Twitter really isn’t the digital town square, but it might as well be the newsroom coffee counter

A blue pin handed out at the 2012 Online News Association conference, photographed on a piece of lined paper, reads "Keep Calm and Tweet #ONA12"

When Twitter’s management accepted Elon Musk’s offer to buy the company for about $44 billion–a sentence that still makes me pause and think “wait, really?”–the Tesla and SpaceX billionaire called his upcoming property “the digital town square where matters vital to the future of humanity are debated.”

That two-word phrase comes up in a lot in discussions of this compressed-prose, collective-angst platform that a dozen years ago I had to define for readers as a “San Francisco-based microblogging service.”

Twitter’s own management has liked to call the service a town square of own sort or another. Obsessive coverage of the Twitter habits of certain boldface names (case in point: @elonmusk) suggests as much. And many complaints over Twitter exercising its right and business obligation to moderate content assumes that you have the same right to tweet something–meaning have Twitter spend its computing, network and human resources to “use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute” your output–as you would in a physical town square in the U.S.

But the Pew Research Center’s surveys of social-media habits have consistently revealed a more humble reality: Just 23 percent of American adults use Twitter, far below the 81 percent on YouTube, the 69 percent on Facebook or even the 31 percent on Pinterest and the 28 percent on LinkedIn. And Twitter’s share has essentially stayed flat in that Washington-based non-profit’s surveys, with the service’s high point being an almighty 24 percent in 2018.

It is entirely possible to live a rich, meaningful online social life without being on Twitter. It’s also possible to exercise considerable political power without being on Twitter–Donald Trump’s expulsion from that and every other mainstream social platform after his January 6, 2021 self-coup attempt has not stopped the Republican Party from wrapping itself around its own axle over the guy.

Journalists, however, may be another matter. Many of us flocked to the site early on because of its utility as a public notebook and for communication with readers and sources (it took longer for some us, meaning me, to realize how Twitter could also empower distributed abuse), its self-promotional possibilities (which can turn self-destructive when editors fall for bad-faith campaigns to attack journalists who fail to perform like story-sharing automatons on Twitter), and for the way its brevity allows us the chance to pretend we’re headline writers for New York tabloid newspapers. And, especially over the last two years, it’s become a valuable online substitute for the work chit-chat that once took place at a newsroom coffee counter–or, after work, at a nearby bar.

Twitter’s own outreach to journalists, as seen in that souvenir from the 2012 Online News Association conference and in such favors as the service verifying me in 2014 basically because I asked nicely enough times, has also played a role in that popularity.

I’d miss those things if Musk runs Twitter into the ground, as seems a real possibility given how often he’s suggested that Twitter’s real problem is not keeping up everything that’s not actually banned by U.S. law. A logical outcome of that would be making such First Amendment-protected trash like Holocaust denial and ISIS propaganda safe on Twitter, although I am keeping my mind open to more optimistic possibilities.

But I’ve also been online for almost three decades and I’ve seen much bigger allegedly essential online platforms fade into irrelevance. Should Twitter come to that, I imagine I and other journalists will do what we usually do when we meet some occupational obstacle: swear a lot and then figure out some other way to do the job.

The importance and difficulty of clocking out on time

I had a long chat the other night with a younger tech journalist about work/life balance. I suspect this person was hoping to learn that I had found this one weird trick to regain control of when the job can cede priority to the things that the job pays for, but I had to admit that I had not.

Clocking outThat’s because experience, at least in my case, has not changed this basic conflict in journalism: As long as praise (financial or otherwise) for good work outweighs compliments for filing early, you’re motivated to keep noodling away at a story until about 30 seconds before your editor sends an “are you filing?” message. And even if you don’t, filing ahead of schedule typically guarantees that your editor’s attention will immediately get hijacked by breaking news.

As a work-from-home freelancer, I should be in a better position to log off at a normal time because I’m immune to many of the usual newsroom distractions. My editing software is faster to boot up and less likely to crash than many newsroom CMSes, I don’t get dragged into random meetings, and I don’t have to worry about the time to commute home.

Plus, if a client wants an extra story, that will usually mean an extra payment instead of another revolution of the newsroom hamster wheel.

But I’m also disconnected from the usual boss-management mechanisms. I can’t look up from my desk to see if somebody else is occupying my editor’s attention and/or office, or if I should hurry up and file the damn thing already. I can’t tell just by listening to the collective din of keyboards how busy the news day has become. Writer-editor occupational banter in chat-room apps like HipChat amounts to an inexact substitute.

