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Why NPR’s decision to leave Twitter signals a new era for news publishing

A photo of Terrence Samuel is surrounded by red, white and blue microphones.

Illustration by Nick DeSantis / Getty / The Current. Photo via NPR.

Some news outlets have finally had enough of Elon Musk’s Twitter.

Earlier this month, National Public Radio (NPR) was the first major news organization to announce that it would no longer post new content to its feeds after the Musk-owned social platform labeled NPR as “state-affiliated media.” Other nonprofit media organizations like PBS and CBC have since followed after being slapped with similar labels.

“Is this going to hurt us in terms of traffic, engagement, audience? The numbers told us ‘no,’” NPR Vice President and Executive Editor Terence Samuel told The Current. “It made the decision easy for us.”

As some news organizations rethink how they use Twitter, or if they use it at all, it doesn’t necessarily mean social platforms — and tech in general — have lost their power. But it could mean the news media is entering a new era of collaboration with the internet.

The Current spoke with NPR’s Samuel about changes at Twitter, the emergence of creative artificial intelligence (AI), and publishers’ endless and increasingly complex quest to reach their audiences.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

NPR pausing its use of Twitter feels pretty big for the publishing world — do you think it reflects a larger trend on how publishers use social media?

“Tech has completely transformed how we work. The simple, direct reason for that is that the audience is on the internet. Despite what great work we do, at the end of the day, we are trying to serve the audience and chase the audience because that is our bread and butter.

Our relationship with the big platforms has been complicated and is changing, and there’s been a question in recent years about whether the audience we need is on those platforms. We know they’re on the internet. But it’s clear that while journalists are on Twitter, the audience is all over the place. 

The instability that has ensued hastened the question about whether [Twitter] was the right place for us to be. Is this going to hurt us in terms of traffic, engagement, audience? The numbers told us no. It made the decision easy for us.

The larger question is harder. Where are the people we’re after, and how do we get to them? We know they’re on the internet and on mobile, and we’re constantly trying to reach them.”

If not Twitter, then what platforms are you trying to reach your audience on?

“We’ve pointed people to our own platforms [the NPR app, its newsletters, and website]. If people congregate there, that solves all of our problems. 

But we don’t yet know that social platforms aren’t the answer. There are still a lot of people on social. We’re still doing Facebook, Reddit, YouTube, Flipboard [which bills itself as a “social magazine”]. I like Flipboard because it’s old school, we know how it works, and it’s shown results in terms of building our audience in recent months. 

We’re looking for stability and sanity. The more grown-up the place is, the better it is for us.” 

Do you view the Twitter debacle as a disruption, an inevitability, or a blessing? 

“Broadly, it feels like an evolution in strategy. The big question we have to confront is whether social media is the solution to our audience growth and strategy. We don’t know that the answer is ‘yes,’ but at this point we don’t know that it’s ‘no,’ either. We’re keeping at it on the other platforms we currently do business on.

It doesn’t feel like disruption; it feels like an evolution. I don’t know what happens next, but already the talk [in the news industry] isn’t so much about Twitter, but AI. It just keeps moving.” 

What do you think the future role of AI is for the news media?

“We’re thinking about how that is going to change the way we work. I’m speculating only on my own behalf, but it feels like AI is going to be something that we have to deal with because it will be a big part of our lives. I don’t have any evidence to support that, but anecdotally it feels like a more solid thing than, say, crypto. We had questions about what crypto was going to be in our lives. We understand the tech is valuable, but we still don’t understand how it would work in our everyday lives. AI feels different than that. A lot of people I respect are taking it seriously. 

As for NPR, there’s nothing official about how we use it. The discussion right now is how we’re going to cover it. ”

Do you think journalists put too much emphasis on Twitter? Does social media — and tech in general — have too much power over news?

“Because journalists can over index on Twitter, we think a lot of what we see there is reality. It’s something we have to be careful of. We are cognizant of how Twitter has become its own [media] ecosystem. An awful lot of people spend a lot of time reacting to things on Twitter and overemphasizing things that bubble up on Twitter.

I’ve worked with reporters who have been masterful at using Twitter to find sources, to find people who would otherwise be unknown to us. I’ve also seen newsrooms and reporters react to things on Twitter that, anywhere else, would not be important. That’s a trap NPR tried to avoid. We ask whether something is important to the audience we serve.”