Drinking from a fire hose – the AP trying to do it responsibly.

When a big story breaks, it seems Twitter is the undisputed leader in being first. Not necessarily being right… but being first, almost for sure. AP

Watching a live Twitter stream flowing out of a big event is like trying to drink out of a fire hose – the volume and pressure of the Tweets are amazing – with an all time record set during the most recent Super Bowl. We measure things now in TPS – or Tweets per second. LOL.

Dwight Silverman dug around and did a piece using Topsy Labs data to analyze the tragic story of Whitney Houston’s death as it relates to the use of Twitter.

The original Tweet on the Houston story was right, had details only a first or second hand witness would have, and was first by a long shot.

What’s interesting though is that the story didn’t really catch fire until the Associated Press was able to confirm the story, and put its name on it 42 minutes later.

So, let me get this straight: The AP is probably in the process of actually being replaced by Twitter, but is also viewed as the gatekeeper/editor/mediator for the rest of the Twitterverse. Interesting.

I find this a little gratifying: That even regular ole’ people out there hold off on re-tweeting something that important until they hear it from what they consider to be a more credible source. But there’s also this: More than one journalist has been smoked, badly, by putting Twitter “news” right to air or to print. Some hard lessons have been learned.

That’s where the Associated Press really comes in. When it confirms something, watch out. Why? Because member stations and papers get a good chunk of the value they derive from the Associated Press from being able to use it as an attributable source in high risk situations.

Knowing that, the AP finds itself in direct competition with Twitter-trying not only to make sure its traditional media outlet clients have the story sooner rather than later, but also to be the first reputable attributable “source” for a client outlet’s breaking news.

So the AP knows it will get beat off the mark by Twitter, and that ultimately, it doesn’t have the resources pursue and win most stories on its own. The AP is only as good as its members in any given market, and only as in-the-loop as those members are willing to keep it – which isn’t likely during the early phases of a breaking story since competitors will wind up with the fruit of the contributing member’s reporting efforts.

So ultimately, the AP is left with the highly unenviable task of having to play catch up with Twitter and then take the big risk to confirm the story-knowing the clock is ticking-knowing that Twitter is turning up the pressure and knowing that as soon as the rest of the news world hears the AP blow the whistle, it will then be left behind, hands on knees, huffing-and-puffing.

Imagine sitting on the assignment desk every night at the AP knowing Twitter is going to force you into a race for your life, and also knowing that if you get it wrong, every client you have is going to use your name to insulate themselves from the risk you are taking on their behalves. No thanks.

So what the heck is the AP good for then? Well, it’s great for small outlets that need AP by-lined content or that seek to create the illusion, usually without attribution, that they have the resources to cover all the news they want to print, or most likely, broadcast. AP also does a nice job on the long-form investigations it can take its time on.

Ultimately though, its last relevant role is to stand in the breach when Twitter is gushing like a fire hose with interesting, but unconfirmed news for which previously attribution-stingy outlets are desperately seeking an attributable source when reputations are at risk.

What’s Twitter good for? I think it is best used in what the academics call the “surveillance” function in the uses and gratifications model of media consumption. That is to say that it’s a great tool to use as the proverbial canary in the coal mine to get tipped to news event, even if you have to wait for a bit before the AP makes it safe to go absolutely nuts.