What I told my younger counterpart was that you have to remember that not every story requires the same intense attention to capturing the finer points of an issue–that it also feels pretty great to crank out solid copy, clear on the outlines of a topic, in half an hour and then be done with it. That’s also a skill you need to keep current, because you won’t always have the luxury of an entire afternoon to futz with the language of a post. Give yourself a fake deadline if you must, but try to make putting down your tools at a time certain a part of the exercise.

That’s why I set a timer on my phone to ensure I’d finish up this post and get started on cooking dinner. It went off… oh, about 15 minutes ago.

Newsroom goodbyes

The Washington Post has a great many traditions, and one of them is the caking ceremony. People in the newsroom assemble; a few colleagues will testify to the departing staffer’s merits; the soon-to-to-be ex-Postie says a few words as well; copies of a mock section-front page with fake stories under fake bylines making gentle fun of his or her foibles are passed around; cake is eaten; productivity takes a temporary hit.

I’ve easily attended a hundred of these things by now. Some have featured staffers leaving for other employers or retiring; many more have involved employees who had accepted one of the Post’s four rounds of buyouts in recent years.

Friday afternoon, I got to experience a caking from the other end. Characteristically, I showed up a few minutes late, finding dozens of other Posties waiting for me. First my editor Greg Schneider, my fellow tech scribe Cecilia Kang and my long-ago editor John Kelly each spoke briefly but warmly about me and my time here.

Then it was my turn to speak. For the first time since perhaps my dad’s eulogy, I’d written out a speech from start to finish–but I had to revise it on the spot, since John had covered some of the same ground minutes ago. I then made more of a mess of it because a) I was reading the thing off a phone and b) it almost got a little dusty in the room. You can read the text as prepared, annotated with a few links, after the jump.

Inexpert delivery and all, I got a long round of applause.

My page featured stories about my great-grandfather reviewing different plow designs and the Dewey Decimal system, revelations that I’ve been touting new advances in technology since 70,000 B.C., and a government shutdown caused by the absence of my Web chat at the Post’s site. (The last was written by a particularly talented wordsmith named “R. Panet.”) I loved the page, although I was surprised not to see anything making fun of my habit of cursing out computers for crashing, stalling or throwing up stupid error messages.

Oh, about the cake: It was a fruit-topped creation from the Whole Foods on P Street, backed up by cupcakes, home-made cookies Cecilia baked and some chips and salsa. There was more to eat than I thought possible for a caking. But journalists are hungry folk, especially when there’s free food involved. A few hours later, nothing was left.

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Departure

After more than 17 years, I’m leaving the Washington Post.

No, that’s not an easy sentence to write.

The proximate cause is management deciding that the sort of review and analysis of technology that I’ve been doing for most of those 17 years is no longer part of the Post’s core mission. As I understand it, the paper places a high priority on covering Washington the city (as in, local news and sports) and Washington the story (politics), but other topics may not be assured of column inches or server space.

As a journalist in a newsroom, you own the quality of your work but not your spot in the paper or on the Web site. Beat, column and blog assignments change. Sometimes your editors offer you another position–my colleague Patricia Sullivan arrived here to edit technology coverage but moved on to become a talented obituary writer. And sometimes they offer you an exit.

I could try to expand on the reasoning behind the paper’s decision, but I’ve never pretended to be a spokesman for management and won’t start now. Trust me on this, though: My critiques of the Post–such as those of its iPhone and iPad apps or its advertising policies–had zero bearing on my departure.

Instead, let me explain why this isn’t a bad time for me to log out and investigate the next thing, and why I’ve been pondering that move for a while.

First, in two words, I’m exhausted. I wrote more than 2,000 words on Monday alone, and I’ve easily exceeded that figure on many days over the last few years. My longest time off since starting here in 1993 was three weeks of paternity leave last year, which you should recognize as being a long way from vacation. The newsroom’s new editing system, as noted by our ombudsman in late March, has only compounded the fatigue factor.

Second, there’s this life outside the office that I’d like to reacquaint myself with, however briefly. As I write this, my daughter is about ready to crawl even as our house remains un-babyproofed. Spring is arriving and I have a (small) lawn and garden ready for my attention. The kitchen has a stack of recipes overdue for me to try, while the rest of the house hides a long list of deferred-maintenance chores. I won’t mind stepping off the treadmill for a bit to focus on things that don’t involve gigabytes, kilobits or megapixels.

Third, the journalism market is seeing some changes. The Post’s union kept some eminently fair severance provisions in our contract, and they should give me time to consider opportunities that didn’t exist a year or two ago.

In the meantime, I’ll use this space to write about my exit and my next steps. My Post e-mail address should work through the end of the month, and you can also reach me at rob@robpegoraro.com.

Thanks for reading. See you on the other side of my next byline…

– R