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Elon Musk and I aren’t exactly old friends, but we do go back quite a few years – to early 2013 when I was the public editor (a kind of ombudswoman) at the New York Times. The Tesla head honcho was harshly accusing the paper of sabotage after its review of some new ultra-fast charging stations. The Times review featured a devastating photograph of the cherry-red Model S on a flatbed truck after it reportedly ran out of juice on the last leg of the road trip. My investigation determined that the Times did nothing unethical, though I found some of the reviewer’s methods less than ideal. I don’t think either Musk or the Times was particularly thrilled with my findings.
Now, a decade later, Musk and I could be ready for a new adventure – an even more contentious one. The tech-news website CNET recently suggested me as a potential chief executive for Twitter, the global social media platform which Musk has been busy running into the ground after buying it for a stunning $44bn last fall. The company has lost about half of its top advertisers since Musk took over, and stands to lose 30 million users over the next two years, according to various estimates.
Under fire in late December, Musk tweeted that he would resign as CEO “as soon as I find someone foolish enough to take the job”.
While it may be exceedingly unlikely that I, or someone like me, would ever get the nod over any of the tech bros commonly considered for such jobs, I nonetheless enjoyed thinking about what I’d do if it came my way. And I’ve talked with people who are much more knowledgable, picking their brains on what needs to happen to save the site that has become such an important source of information and connection for millions worldwide.
So, if I ran Twitter, here’s what I’d do on day one (and beyond):
First, start putting out the multiple dumpster fires blazing in Twitter HQ. Advertisers and users alike have been fleeing in droves for good reason. The platform is a chaotic mess; increasingly a haven for hateful and dangerous content, and day by day less satisfying and more frustrating to use. So the first step needs to be a strong public message that reform is imminent: that trust and safety are a top priority, and that some of the worst changes would be immediately reviewed and likely reversed.
“Bring back a sense of normalcy and process,” Casey Newton, the technology journalist who founded the excellent tech newsletter Platformer, told me in an interview.
These can’t be empty words, of course. So a new leader must figure out how to turn good intentions into reality. That means finding the right people to carry out content moderation and make solid operational and strategic decisions. Although Twitter has lost many of its best employees in recent months – either because they’ve fled or been fired – there undoubtedly still is internal talent and knowledge. And who knows, it might even be possible to persuade some of the best of the former staffers to come back.
One thing I found out in the 13 years that I led the newsroom at my hometown paper, the Buffalo News, is you can’t accomplish anything on your own. You need strong, smart, knowledgable, trustworthy people by your side who aren’t afraid to tell you when you’re wrong. And you need to take heed.
Second, figure out a new vision for Twitter’s future. The platform is big, influential and well known, but it desperately needs to grow and develop new ways to create revenue; that could involve forays into e-commerce or paid premium subscriptions or monetizing new tools for the creators who make Twitter worthwhile.
Mike Masnick, founder of the website Techdirt, told me that it would be helpful to re-enable outsiders – known as third-party developers – to come up with ways to make Twitter more useful. (Think Tweetdeck.) They would need to be given at least partial access to Twitter’s internal information, something that’s fraught with privacy issues and other potential problems, but he thinks it’s not impossible. He mentions as one example the startup Block Party, founded by entrepreneur Tracy Chou, intended to protect against online harassment and abuse. As Masnick put it, “You don’t have to take on all the work yourself.”
Third, hire a public editor or, more likely, a team of public editors. Twitter’s users are frustrated by the way the platform works – or doesn’t work – now. It would help to have a place to transmit their complaints and have them taken seriously. An ombudsperson can listen to what users are saying, take those complaints to the leadership, and get some answers that could be communicated publicly. At least, as Masnick noted, it would be a powerful gesture in the direction of accountability. The public editor role – I can attest from my New York Times experience – functions as a steam valve and, as such, can prevent explosions.
Of course, there’s a real question about whether Twitter – in just a few months – has self-destructed so thoroughly that it’s no longer worth saving. And there’s another real question about whether Musk, despite his words, would really be willing to step aside enough to let a new CEO do her job.
For most of my career, I’ve worked successfully at media companies owned by billionaires, some of the richest people on the planet. First, Warren Buffett at the Buffalo News, my hometown paper where I started as a summer intern and became the first woman top editor; and more recently, Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post, where I was the paper’s media columnist for six years, mostly during the legendary Marty Baron’s stint as executive editor. Both Buffett and Bezos made it easier for those running their media operations – they trusted their appointed people and didn’t interfere editorially.
So, one key to running Twitter is the tricky matter of “managing up”. Anyone who’s ever worked in a corporation or big agency, especially as a manager, knows that you have to handle the boss. You have to keep them informed, hold off their worst instincts, tactfully set boundaries and, most of all, somehow convince them that every move you make is really their brilliant idea – or at least a fulfillment of their underlying vision.
And there’s the rub. Twitter’s problems are solvable. But the volatile and narcissistic Musk may be the boss that can’t be managed.
How I would fix Twitter if I were CEO | Margaret Sullivan
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