The Internet, I’ve learned, is a great place to throw up ideas and see what sticks.
Some things resonate with people more than others. Some things that deserve attention, sadly, don’t get it. Some things you don’t expect to get any attention are wildly successful, “going viral.”
In the case of Breaking Tweets, it was a personal blog that I started for fun on Jan. 31, 2009. I had just witnessed the power of Twitter for news as mainstream media highlighted it covering the Hudson Plane Crash on Jan. 15, 2009 and many (including myself) live tweeted Barack Obama’s Inauguration at the National Mall on Jan. 20, 2009.
Twitter was becoming a powerful tool for breaking news, and I wanted to round up — again, just for fun — tweets about breaking news events around the world in one place.
So I started a Twitter account @breakingtweets and fired off the following tweets (thanks Twitter Archive for the first posts):
first ever post is up, and the journey begins
a little bckgd..i’m @ckanal, a big fan of int’l news. this blog features different ppl’s perspectives on the latest news.
it’s free, it’s fun and hopefully it opens up some dialogue across the globe. if u have ideas on how to improve this service let me know!
And followed that intro up with this tweet:
Earthquake rocks Japan | @tamegoeswild @modernangel76 share thoughts from Tokyo | http://breakingtweets.blogspot.com/
It linked to this post:
I followed that up with a post and tweet about Iraqi elections being “peaceful,” accompanied by tweets from a soldier in Baghdad and a journalist in Baghdad.
That journalist in Baghdad, David Mac Dougall, was so fascinated by the blog, he asked if he could be a contributor from time to time. I agreed. (He ended up being a great mentor, sharing his veteran journalist experience and contributing dozens of posts.)
The idea was to go to the scene of breaking news, to get as close as possible through eyewitness tweets. Photos? Even better. Along the way, I used a series of steps to verify tweets as credible.
Things started to get really interesting. This “personal blog,” just for fun, to practice writing and learn more about the world around me, was getting “hits,” Google Analytics told me. Here’s the traffic report from those first days:
So, wait, I thought. I can write these little posts from my apartment in Chicago, and 48 countries can stumble upon its contents? Mind blown.
Seeing this potential, I got some of my college friends to join me in contributing posts, curious what might happen next.
Things got even more interesting. In February 2009, less than one month after the site began, Guy Kawasaki messaged me. He wanted to meet the team behind “Breaking Tweets” during a stay in Chicago.
So we met the tech evangelist and former Apple employee for breakfast at the Hyatt McCormick in Chicago.
Guy, a prolific tweeter, became an ardent supporter of the site. He would sometimes tweet about it 6 or 7 times a day.
When we got a redesign in March, Guy promoted it to his followers.
Other veteran journalists and early Twitter adopters were taking notice of “Breaking Tweets” too, like Jim Long from NBC News.
Then things got crazy.
Ashton Kutcher, who was in the middle of a race with CNN for the first account on Twitter to hit 1 million followers, said he “dug” the site.
Some journalists thought we were at the scene of breaking news events as we live tweeted breaking news.
Homer Simpson declared it his go-to place for news.
Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalism, wrote about it.
A magazine in Japan wrote about Breaking Tweets.
I was getting followers and direct messages from national news organizations including CNN, the Los Angeles Times, and AP — and these newsrooms were appearing in the blog’s daily analytics. Support abroad came as well in Australia, the UK and elsewhere.
I also started posting pictures from the scenes of breaking news events and in some cases, Breaking Tweets actually did break news before mainstream media sites.
Sky News linked to Breaking Tweets, driving thousands of referrals, when we posted tweets translated into English following a possible assassination attempt on the Queen in the Netherlands.
The Huffington Post linked to Breaking Tweets in their Iran uprisings live blog. (The link for “several accounts” went to Breaking Tweets.)
In fact, around this time, Iran blocked Breaking Tweets.
By August, the Twitter account had reached 10,000 followers. (I followed every single account back so they could send story tips if they wanted to by private message. Many followers did exactly that.)
Breaking Tweets even gained inclusion in Google News and it was winning Google searches.
A separate vertical was launched for entertainment news on Twitter.
And another for sports news on Twitter.
In collaboration with ChicagoNow, a network of blogs launched by the Chicago Tribune, “Breaking Tweets Chicago” was born. Thanks go out to Tracy Samantha Schmidt and Bill Adee who made that possible. I interned there to run that and do some other social media work.
Breaking Tweets even became a class(!). I pitched the idea and DePaul University accepted. The class “Digital Editing” would give students practical, hands-on experience contributing to a real-world blog about the news and get a better grasp on using social media for news.
So what happened next?
Breaking Tweets helped me make connections with journalists all across the country and even around the world. It helped provide experience to dozens of contributors on writing for the Web and searching Twitter for breaking news. And I feel it helped elevate voices that otherwise weren’t getting heard in the mainstream media.
But it wasn’t making money. In fact, it was making pennies at a time through Google Ads.
I met with entrepreneurs around the city of Chicago and even started to develop a “business plan,” which included the following…
But one entrepreneur had advice that changed my life. Eric Olson, a co-founder of Tech Cocktail in Chicago, said to “think big” — who are the news organizations you admire the most?
Olson encouraged me to contact those news organizations for a possible partnership or maybe even something more. It would help grow the audience and take the site to the next level. I immediately told him the Huffington Post was the site I admired the most at the time, and its model wasn’t all that different from Breaking Tweets in terms of aggregating news around the Web.
I Googled Arianna Huffington’s email address, wrote a blind email to her, and to make a long story short, it led to a full-time job with The Huffington Post. I chronicled the whole thing for those curious on the details here.
And then, I moved to New York.
Dream big, my friends. Throw things up on the Internet. See what people respond to. Make changes along the way. You never know.