Twitter was ablaze Friday evening, thanks to TheMediaisDying, the ten-week-old Twitter account that posts news of media closures and layoffs and is obsessively followed by many media watchers. It published an item Friday evening saying the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was “officially closing.” However, the bad news turned out not to be true for the time being, and was the unfortunate result of a bad tip that spread rapidly across the microblogging platform even as its veracity was being publicly questioned.
Back on January 9, Hearst Corp. announced it was putting the Post-Intelligencer on the block and would shut the paper down if a buyer wasn’t found within 60 days. Friday’s initial TheMediaIsDying post about the P-I, however, indicated the paper was closing ahead of schedule. FishbowlNY spoke with Post-Intelligencer managing editor David McCumber shortly after the message first appeared on Twitter, and he told us TheMediaIsDying’s original report about his paper was false “as so many rumors are on Twitter.” So, we pieced together how the inaccurate story made its way on to myriad media watchers’ screens.
The trouble began when TheMediaIsDying published a rumor that the Post-Intelligencer was shutting down, along with a request for help confirming the story. One of the anonymous PR folk who pen TheMediaIsDying told FishbowlNY via instant messenger Friday evening that the erroneous first post stemmed from a message from a source, “saying she heard that the [Seattle Post-Intelligencer] was closing and as we couldn’t immediate[ly] confirm, we posted it as rumor and asked her who she heard it from.”
The source answered that question for TheMediaIsDying via their personal Twitter (in a message that has since been deleted, but was viewed by this reporter when it originally posted), saying Post-Intelligencer reporter Andrea James had “spilled the beans today.” After seeing the source’s response, TheMediaIsDying posted again, saying rumors of the paper’s early demise had been confirmed.
After seeing TheMediaIsDying post indicating James had verified the P-I was closing, we called her up to get her take. By phone late Friday, she told FishbowlNY she had never communicated with TheMediaIsDying and had “never Twittered anything of the sort.” After speaking with FishbowlNY, James took to her own Twitter account to reiterate this.
FishbowlNY determined that the rumor originated on Friday when James fielded a pitch from someone at a California PR firm who was unaware the P-I‘s fate hangs in the balance as it awaits a buyer. Following an exchange in which James declined to cover what the PR person was pitching, she then sent them a link to a story detailing that the P-I was up for sale. Apparently, that set tongues wagging in California, as by the end of the day, another employee at the same PR firm had inferred that the P-I was done for, and wound up sending TheMediaIsDying the erroneous tip. Essentially, it was an unfortunate game of “Telephone.”
Amid dire economic straits in which we’re all fretting over the fate of our jobs, paranoia runs rampant, and rumors abound. Twitter and other social networking tools ensure that news, whether true or false, breaks faster than ever before. With our words never more than a few keystrokes away from the public domain, we’d all do well to exercise extra caution, especially in these difficult days for our industry.