Word of Osama Bin Laden's Death Spreads Over Twitter

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Osama Bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden has been killed and the United States has the body.

It was announced around 10 p.m. EST that President Obama would hold a press conference only 30 minutes later. The conference has since been delayed -- it should air any minute now on all major networks (at CNN, Wolf Blitzer suspects the address will occur at 11:10 p.m. EST) -- but Twitter was immediately overrun by thousands of #ObamaGuesses as to what the speech would be about. Libya? Bin Laden? As reporters worked their sources, details slowly leaked out over Twitter. Not enough time to pull all of the pieces together and turn them into a story. This would be a speech about national security, one administration official confirmed. It would not be about Libya, we learned moments later.

At 10:24 p.m. EST Keith Urbahn, the chief of staff for Donald Rumsfeld, confirmed many guesses. "So I'm told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden," Urbahn tweeted. "Hot damn." His message was retweeted over and over again before Urbahn asked his followers to wait for the president's address before getting too excited.

Nine minutes later, Jill Jackson, CBS News' Capitol Hill producer, followed Urbahn's note with additional sourcing: "House Intelligence committee aide confirms that Osama Bin Laden is dead," she tweeted. "U.S. has the body." But a closer look at Jackson's tweets shows that her own organization, CBS, took another 16 minutes (a lifetime on Twitter) to report the death of the September 11 mastermind. (Jackson would go on to report, over Twitter, that Vice President Joe Biden called Eric Cantor just before the scheduled time for the press conference to alert him of the news.)

With cable news anchors afraid to confirm the news of Bin Laden's death before they had multiple sources of their own -- Twitter quickly backed up with more confirmations, from senior administration officials and others -- newspapers quickly jumped ahead of the story. As print reporters shared notes and confidential sources over Twitter, Wolf Blitzer stood in front of a green screen on CNN (he was at home when he got the news of Obama's press conference) and teased the audience: "We have strong suspicions of what this news might be," he told viewers.

It wasn't until about 10 minutes to 11 p.m. that Blitzer finally cut away to John King, CNN's chief national correspondent, and cable news viewers learned that bin Laden had been killed earlier in the evening. Just minutes before, the MSNBC spread the word.

Twitter has once again proven its worth. It might not win wars or spark revolutions -- that's still being debated -- but its value is clear to those of us who watched their feeds fill with news and notes over the past hour. Newspapers might be dead or dying, but traditional ink-on-paper reporters were able to share this story much faster than cable news outlets by adapting to this technology.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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