and turn within the halls of power. They also interacted with their followers. Prominent political players in the crisis, including the deposed leader and one of his key challengers, also used Twitter to engage directly with voters and canvas public opinion.

The Australian's chief online correspondent, Samantha Maiden,) later told me that she felt politicians were generally slower on the Twitter up-take.

"I think it's a bit of a myth that politicians were tweeting in great numbers during the spill, but I certainly know they were keeping their eye on what was emerging on twitter," she said.

Radio 2UE's Latika Bourke said that many politicians were obsessive about tracking the updates form journalists. "Some MPs I know were glued to the coverage, although they'll never admit it publicly," she told me.

Other journalists mentioned the fact that scores of political staffers were closely watching the feeds and phoning reporters, asking them to elaborate on tweets. The staffers also forwarded tweets to the politicians themselves. This confirms the legitimacy Twitter obtained during the #spill as a political reporting platform.

The journalists used Twitter for a wide range of activities. these included:
Tweeting breaking news

Live-tweeting from media conferences

Posting pictures to illustrate the atmospherics

Offering opinions

Monitoring key political players' Twitter feeds

Linking to long-form stories on their outlets' websites and, critically, to those of their competitors

Discussing story updates and journalistic processes with their colleagues, competitors and followers

Interacting with the public

Posing questions to politicians, or passing comments directed at them via the medium

J-Tweeting the Spill

How significant was the role of Twitter in the reporting of 'the #spill'? Within 24 hours of the story breaking, Crikey's Bernard Keane reflected on the impact it had already made.

"Now it's a vast combination of news outlet, rumour mill and commentary chamber, and it's virtually instant. Media in its purest form, with all the flaws and benefits of media similarly magnified," he wrote.

According to Latika Bourke, a commercial radio journalist with the nationally distributed Sydney talk station 2UE, Twitter was at the heart of the coverage.

"I can't tell you how many times I heard journos admit they 'better get into this Twitter thing,' that fortnight ... It was the only service providing minute-by-minute updates of the very fluid situation," Bourke said.

The journalists I surveyed spoke of colleagues overcoming their apprehensions about the time-sapping effect of Twitter as the story unfolded.

ABC Radio chief political correspondent Lyndal Curtis made efficient use of her Twitter account during the week-long crisis. "I used Twitter mainly as a content aggregator -- I didn't have time to monitor Sky [TV], other radios or the newspaper websites because I was constantly on the phone or on the air," she said. "So Twitter was my RSS feed."

Sandra O'Malley, an experienced political correspondent with the main Australian wire service, Australian Associated Press, said she found timely tweeting difficult given the significant deadline pressure involved in reporting for a news wire.

"Twitter was a secondary consideration for me in such a frantic environment," she said "Interesting, however, how competitive it can be. [I] found myself quite put out when I broke a story on the wire but only managed to get it to Twitter late, or not at all, and saw others getting it out there first."

The ABC's Chief Online political writer, Annabel Crabb was one of the first Press Gallery journalists to begin tweeting, and she has a large following at her dedicated Question Time Twitter feed.

"(The #Spill) was an event quite well-suited to Twitter, in that it was fast-moving, anarchic, and constantly changing," Crabb said.

She outlined how the story highlighted the real-time news value of Twitter and its capacity to offer a more detailed picture over time: "A story filed for a newspaper at the end of the day would, of necessity, be obliged to edit out some of the stranger twists and turns that occurred during the day; the deals that fell over, the partnerships that formed and disintegrated all within the space of an orthodox news cycle."

While some said Twitter was the star of the #spill story, Keane, said it was actually part of the bigger (and more permanent) story "of the demolition of the old media model of media outlets and their journalists and editors acting as filters on what information is passed on to consumers."

The collaborative reporting facilitated by Twitter - the "wisdom of crowds effect" - will be explored in part two of this report, along with the impact on political reporting of engagement between tweeting journalists, 'punters' and political pundits. The breakdown of historical divides between journalistic camps, which challenges traditional notions of competitiveness - and raises concerns about further eroding mainstream audiences by driving 'followers' to the websites of competing media outlets - will also be examined, along with the associated emergence of a heightened collegiality between tweeting Australian political journalists.

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