Much of what made social media feel special to journalists is gone. What now?
At SRCCON 2023, we talked about the spaces we’ve lost, why we miss them, and what we can do to take power back from platforms
I don’t think I truly understood which features and voices made Twitter so special for journalism until we suddenly lost them. Since Elon Musk took over, Twitter has cut the trust and safety team, eliminated the curation team, and deplatformed crucial journalists in favor of dangerous voices. The changes turned what was once a valuable community square—one that many of us scanned like the morning paper—into a cesspool of bots, alt-right discourse, and disinformation. Connecting with peers and sharing work used to feel authentic, relaxed. Twitter by no means was perfect, but it was refreshing to have a place where we could be so much more than what we did for work—or if we preferred, even completely detached from our professional identities.
While Twitter hasn’t gone away, the quality of the site has definitely disintegrated. Friends and colleagues who once helped people all over the world understand world events have migrated to other sites or disconnected entirely. A website is only made a community by its participants, and it takes well-designed features to encourage them to stay.
This year at SRCCON, we wanted to dig into this sense of loss, and not only reflect on what we miss about social media as a whole but also the desires that got us to set up accounts on various sites and stay there in the first place.
My co-facilitator Joe Germuska and I did not want to just suggest new platforms to move to, but get participants to really reflect on the following: What do we as journalists and as human beings want and need from social media? What can we do to make it better for all of us? What power do we have over these big systems and giant networks?
We divided the session into a series of interactive questions, which I will outline in this post.
Venting and assessing
We started out by asking participants to share in groups what they miss the most about Pre-Elon Twitter. Here is a summary of their responses:
- The ability to be a multifaceted person.
- The ability to have a direct conversation with celebrities, academics, and influential world figures.
- Light heartedness and humor.
- Real-time conversations with people doing similar work.
- A place to connect with peers and get industry perspective.
- Ability to follow historic movements and news events from ordinary citizens on the ground.
- The platform’s utility for reporting: finding sources.
Why we use social media
Next, we identified three groups as the most relevant actors in the social media ecosystem for our industry:
- Writers/creators are often thought leaders on social platforms and produce content that contributes significantly to shaping online narratives.
- Publishers/organizations also produce some content, but they also act as authoritative sources and amplifiers.
- Readers/consumers represent the audience whose engagement and interaction is vital for the entire social media ecosystem.
Our next question was to ask participants to brainstorm the motivations of each of those groups for having an active presence on social media.
I made this Venn Diagram mapping out responses to this exercise.
The first thing I noticed when I put this together is that publishers are entities, while individual journalists and readers/consumers are people. Entities can never have “personal interests,” crave validation, or find community online in the ways that creators and even passive readers/consumers can. Publishers’ motives for being on social media are aligned with corporate metrics: build brand authority, promote product offerings, and get people to click. The very same motives that social media companies use to keep us online, glued to the blue light.
Independent journalists and news consumers have more human desires: Beyond sharing our work, we express our emotions and opinions through posts, while actively seeking and discovering content from others. The events we watch unfold on the timeline together bond us and shape our relationships with each other and with our communities.
Journalists often maintain accounts on social media in hopes of connecting with others, engaging with their readers, and driving followers to their work and the content that they care about. Followers are potential subscribers, sources, and maybe even friends.
I discussed some of this earlier, but the changes at Twitter over the past year made accomplishing all of these goals significantly more challenging, if not impossible. Some of these changes include:
- The revised system of blue verification checks, which used to signal credibility for publications and journalists.
- The discontinuation of Revue (Twitter’s newsletter product), which made it easy for independent journalists and organizations to monetize their Twitter following.
- Slower load times on links.
- Algorithm changes that benefit those who pay to play (Twitter Blue’s $8/month subscription).
- A surge in harassment and bots, especially toward journalists and news organizations.
While Twitter still exists, all three of these groups—creators, publishers, and readers—are struggling to navigate a platform where they don’t have as much protection, reach and autonomy as they did for the past decade.
Putting it into practice
After outlining user goals, we asked participants to brainstorm on what these groups are doing to effectively achieve these goals.
