Why Journalists Can’t Quit Twitter Just Yet

(Davide Bonaldo/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Spend any time on Twitter lately, and it can feel as if the platform is dying an agonizing death.  

Since billionaire Elon Musk finalized his acquisition of the platform on Oct. 28 in an ill-advised $44 billion purchase, his proposed changes have shocked users — namely his plan to charge $8 a month for verification and remove the “identity verification” guidelines required for the coveted blue check. As a result of this, and Musk’s open hostility toward “leftists” and journalists, some people are considering leaving Twitter for their safety and sanity. 

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But for journalists, the matter is not so simple. “Twitter is both one of the best and worst things that’s ever happened to me,” said Elly Belle, a queer and disabled journalist who has built an organizing and writing platform on the same site where they have been harassed. 

It’s a sentiment that many marginalized journalists, including me, can relate to. Only a year ago, I, too, was besieged by anti-Black slurs and threats from more users than I could count. But I also have probably gotten hundreds of assignments through Twitter connections and DMs — including this one. 

“If it were not for my job, I would most likely already be off Twitter,” said Evelyn Frick, writer and editorial assistant for Jewish culture site Hey Alma. “Twitter has never been a site that has been safe for, or fully protected, oppressed groups like the Jewish community. Now, I worry that Musk’s refusal to enact any meaningful content moderation on the site — except, of course, when he’s the target — is going to result in even more violence and harm towards oppressed peoples.”   

While Twitter has never been a safe space for marginalized people, it’s also been a space that has helped them build community and their careers — whether that’s through sourcing, newsgathering, networking or finding work.  

“I’ve found niche pitch calls, educational threads and developed beloved friendships — including my best friend — thanks to Twitter, and especially Black Twitter,” said Noella Williams, an assistant editor at Apartment Therapy. 

As much as journalists would like to leave Twitter, they can’t. At least not yet. 

Twitter provides freelancers invaluable income and connections  

Many freelance journalists get assignments through Twitter. As a freelance journalist, I know that every assignment counts, since I’m not bringing in a fixed income.    

When I started freelancing in 2018, Facebook was my primary way of connecting with readers and potential editors. I only had a few publications I had been writing for, and they didn’t pay very well (around $150-$300 an article). I felt boxed into a specific niche of writing identity-based op-eds about race. As I built a network on Twitter, I started getting contacted by more editors, I was offered more money, and I felt empowered to raise my rates (I now get paid an average of $650 an article, sometimes up to a few thousand dollars). I also discovered the joy of being a generalist. A larger and more diverse audience meant that if I wrote a thread about something that interested me, whether it was food, travel, health care, entertainment or beauty, an editor might reach out and offer to pay me to expound on those thoughts. While I’ve built a strong enough network of editors that I could financially make it without Twitter, there’s no doubt that the site is where I do the majority of my networking, especially when an editor I regularly work with switches jobs and I suddenly need to find new clients.  

Editors are still on Twitter looking for writers. And as long as editors are there, freelance writers may feel they have to stay.  

Williams says Twitter was an invaluable resource when they were a freelance writer, especially accounts like @WritersofColor, which connects writers and journalists of color with a variety of opportunities. As a Black editor, they pay that forward. “Twitter is an amazing resource for assigning pieces to writers, and I couldn’t imagine commissioning without it,” they said. 

Another popular resource for journalism jobs and freelance assignments, Study Hall also frequently sources pitch calls from editors on Twitter. 

Twitter has also helped freelancers merge into full-time staff positions. “I slid into the DMs of an editor at Jet, who hired me as a freelancer and later as a digital content editor,” said L’Oreal Thompson Payton, who now uses Twitter to promote her work as a staff reporter for Fortune. She even met her literary agent through Twitter, and now she’s writing a book, “Stop Waiting for Perfect,” due out next year.  

“Traditional routes into media and publishing don’t always work for [Black women], so this has been a way of leveling the playing field,” she said. 

Social media alternatives don’t work as well for journalists 

Twitter users have been discussing on Twitter where to migrate now. Overwhelmingly, Mastodon, a decentralized social media site, is being touted as the network with the most potential to mimic Twitter — over half a million people have signed up for new accounts since Musk’s takeover.  

But Mastodon’s process of using different servers seems unnecessarily complicated, and the company officially suggests that users do not share any sensitive information on the platform. For example, DMs are not private — whoever is running the server can likely read them — and mentioning a third party automatically adds them to the DM group.

For journalists, though, the biggest issue with Mastodon is that the audience simply isn’t there yet.  

“I have literally never heard of Mastodon outside of media people overly anguished by Elon’s takeover, so I doubt I’ll make my way over there,” culture writer Juan A. Ramírez said. Freelance writer Dhruti Shah said Mastodon can’t be seen purely as a Twitter alternative because it’s its own social apparatus. “Heading there and expecting it to be Twitter 2.0 is surely setting it up to fail,” she said. “It should be allowed to evolve, and the communities to evolve, in the same way that other online spaces people engage and congregate do.” 

She also predicts the possibility that the handles of brands and public figures may become even more valuable on alternative platforms, with journalists having to buy their Mastodon usernames and handles from entities that snatch them up, or from individuals who want to impersonate them. Journalist Sarah Kendzior, co-host of the Gaslit Nation podcast, has talked on Twitter about someone impersonating her on Mastodon.  

As a journalist who has worked in the digital sphere for years, Shah said she’s interested to see how this all plays out rather than rushing to build a platform somewhere else — even if that means taking a complete break from social media in the meantime.  

“It’s unsurprising that some people are vocally stating it’s a time for a social break,” she said. “I would never rule out a digital pause.”  

Blue checks lend journalists credibility — but who will pay for them? 

As Musk plans to charge $8 a month for a verification blue check, some journalists find themselves nervous at the thought of losing this symbol of legitimacy. Personally, being verified has helped me find more work and connect with more sources. But many journalists, like freelance culture and health writer Lindsay Lee Wallace, aren’t verified and are still successful.  

 She understands, though, that “for a lot of journalists, verification has been key to opportunities, to getting sources to talk to them, and taking that away feels like a pretty severe blow, and not uncalculated,” she said.  

 The bigger problem with journalists losing verification is the possibility of misinformation becoming a greater issue. “How will we know who to trust?” Wallace asked. “Is that a legit editor I’m speaking with, or an impersonator? I think pay-to-play verification will cause chaos and huge destabilization, especially in our industry where mistrust and misinformation are rife.”  

Most journalists I spoke with are refusing to pay for verification, saying that without standards requiring people to prove their identity, it will be meaningless. “I will only pay for verification if there are assurances that it won’t be a hellscape of inauthentic accounts and content,” said Portia Jones, travel journalist and host of the Travel Goals Podcast. Twitter’s head of safety and integrity recently said the company’s “core moderation capabilities” are still in place, despite having laid off 15% of its trust and safety staff last week.

Although journalists might be staying put on Twitter for now, many are already changing their relationship to the site. “Twitter has encouraged us to become brands, and I refuse. I’m not a brand; I’m a person,” Belle said. “I won’t leave, but I will continue to set boundaries and use the platform in a way that I know is healthiest for me.”