Twitter was a digital town square that gave young journalists of color a way to gain visibility and build community. Elon Musk's X is making it harder to maintain that community

Twitter was a digital town square that gave young journalists of color a way to gain visibility and build community. Elon Musk's X is making it harder to maintain that community

Elon Musk has made one thing clear: He has no concern for the future of journalism.

Following his takeover of a once vibrant social platform, Musk has done far more than just change the name from Twitter to X. He has silenced his critics, including prominent journalists, attempted to slow user access to sites like Reuters and The New York Times, and implemented a monetized payment system for verification, bolstering disinformation and hate speech on the platform. His latest proposed change, removing headlines from news articles shared on X, is yet another nail in the coffin.

Twitter was a digital town square, giving people of color, activists, and journalists a way to gain visibility and build community. For example, subcultures like Black, Asian-American, and feminist Twitter raised crucial, marginalized voices that the mainstream media did not always cover. Even though Twitter isn’t a platform used by a lot of teens, for young journalists of color like myself, who are often left out of the conversation, Twitter was a way to insert ourselves into the discourse. The resources and opportunities on the platform, such as the Writers of Color account or the local news internship postings, allowed for more diverse voices to enter the media industry, even without attending elite journalism schools.

I used Twitter as a way to seek out freelance opportunities, showcase my work, and build a network of journalists. This was especially important to me because as a university student not majoring in journalism, I still wanted to gain exposure and meet other student journalists. It was through Twitter that I landed my first byline at 17, received more engagement on my articles, and found community in a group called GenZ journalists, which boasts over 835 members. Even as a spectator, I would read about mass layoffs or see journalists tweeting about burnout, and seeing it firsthand on my feed made me more aware of the realities of the industry and prepared me more than a college class ever could. 

However, following November 2022, I slowly noticed a decrease in journalists’ tweeting frequency, my algorithm began to boost paying Blue subscribers, and the GenZ journalists group I was a part of slowly became more inactive. As a result, I found it more difficult to parse through my feed and find the editors and student journalists that I initially had connected with or followed. 

And it wasn’t just me. 

Alex Perry, a senior at Northwestern University and former editor of the Daily Northwestern, said that she used Twitter to not just spectate, but engage with others her age in a more organic way, allowing her to develop more personal relationships.

“It’s not even like a LinkedIn connection, per se, but just like we’re young people breaking into this industry. It’s given me a lot of community that … doesn’t just exist in the digital realm,” Perry says.

But following the implementation of the paid verification system, Perry noticed changes to the platform as well.

“Something I noticed was, my algorithm before, I used to see more student journalists. I don’t know if it’s because they’re not tweeting as much anymore, but I noticed when they started doing paid blue checks, I just didn’t see the same people as frequently,” Perry says. “That’s not to say that I don’t see them anymore, but I would say that the frequency went ‘my feed would be most people that I’m following and that I am interested in,’ and now it’s maybe 15 percent [of that], and that’s pretty generous. So what I see isn’t necessarily as engaging because it’s not the same student journalism community that I was a part of.”

An analysis from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism of approximately 4,000 journalists found that overall, journalists have tweeted three percent less since Musk’s takeover, but for journalists at news outlets like The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and NPR, the percentage varies, from five percent to a whopping 20 percent decrease. Similarly, the 2023 State of Journalism survey from Muck Rack of over 2,200 journalists around the world showed that about 50 percent of journalists were contemplating leaving Twitter, with anecdotal evidence showing prominent figures, like Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, penning letters on why they left Musk’s Twitter.

There is no doubt that young voices are necessary for journalism to continue to flourish. Amid the shifting media landscape, student journalists have emerged as a crucial force covering local news deserts and creating consequential change. At Northwestern, for example, student journalists broke the story of hazing rituals and a culture of racism within the football program, leading the university to fire its top football coach. More recently, student journalists from The Daily Tar Heel at UNC were on the frontlines of reporting the news of a shooting on their campus. 

However, the loss of utility of X adds to a growing list of issues — generative AI tools in the newsroom, record amounts of layoffs, and a growing distrust of media in the United States, to name a few — that all collectively cast a shadow over the industry’s sustainability. If the platform continues to evolve in ways that hinder journalists’ abilities to meaningfully engage, a vital channel for networking, exposure, and information-sharing risks being lost, posing long-term consequences for the industry’s diversity and inclusion of young voices.

Journalism is already struggling with diversity. Sixty percent of the staff laid off recently at the Los Angeles Times were people of color, according to the Media Guild of the West’s analysis. Similarly, the investigative outlet Reveal laid off all Black unionized workers, and in corporate America, media and entertainment companies such as Warner Brothers Discovery, the parent company of CNN, are slashing DEI executives’ roles. The media industry remains predominantly white, and for young journalists, it’s not only discouraging, but a reason to leave the industry altogether. 

Alternatives Falling Short

Alternatives such as Bluesky and Mastodon have yet to replicate the unique appeal Twitter held for journalists. Unlike platforms like TikTok and Instagram, which emphasize influencer-driven content, Twitter remained a space dedicated to news dissemination. Even LinkedIn, which emphasizes creating connections and long-form text posts, does not have the same community feeling that Twitter provided, and connections feel more formal and forced. 

When I saw Meta’s Threads, I was excited at the prospect of a new, potentially viable platform, especially since the launch came after the massive Twitter breakage. However, the feed on Threads, initially boosting celebrities and brands, made it difficult to find journalists, despite its similarities to Twitter. In fact, Instagram head Adam Mosseri said that Threads was “not going to do anything to encourage” politics and hard news and indicated that the goal was more for Threads to just be a text-based app, making it more difficult to envision it ever resembling the “old” Twitter.

“In order for Threads to have a chance and really be a true competitor to Twitter, you need that social graph of media and politicians on there. And I don’t know that that’s totally emerging yet,” says Taylor Lorenz, a technology reporter at The Washington Post and author of “Extremely Online. 

Even before Musk’s takeover, Twitter undoubtedly had some shortcomings, such as trolling and fake news, but its current state has created a void between the platform and the journalism community it once actively supported. I personally see even more barriers to enter the industry than ever before as a young journalist, and in my work as the youngest board member at the Student Press Law Center, I hear similar concerns when interacting with high school journalists of color who are unsure if they should even continue to pursue journalism in college, let alone as a career.

Twitter is a dangerous example of the direct harms to the pillars of our democracy that can result from changes to a platform. The platform once led to increased transparency and diversity in the journalism industry, something that is difficult to replicate. Now, fewer student journalists or emerging reporters will be able to experience the community and opportunity Twitter provided. The current and next generation of diverse journalists need better, safer digital spaces that bolster their voices, not hinder them. The future of journalism hinges on ensuring that platforms for information-sharing remain accessible, relevant, and supportive of journalistic endeavors. 

Pratika Katiyar is a writer and activist. She has written for Teen Vogue, CNN, and more. She has been invited to speak at the United Nations, PEN America, and Georgetown Law School, among others. 

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