Measuring the real-time impact of news on Twitter

A Shooting on Campus

University of Texas at AustinOn Friday, September 28, 2010, a 19-year-old college sophomore took an AK-47 to the University of Texas at Austin campus, fired numerous shots, and then killed himself in the Perry-Castaneda Library. Fortunately no one else was injured in this incident, but it was a scary and sad day for thousands of students, faculty, staff, family members and Austin community members.

Even though it happened in Austin, Texas, the shooting was national news. And for us here at TweetReach, it hit pretty close to home. We started TweetReach in Austin, and lived there for five years before moving to San Francisco. And I recently earned my Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin, where, in addition to my coursework and research (which meant I spent long hours in the P-C library), I also taught undergraduate communication courses for four years. Many of my friends and colleagues still work there and were on campus on September 28.

For several hours on the morning of September 28, it was unclear how many shooters there were and how many people were injured, and the entire campus was on lockdown. I anxiously watched as some of my closest friends posted Twitter and Facebook updates about armed police officers in the hallways outside the classrooms where they were sequestered. It was a tense day.

Twitter and Real-Time News

But the day was made less tense with lots of updates from friends on campus and off, as well as plenty of information coming from local news sources. Social media have certainly impacted how we consume and create news. For good or bad, breaking news spreads incredibly quickly in new media channels like Twitter.

There’s really no need for me to spend much time writing about the impact of Twitter on news – just do a quick Google search and you’ll find all the history and analysis of real-time news you could ever want. This is not a new idea. For example, two years ago, ReadWriteWeb wrote a nice piece on how they use Twitter for journalism. What I do want to write about is the specific example of how Twitter was used the day of the UT shooting.

The Austin American-Statesman has been a paragon of how local news outlets can use Twitter in innovative ways. I know Robert Quigley and the other folks at the Statesman work hard to make sure the @statesman Twitter account is useful, accurate and timely. In the past year alone, the Statesman has informed and guided the Austin community through several significant local news events, including the November 2009 Ft. Hood shooting and the February 2010 Austin plane crash. The September 28 campus shooting was no exception. And this time, we have tweet data to analyze.

How @Statesman Kept Us Informed

We’ve been running a TweetReach Tracker for a few months that measures Twitter activity with and about the @statesman Twitter account. [Note: The Statesman is not a customer of ours, nor did they sponsor this research.] On September 28, @statesman regularly tweeted updates and important information about the shooting. Those tweets were retweeted and discussed repeatedly, resulting in a huge Twitter reach day for @statesman. Huge.

On a normal weekday, the @statesman Twitter account, which has more than 26,000 followers, reaches on average around 75,000 unique Twitter users through retweets, mentions, and replies. We’ve been tracking this activity since mid-July, and before 9/28 it peaked at a daily reach total of almost 180,000. On the day of the UT shooting, that number skyrocketed to a unique reach* of 1.45 million unique Twitter users. That’s more than eight times its previous peak reach day and 19 times its normal reach.

The overall exposure (total potential impressions generated*) on September 28 was nearly 3.7 million, up from a typical weekday average of 125K and a previous peak of 292K. 2,700 Twitter users posted more than 4,500 tweets that day. In fact, 56% of all tweets with “@statesman” in them for the entire month of September were generated that day. @Statesman tweets were retweeted by many other news outlets, including the @washingtonpost and @dallas_news. They were also retweeted by lots of Twitter notables, many of whom don’t even live in Austin (a surprising amount from the Bay Area, actually).

Statesman Twitter Reach Stats

These numbers are impressive and show the power of Twitter. How often do Statesman stories reach almost 1.5 million people in one day? I’m guessing never (their daily print circulation is about 140,000). But what else does this information tell us?

What We Can Learn

These data demonstrate the potential impact of someone in the right place at the right time (remember the first Twitpic of the US Air plane that landed in the Hudson?). As a well-respected newspaper, the Statesman was already positioned as the go-to news source for Austin area current events. But over the past few years, they’ve built a loyal following on Twitter of people who are eager to contribute to the news process. People send photos and updates to the @statesman, essentially expanding the paper’s news staff. And by making their Twitter updates consistently relevant and timely, the @statesman is insuring that they’ll be retweeted when something like this happens, drastically expanding their circulation.

These data also reiterate the importance and potential pitfalls of real-time news. If no one cared what was happening on campus, then no one would retweet the @statesman’s updates. But people do care; we demand information in real time, especially when something scary is happening. And we’ve all heard what the 24-hour news cycle does to news – stories are rushed out before being fact-checked or properly edited, stories that aren’t actually news are published just to fill space, sources are faked to get information out as soon as possible.

Finally, these data are a good reminder that you never know when something like this will happen. You need to be prepared. If you work at a news outlet (or any company or business, really), build your following now. Start measuring your impact now. You can’t suddenly have the reputation of the @statesman; that has taken them more than three years of dedicated effort to achieve. And you can’t go back and measure certain kinds of Twitter activity after it’s happened. Once it’s passed, it’s gone. The real-time speed of social media means that events can flare up and then flame out in just a few hours.

Fortunately, no one besides the shooter was killed at UT on September 28. But on that day, when no one knew what was going on and many people were assuming the worst, Twitter and the @statesman helped communicate vital information to those who needed it.

*If you want to learn more about how we calculate and define our metrics, including reach and exposure, read this.