NBC’s “The 20” Gives Local Twitterati Their Ron Burgundy Moments

But what does it mean that one of their own Twitter all-star commentators thinks the whole thing is kind of, well, dumb?


Maybe it’s not so hard to revive old media after all. Take the local broadcast news, for instance–just about the least form of newsgathering out there, right? Well, someone at NBC got the idea to integrate its local news broadcasts with Twitter. “The 20,” as the new initiative is called (since it rounds up 20 local Twitterers for each market), was announced a few months ago, but just went live in D.C. and New York this week. The initiative even has its own Tumblr. Buzz abounds.

It’s a clever program, and maybe even a good way to stay relevant. Doubtless, it’s also an opportunistic one. A major criterion in selecting the 20 for each reason is simple: number of followers. “One thing we try to do is separate out people who have a lot of followers who happen to live somewhere versus someone who has followers because they’re engaged in the actual city,” Greg Scholl, NBC’s Local Integrated Media President, tells Fast Company. And so, just because Ashton Kutcher lives in Los Angeles doesn’t mean he’s the best person to talk about the City Council’s sluggishness on potholes.

Social media nerds may know their way around a hashtag, but are they ready for primetime? Twitter-savvy doesn’t equal poise or polish, necessarily. “We did practice runs,” says Scholl, “making sure everything worked, getting the right cadence.” They’ve settled on the format of two blogging heads beamed in over an internet video connection (which sometimes leads to hiccups, as you can see in the video below on whether Mayor Bloomberg should be required to disclose when he is out of the city), moderated by the host. As might be expected from tweeting heads, brevity seems to be the buzzword.

Not all of the members of “The 20” are too excited about it. “I have no idea how they arrived at this list. I don’t even tweet that much!” one of NBC’s new digital elect tells Fast Company, requesting anonymity so she could talk more freely. She said that NBC first reached out to her, and that she was given a try-out interview, over Skype. She wasn’t especially impressed with the level of discourse demanded of her. “Maybe I’m just not used to TV-length things, but it like didn’t seem like they were going for nuanced commentary or anything–just sort of a ‘view from the street’ soundbite.”

By partly sourcing their story ideas from what’s trending on Twitter, NBC may be making a clever move to stay relevant–but they may also be dumbing down their newsroom. Scholl insists that “The 20” will focus not just on what’s trending online, but also will have topics determined by old-fashioned editorial judgment. Still, according to our source, “One of the questions they asked was, ‘What’s the Twitterverse saying about this?” and I was like, ‘Who the fuck cares?'”


“The 20” is expected to roll out in other markets this year–San Diego, San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Hartford, CT. NBC is hoping thereby to bring a new, younger demographic back to the tube. It’s too early to tell whether they’ve succeeded so far, says Scholl. But the “20” commentator who spoke to us seemed an indication of what might be to come. “I never watch TV, so I also have no idea who’s gone on so far,” she says.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.