Capitol a-Twitter with budget microblogging

Sometime during the Senate lockdown Saturday, KQED Capitol reporter and blogger John Myers signed up for Twitter. From the back of the Senate chambers, Myers began posting details of the budget wrangling as most people were enjoying the beginning of their holiday weekend.

What followed in the hours of the budget stalemate was a true new-media phenomenon. Word of Myers’ Twitter feed spread virally among those hungry for the latest scraps of information about the budget standoff. And within hours, Myers’ Twitter site was the most authoritative and most sought-after source of real-time, insider budget information.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is a social networking Web site where you can post short messages. Very short. In fact, there is a 140-character maximum on every post. You can sign up for various feeds from other Twitter readers, and they can sign up for yours.
Throughout the weekend, the number of followers of Myers’ feed steadily grew. As of this writing, Wednesday afternoon, the number stood at 684. With a couple of keystrokes, and some diligent updating, Myers had become the go-to-guy for budget information.

“The back and forth nature of these marathon sessions seemed to be a good fit for the short, headline-like nature of Twitter,” Myers said.  “Apparently, it caught on.  We’ve gotten more than 150 emails of folks who are enjoying the postings.”

 Capitol Weekly also got into the act, starting a Twitter feed of its own to document the goings-on in the Capitol.

Twitter can also be used to automatically update your Facebook status. For Capitol Weekly, Twitter and Facebook now serve as an instant breaking news service to supplement the Capitol Weekly Web site and it’s own breaking-news alerts.

Well, “news” may actually be too strong a word for what is disseminated via Twitter. Social networking sites are a great way to transmit bits of information, and provide links to more traditional news accounts that are more than 140 characters long.

Those in-depth reports still live on the Capitol Weekly Web site and in print. But you also can find links to them through the paper’s Twitter feed or Facebook profile.

Welcome to the Capitol’s new media era.

Coverage of the state Capitol has not been known for its technological innovation. The most popular state Web site is still Jack Kavanagh’s Rough & Tumble, a daily compilation of state news headlines that has not changed much in format in more than 10 years.
During the recall of Gov. Gray Davis, Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Weintraub’s blog became the go-to source for updated recall-related information. The success of Weintraub’s blog prompted a micro-boom in state political Web sites. Among the most enduring is Capitol Weekly’s Roundup, launched in January 2005,  which is a digest of California political news that is emailed out to about 6,000 subscribers daily.

Partisan blogs also have sprouted up, and one in particular, Jon Fleischman’s Flash Report, has had a tangible impact on the way California government works. Fleischman has impeccable Republican sources in the Capitol, and conservatives now see courting Fleischman as key to rallying their political base.

Just as the Davis recall brought blogs to Sacramento, this budget standoff has, inadvertently, created the social networking era in California politics and political information. Many politicians, like Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, update their Facebook statuses directly from the legislative chambers, giving them direct access to hundreds of their followers and fans.  

And now, journalists are getting into the act. The clearest sign of the innovation and evolution of the technology was the fact that a standing link to Myers’ Twitter feed occupied the prime real estate at the top of Rough & Tumble for four days running. It was Kavanagh, innovator of the old new-media, who drove most of the political junkies to Myers’ Twitter feed.

Lobbyist Craig Brown said he had never used Twitter before this weekend. But he obsessively checked Myers’ updates.
Brown’s experience mirrors many political junkies, who before this weekend were Twitter neophytes.

“I didn’t have a Twitter account before this weekend, said Beth Miller, partner in Wilson/Miller Communications. “A client of ours is personally involved in the budget negoitions. From a communications perspective, it’s hard to know when to put out a press release if you don’t know what’s going on in the building.”

Miller said monitoring the budget through Myers’ tweets ”was like being there, but with a better sense of humor. It really did give you a sense of absolutely being in the middle of the action.”

 In many ways, the budget standoff was the perfect Twitter event. There were lots of tidbits of information, but not a lot of big news that demanded thorough reporting and analysis.

And it is no accident that Myers’ Twitter feed grew over a holiday weekend. The fact that most people were not actively working made Myers’ micro-blogging all the more urgent and useful. It was a way to stay plugged in while maintaining a safe distance from the Capitol.

When the coup erupted inside the Senate Republican Caucus late Tuesday night, the Capitol Weekly and KQED Twitter feeds became indispensable sources of information. And what was most surprising, perhaps, was the number of people hungry for details in the wee hours.

It was just after 10:00 p.m. on Tuesday when Capitol Weekly updates its Twitter feed with word of Cogdill’s caucus troubles.
When that post was made, the paper’s Twitter Feed had 47 followers, in addition to the paper’s 600 or so Facebook friends. By the time the dust had settled, some time around 1 a.m., the number of feed subscribers had more than tripled, and the paper’s Facebook friends list stood at more than 700.

The microblogging worked because it provided California political junkies with real-time information while most rational people were sleeping or relaxing. Myers acknowledges that some of the energy and usefulness of his Twittering diminished when everyone came back to work Tuesday morning.

“With the progression from daily stories to blog updates to up-to-the-second Twitter post , you have this acceleration of the information cycle,” says Bryan Merica, president of ID Media, a Sacramento-based new media company. “If you look at the audience of news stories versus blog posts and Twitter, they actually get smaller and smaller, but you actually have more people engaging. What’s happening is that really specialized up-to-the-second information is getting to the exact people who want that information.”
Myers says he is well aware of the limitations of the new technology. It’s perfect for status updates on easily digestible events like leadership changes and budget votes. But it is merely a supplement, not a replacement, for old-fashioned reporting. And not everything can be said in 140 characters or less.

“I don’t think I will be a full time Twitter reporter once this impasse is resolved,” said Myers.  “It’s a great tool for certain kinds of journalistic coverage — budget debates, political conventions, election nights, maybe even campaign coverage.  But let’s face it; I’m not about to Twitter on how Proposition 98 works.”

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