People shared that publishers and organizations have success reaching readers and building journalistic authority when they can become a part of readers’ daily routines through channels like aggregators or RSS feeds. They are crafting convenient and delightful online experiences through non-news bundles, memorable interactives, and convenient E-paper access. News publishers are also leaning into the “direct to reader” method by investing heavily in newsletters, events, mobile apps, and on-site commenting. In an age where platforms are unpredictable and algorithms change on a daily basis, it makes sense that publishers would see success in channels where they have the most control.
Individual journalists, especially those who are independent, are gaining a following and a readership by leaning into their authenticity online. They can be deeply relatable in a way that organizations cannot. Some are seeing impressive engagement on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube by condensing their reporting in unique ways, or providing additional context on stories. As a result, people online can find themselves involved in the lives and backgrounds of reporters. They come to trust and rely on them in ways that they would never trust a faceless brand. Some journalists have also chosen to self-publish on their own personal sites so that they can gently nudge people toward places where they have more control and ownership. They try to monetize their audience through channels where they have a more direct and intimate connection to their readers, like Discord, Twitch, Substack and Patreon.
When thinking about content discovery, news consumers are constantly finding new places to find their next read, some of which overlap with the places that news publishers and independent creators are also thriving in serving audiences such as newsletters, TikTok, Instagram, Threads, and Reddit.
Taking back power from platforms
After this exercise and the shareback of responses, we moved to the final portion of the session: social and technical components of taking back power from social platforms. I want to keep the focus of this blog post on the interactive components of the session but you can read the strategies we shared here.
I went deep into the responses of our participants to highlight that taking the time to reflect on why we use social media and what we think “works” can be empowering. It offers us the opportunity to be clear-eyed about our current motivations and approaches.
While it is clear that there is a Twitter-shaped hole in the hearts and lives of many journalists and news organizations, I was heartened by the creativity, determination, and innovation demonstrated by everyone at SRCCON to find better ways to truly connect with our readers.
Based on the thoughtful responses from our session, I’ve put together a list of priorities that feels right to keep in mind as a way forward. I recognize that the needs of you and your organization will vary, but I hope that some of this feels right to you too.
- Be intentional about your posts and social media activity. If it isn’t serving your goals, don’t be afraid to reevaluate your presence on these platforms and try something new.
- In order to capture the attention and gain the loyalty of your readers, you have to prioritize real relationships. By learning more about your readers and their lives and publishing stories that reflect that, you can start to engage them in creative, personalized, and empathetic ways that respect and champion their lived experiences.
- Real life also exists offline. As news consumers ourselves, we need to be mindful of our own social media consumption and get plugged into our local communities. In order to combat news fatigue and reclaim power over our screens and our lives, it’s important we make an effort toward bridging the gap between our social media world and the “real world.” This could mean participating in and supporting mutual aid efforts, hosting a local meetup for a personal hobby, or simply getting to know our neighbors.
Additional Reading List
- Journalism and Libraries: “Both Exist to Support Strong, Well-informed Communities” - Nieman Reports
- Tomorrow & tomorrow & tomorrow - Erin Kissane
- Are libraries the future of news? - Nieman Lab
- How your newsroom can use Bluesky this election season - Emily Liu
- Why Are Journalists Still on Twitter? - Jason Gilbert
- Journalists want to re-create Twitter on Mastodon. Mastodon is not into it. - Columbia Journalism Review
- Breaking News: Political news spins ever faster and the stories are always bigger, but more information doesn’t leave you more informed - Real Life Mag
- 100 ways to share your work + life that aren’t social media - Amelia Hruby
- The Weird, Fragmented World of Social Media After Twitter - The Atlantic
- The Three-Legged Stool: A Manifesto for a Smaller, Denser Internet - Initiative for Digital Public Infrastructure
Aditi is a senior data analyst at Chicago Public Media where she analyzes reader behavior to help shape editorial, audience, and product strategy for WBEZ, Chicago Sun-Times, and Vocalo. She studied Cognitive Science and Human Computer Interaction at UC San Diego and has held positions on the data teams at Protocol, The Daily Beast, and NPR. She is passionate about The Wire, local bookstores, cats, mutual aid, and print as a medium.