Watching the implosion of Twitter at the hands of Elon Musk is like watching a train wreck. We can’t take our eyes off the unfolding disaster, as the runaway locomotive belches and hurls itself towards the inevitable crash of steel and narcissism. The only question is: How many innocent victims will be lost in the calamity?
Among the victims, I fear, will be the children in the elementary school next to the tracks: the hundreds of independent local journalism outlets that have relied on Twitter, and which could very well collapse along with the platform.
Let me tell you about one such outlet — the one I started, the Halifax Examiner, out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada.
I never expected to be a Twitter journalist. Whatever success I’ve had in my career was based on long-form investigative journalism that was months, or even years, in the making.
But I was first of all a local reporter. Halifax City Hall was my beat. I dutifully attended every meeting of the city council, the police commission, even obscure subcommittees deciding the municipal tax rate or auditing the latest financial statements. This stuff is inherently wonky, which is to say: boring. My job as a reporter, however, is to make the boring, well, if not exciting, at least interesting enough for the public to give a damn about.
I joined Twitter in 2009, and I think I was among the first to start live-tweeting public meetings. My thought at the time was no one wants to read a string of tweets about the wonky, boring shit that stuffed suit politicians in some minor city in Canada are up to. So, I brought attitude to the tweeting. I found a Twitter voice, a way to both convey the essence of what the stuffed suits were up to while also calling out their bullshit.
Call what I did editorialized tweeting. I used humour, satire, filthy language, and even a fictional council chamber mouse as reporting tools. The goal was to inform the public, but to do so required first entertaining the public.
In 2014, I started the Halifax Examiner, mostly in order to have a platform to do more long-form investigative journalism. But from the start, Twitter was the attention-grabber. I used it both to continue to report on the fly, but also to point readers to more in-depth stories on the website.
That strategy worked. The Halifax Examiner grew from a one-man operation to a crew of about six full-time employees and six regular freelancers.
Then, in 2020, dual disasters struck: the global pandemic and a horrific two-day mass murder in Nova Scotia that left 22 people dead across the province.
I’m proud to say that the Halifax Examiner was there for both events. This was team reporting, collaboration of as many as eight reporters on single stories, and the reporting went on for years. All along the way, Twitter was both a reporting vehicle and a promotion device.
Here’s an example. Two years after the mass murder, a public inquiry was called into the police response and other issues related to the events of those two horrible days. The commission that led the inquiry would release thousands of pages of documents to reporters, then hear testimony from witnesses the next day.
I’d stay up in the evening reading the documents, then go to the testimony, and live-tweet the proceedings. I’d have as many as 15 different tabs open on my laptop, each with a different document. Over eight or 10 hours a day, for weeks, I took screenshots of the documents to tweet out as I recounted the testimony, relying on both my personal background reporting and that of my colleagues, who I texted and emailed with throughout. This was the most physically exhausting reporting I’ve done in my 35-year career.
The live-tweeting of the inquiry had a Canadian national audience, and even an international audience. Twitter was the platform for that reporting. But with that international audience, I was able to do something else: raise money to pay for the reporting.
I never tried to be over-bearing about it, but at the conclusion of each day’s live-tweeting, I made a plea for subscriptions to the Halifax Examiner, or even just for donations. The Examiner is a tiny local journalism outlet, but now we were getting subscriptions and donations from across Canada, from the United States, and even Britain and Europe.
It took me 13 very long and hard-working years to develop a Twitter following of almost 50,000. This is both my audience and the Examiner’s paying customer base.
But now, all that is threatened.
I’ve long recognized the value the Halifax Examiner has received from Twitter, and as a businessperson, I wasn’t completely averse to paying something in return for what Twitter brings us. I don’t know what it would look like exactly, but there was probably some road that led to reasonable payments from businesses that benefit from Twitter without endangering the public’s cost-free access to the platform.
Instead, we get the crazed ravings of a man-boy burning the whole thing down. People — including the Examiner’s readership and customer base — are quite understandably leaping for the exits.
I don’t have another 13 years to grow readership via some other social media platform — I’ve got to meet payroll next week. I worry about this incessantly. The Halifax Examiner exists outside of Twitter, but what kind of reach will it have without Twitter?
The Halifax Examiner is not alone. There are dozens of similar news startups, scrappy little operations, finding an audience and customer base, largely via Twitter, just as the legacy media collapses in cities across Canada — The Public Record in Hamilton, The Sprawl in Calgary, The Cape Breton Spectator, among many others. And around the world, other local reporters are using Twitter to work around the mechanizations of oppressive regimes.
Will they survive without Twitter? I honestly don’t know. I am frightened for the future of local journalism.
But here’s what you can do. First, support local independent journalism. It doesn’t have to be the Halifax Examiner, but if you want to subscribe to the Examiner, you can do that here. Or, if you want to drop us a one-time donation, do so here. Beyond that, spread the word about these important businesses, read them, and value them.
Don’t let Elon Musk destroy local journalism.
Much will be lost if Twitter collapses, including its efficient and effective use by reputable media like the Examiner, but also its incredibly destructive and malevolent use by what Hillary Clinton once called the “deplorable.” I hope, though, that we do not lose the wonderful opportunity to enjoy “live tweeting” in some form. Live “mastodoning” does not easily trip off the tongue, but I will try to follow where you decide to make your social media home.