Journalists are experimenting with Twitter Spaces for their reporting. Here's how.

by Sarah Scire
Feb 1, 2022 in Social Media
A phone showcasing Twitter's logo.

Twitter Spaces, initially described as “ephemeral” audio-only chats, are taking on a more permanent role. The social platform has added the ability for hosts to record the live sessions, introduced ticketing for those who want to monetize their Spaces, and devoted prime real estate in the app to the feature. They’re also actively encouraging newsrooms and journalists to take on the role of host.

Twitter Spaces launched as a mobile-only product for a select number of hosts back in December 2020 — a few months before Clubhouse hit its peakremember Clubhouse? — and was rolled out widely in May 2021. (Anyone with more than 600 followers can host a Space.)

Eric Zuckerman, head of U.S. news partnerships for Twitter, said he and his team have been talking to newsrooms about using Spaces for the past year. His pitch? Social audio like Twitter Spaces presents “an opportunity for newsrooms and journalists to have an open and authentic conversations with their audiences about what’s happening in the world and about the stories that they’re covering,” he said.

Twitter has long held appeal for journalists looking to connect with audiences and sources. On its best days, the platform is a place where reporters can get story ideas, answer questions, and build trust by showing more of their work and process. Twitter Spaces, Zuckerman says, are another way that journalists can continue the conversation. During a Space, hosts — which can be newsrooms or individuals — invite followers to listen in on an interview, discussion, or panel and even hand them the (virtual) mic to join the conversation.

Recent newsroom-hosted Spaces include NPR’s Steve Inskeep talking about his abbreviated interview with Trump, the Miami Herald going behind the scenes of their months-long investigation into the Surfside condo collapse, and reporters at The Washington Post jumping on to respond to the news Microsoft was acquiring the gamemaker Activision.

Newsrooms have promoted Spaces around anniversaries, too. On January 6, there were plenty to choose from: HuffPost, BuzzFeed News, USA Today, New York Times Opinion, The Daily Beast, Politico, and the Associated Press all held Spaces looking at the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol.

Some of the best Spaces I’ve heard have been where reporters share what they know and what they’re still trying to figure out. When the news broke that Facebook planned to change its name, tech journalists Kara Swisher and Casey Newton held a rollicking discussion with a lot of blue-checked names speculating about what the new name might be, and why Facebook might be interested in making the change. The freedom the reporters felt to make some educated guesses — the kind of conjecture that might not make it into print — made it all the more fun.

***A break for a warning. If you’re browsing the Discover Spaces tab, Spaces can feel a little one-note … and that note is NFTs. (If you’re into NFTs — totally fine! Whatever floats your boat!) But moderation and quality discovery remain real problems for the feature. Wade into Spaces and you might find yourself up to your neck in Covid-19 misinformation, racism, and scammy-sounding pitches.

I tuned into a highlighted Space the other day swimming with misinformation that would be flagged if tweeted — think: “The vaccines have killed more people than Covid-19” — that went on and on.

This is less of a problem for newsrooms and journalists acting as hosts — Twitter has a number of built-in features to help hosts moderate the discussion, including taking the mic back from someone being abusive — but I asked Zuckerman about the mismatch between what I was hearing on Spaces and the rest of Twitter’s policies.

Spaces that appear to violate Twitter guidelines can be reported and flagged and Zuckerman said reports about Spaces are prioritized in review queues and addressed by a dedicated team.

“What I’d say is that Spaces was created to be a place for open, nuanced, authentic conversations and ensuring people’s safety and encouraging healthy conversations have been key priorities since the beginning of the product’s development,” Zuckerman added. “We’re committed to better serving our Spaces’ hosts and listeners.”***

There’s a fairly thorough primer on using Twitter Spaces but Zuckerman says the first thing he tells newsrooms is to listen to other Spaces and test out the feature on their own. Sarah Feldberg, editor for emerging products and audio at the San Francisco Chronicle, echoed the advice.

“Test. Test. Test,” Feldberg said. “The feature is fairly easy to use, but the functionality seems to be updated regularly, so it’s important to stay on top of how it’s working and make sure your guests know how to join the Space and start speaking.”

The Chronicle has done four Spaces so far: a service-oriented discussion about holiday gifting, one with restaurant critics Soleil Ho and Cesar Hernandez, and two in partnership with their flagship daily news podcast Fifth & Mission.

The Fifth & Mission ones have featured podcast host Cecilia Lei and health reporter Erin Allday interviewing public health experts about Covid-19.

“They’ve been a way to give our community live access to local experts and to talk about pressing issues around the pandemic, like advice for parents of children too young to be vaccinated and concerns around long Covid in breakthrough infections,” Feldberg said. “We recorded the audio from those conversations and edited the highlights into subsequent podcast episodes.”

NPR — which has hosted more than 60 Spaces so far — has also been able to use and reuse conversations hosted on Twitter Spaces. Matt Adams, engagement editor at NPR, pointed to a wide-ranging conversation between NPR pop culture critic Eric DeggansNPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann, Dopesick author Beth Macy, and Dopesick series creator/showrunner Danny Strong that was recorded for listeners who missed the live Space and yielded three digital stories.

An interview with the U.S. Surgeon General — and the live audience questions — were broadcast more widely, too.

“The reporters open the conversation, talk through recent reporting, and update our audience on what they should know. But I think the real special feature to social audio is the social part, opening the mic to the audience to ask questions that can help us figure out topics we haven’t covered yet or get their reactions to how NPR is covering the news,” Adams said. “I’ve worked in online communities for a long time and before you used to send out a survey to get feedback or ask members how we can better provide a service … To me, social audio is an in-real-time survey where we can gain feedback and hopefully reach new audience members.”

Twitter Spaces featuring celebrities and reporters covering the White House and Congress have done especially well for NPR. (The actor Matthew McConaughey had more than 4,000 listeners when he said, about running for political office, “I am not — until I am” in a Twitter Space hosted by NPR.) Once started, the newsroom can boost attendance by tweeting out choice quotes or letting users know they’ll be opening the conversation up for questions soon.

Ultimately, Adams said Twitter Spaces are part of a larger strategy at NPR to think through how a radio company “can reach beyond the airwaves and digital .org page” and “hear from a wide range of guests and sources.”

“We’re starting to wonder, ‘Okay, can this work as a social audio conversation? How can we get more voices on this whether from the audience or our sources?'” he added. “I’d say that it’s becoming part of our strategy just like we produce pieces for on-air.”

This article was originally published by Nieman Lab and is reproduced here with permission. 

Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash.