On Monday, Jan. 28, President Donald Trump, as he does, began the morning with a tweet: “Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!”
That morning, John Haltiwanger felt unnerved. A politics reporter for the news site Insider based in New York, Haltiwanger follows the president’s tweets closely, but he couldn’t see that one. Nor could he see later in the day when Trump tweeted, “What the hell is going on with Global Waming? Please come back fast, we need you!” That week, Insider had instructed its reporters to close Twitter—and keep it closed.
Haltiwanger was among the Insider staffers who weren’t immediately on board with this experiment. “Trump tweets all the time,” Haltiwanger said. “I’m a politics reporter. How am I going to be on top of what the president of the United States is saying?”
Insider, the general-interest sibling of Business Insider, instituted the temporary Twitter ban for all its writers and editors at a moment many—including many journalists themselves—saw as a low point for the long-held symbiotic relationship between Twitter and journalism. “Twitter is the crystal meth of newsrooms,” blared a recent headline in the Washington Post. “Never tweet,” went the New York Times’ version. Both columns argued that journalists are too tethered to their Twitter accounts, and it can lead to grievously flawed coverage, as was the case when the American media rushed to judgment about a confrontation between teenagers in MAGA hats and a Native American elder in front of the Lincoln Memorial a few weeks ago.
This particular uproar struck me as halfway absurd—that incident was actually not so hard to read—but when it comes to their other point, we certainly agree: Journalists do have an outsized obsession with Twitter. And MAGA teens notwithstanding, we don’t think much about how it’s skewing our stories.
I count myself firmly in the Twitter fanatic camp. Until more recently than I’d like to admit, I used to try to read every single tweet that came across my feed, even on weekends and vacations. I have a colleague who has joked that the best way to get his attention, better even than walking up to him in person, is to DM him on Twitter. And I’m pretty sure our compulsions would be considered completely unexceptional in any newsroom in America.
The editors in charge of newsrooms are well aware of the Twitter problem, but short of urging their employees to spend less time on the social network, they historically haven’t done much about it. Until recently.
When the Daily Beast’s media reporter, Max Tani, posted news of Insider’s ban on Twitter, it was with a note of skepticism about its Big Brother–ish implications. Journalists tend to react badly to the idea of their bosses patrolling their social media. But the ban was really more of an experiment than a decree, Insider editor-in-chief Julie Zeveloff West said as it began. “I’m not walking around policing this,” she told me.
Here’s how West summarized the thinking behind the experiment when she appeared on BuzzFeed’s AM to DM—ironically, a morning show that airs on Twitter—on Jan. 28, the day it started: “The Twittersphere really can sometimes be a fishbowl, especially in the media world, where everyone in media is talking to each other. Twitter is really not where Insider’s audience is. This challenge to my team is an opportunity for them hopefully to think outside the box and start to dig into other sources that they may not rely on as much and think about where else they can find news rather than just watching it flow down Tweetdeck.”
Despite its proximity to the MAGA teens flap, West insisted the timing of the ban was a coincidence. “It’s actually something I’ve been chatting with a couple of our senior editors about for months,” she said.
West can hardly remember a time when Twitter wasn’t an integral part of newsgathering. “What would really be great,” West said, “is for our reporters to gain the confidence and editors to gain the confidence and remember that they have great news judgment and they don’t need to always look at the Twitter echo chamber to make sure that what they think is a story is a story.”
She described her staff’s reaction to the ban as cautiously excited, even as a few reporters worried the experiment might put them at a disadvantage.
One such reporter was Haltiwanger, the politics staffer, who has 13,000 Twitter followers and considers himself one of the more active tweeters at Insider. He described his initial reaction to the ban as “natural pushback.” He owes some of his career to Twitter, after all: “It’s helped me get jobs,” he said. But he was still game to try the experiment. Since the 2016 presidential election, he said, he has been taking self-imposed Twitter breaks on weekends.
On Monday, his first day away from the site, Haltiwanger said he felt uneasy to be without something like half of his media diet. Instead of scanning Twitter, Haltiwanger spent the first few hours of Monday reading Team of Vipers, the dishy book by ex–White House staffer Cliff Sims, in preparation for an interview the next day, as well as keeping an eye on the situation in Venezuela, which he had been covering. TVs were on in the newsroom to keep reporters abreast of any breaking news, but he said he felt a little unmoored knowing that he had turned off his Associated Press and Reuters Twitter alerts.
Which is not to say he couldn’t see some value in stepping away from the Twitter conversation. On Twitter, “you’re both consciously and unconsciously absorbing the way people are talking about [a topic],” Haltiwanger said. “You might not always be cognizant of the way that has an influence on the way you frame your pitches, on your coverage.”
Even so, he worried that another politician, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, known of late for her Twitter comebacks, might post something newsworthy and that he would be late to it.
Across the country, Kim Renfro, who is based in Los Angeles as an Insider entertainment reporter, was also trying to get used to her newly Twitter-free working hours.
When she first heard about the experiment, “my knee-jerk reaction was kind of like, I wondered if I had been doing something wrong, even though I know that I haven’t been,” said Renfro, who has 12,600 Twitter followers. “I think it’s natural for people to have a little bit of reflexive defensiveness about the way that they’ve been conducting their workflow.”
Renfro told me as the ban began that she “instinctively” kept opening Twitter, so she installed a browser extension to block the site on her computer. “The painful thing is it tells you how many times you tried to access a blocked site,” she said on Monday. “I hit 28 times in like three hours.” Still, she added, “I haven’t really felt it impact my job at all.”
One of Renfro’s specialties, and one of the ways she said she’s helped build her reputation, is reporting on the TV show Game of Thrones. She hoped on Monday that it would be a quiet week in Westeros. “The only thing that would worry me—not worry me, but maybe give me a little bit of anxiety—is if some major Game of Thrones news happened this week,” she said.
I checked in again with Haltiwanger and Renfro on Friday, after they had spent a full week off Twitter. Both felt the experiment had gone relatively well.
“I did actually kind of find myself slightly less stressed at the end of the day, maybe because I wasn’t tapped into all the arguing and the more toxic aspects of Twitter,” Haltiwanger said.
“I missed it, but I think it was a good reset button for me to think more critically about what I’m doing with my time on there during the day,” Renfro said.
Haltiwanger said he did occasionally feel out of the loop when it came to news, if not necessarily because he missed the president’s latest missives. “When I finally logged in on Wednesday night—I actually hadn’t logged in at all really the whole week—I was like, ‘All right, I’ll see what people are talking about,’ ” he said. He hadn’t heard about the controversy over abortion legislation in Virginia. Haltiwanger’s reporting tends to focus on national security, so it wasn’t a huge oversight, but it still felt strange to him. “I had been completely unaware of that news,” he said.
Even though Renfro’s browser extension kept her off Twitter, she found that it couldn’t quite stay away from her. On Tuesday, Netflix released new footage of one of the now-infamous subjects of its recent Fyre Festival documentary—and posted the clip exclusively to Twitter, rather than on YouTube, which Renfro had set up alerts for. She whipped up a post on the new clip, and it ended up being her best-performing story of the week.
For her part, West, Insider’s editor in chief, said she was pleased with how the experiment went. “The biggest feedback that I heard from the newsroom was that by doing this, it helped [reporters] realize just how much time they were spending on Twitter each day and also helped them to get some clarity on how to use it more effectively going forward.”
In terms of the site’s performance, “I wouldn’t say it was our best traffic week, as I had hoped,” West said, but “things were totally steady.” “We hit all the news that we needed to hit. I do think that there were certain times when we were maybe a little bit slower to pick up on stories than we might have been if everybody had seen something happen at once. But I actually don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing all the time,” she said.
Plus, she added, “I did actually hear a few more people on the phone than usual.”
Still, on Monday, it didn’t take long for her staff to get back to business as usual. “Pretty much everyone is excited to have Twitter back. I’ve noticed that they are absolutely back on it today,” West said. Haltiwanger, for one, tweeted or retweeted 55 times throughout the day—including a couple of news items from last week.