Rodrigo Orihuela
Rodrigo Orihuela

How Twitter inspired the creation of a newsroom

Twitter has been criticised almost as much as it has been used since it went public just more than a year ago. The most common criticism aims at the very question all Twitter users are meant to answer: “What are you doing?” (Anybody who doesn’t know what Twitter is can find it wonderfully explained by Wikipedia).

Answering this question leads people to write about a lot of personal, uninteresting stuff that sounds very much like the bored, meaningless ranting of fastidious teenagers.

Short-tempered Twitter-critics tend to demand an explanation of why “What are you doing?” should matter to the rest of the world. The question posed by critics is, however, the wrong one, as was well explained by José Luis Orihuela (who is no relative of mine and who I guess is much smarter than me as he is professor at Spain’s University of Navarra and a specialist in communications and the web).

Regarding this criticism, Orihuela wrote in his blog, eCuaderno (in Spanish):

“The first questions we tend to ask about a new kind of technology don’t tend to help us understand it, since the questions are rooted in the culture of previous technologies.”

The lesson to be learnt from Orihuela’s statement is that Twitter and, more importantly, the concept it is built on, microblogging (also wonderfully defined and explained by Wikipedia), must be understood before it can be criticised. And understanding requires experimenting.

The desire to experiment is what drove two Argentinian journalists, Pablo Mancini and Darío Gallo (both links lead to blogs in Spanish), to create a unique internet-based news service, 20palabras.com (“palabras” means “words”, therefore the site is called “20 words”). The basic idea behind the site is that, like Twitter, its content can be written from any place and from any kind of mobile device and it must be short and concise (Twitter allows a maximum of 140 characters per entry; 20palabras suggests the length of pieces to be limited to 20 words).

Gallo had also been toying around with another idea for some time: to create what he calls a “disintegrated newsroom”, one where journalists work individually, not in a shared physical place, and produce content from wherever they are. With the mobile conception that moves Twitter, this not only seemed possible but also made sense. Mancini and Gallo believe mobility and brevity will be key elements in the future of the web as far as writing goes.

To start the project, the pair gathered about 20 journalists (I am among them) and started writing. News coverage ranges from delays in public transport in Buenos Aires (reported on the spot) to the demonstrations of Buddhist monks in Burma (picked up from news wires, TV etc). As a newsroom experiment it is highly interesting because there are no editors and everybody relays on personal criteria to select, write and publish pieces. Surprisingly, it works quite well as people tend to quickly find their niche.

But just as important as the kind of coverage is how the content can be consumed (on cellphones, palms etc) and how much news can be offered in such little space. It is, after all, an attempt to write news purely for small and moving screens.

Neither Gallo nor Mancini deny that they would like to make 20palabras.com into a commercially viable project. But above all, they both want to test-and-try, which is a bit what the internet (all in all a very young technology) is actually about, as we are far from sure where it will take us in the years to come. And in this specific case, experimentation was born from a much-criticised service. There may be a lesson to be learnt there.