On March 14, 2013, the indictment came down: 26-year-old Matthew Keys, a celebrated social media journalist, Twitter power user and full-time editor at Reuters, had been charged in a federal criminal case. In the indictment document, published by Politico, the Department of Justice alleged that Mr. Keys had conspired with the hacktivist collective Anonymous to gain access to the Los Angeles Times’ website by providing some of the group’s members with the usernames and passwords that allowed them to deface at least one story posted there.
The indictment dealt a paralyzing blow to those who had come to know and respect Mr. Keys for his impressive grasp of social media’s inner workings at a time when many newsrooms were struggling to keep up with the accelerated pace of Internet journalism. The tight-knit crew of social media editors and journalists around New York at first appeared to rally around Mr. Keys–after all, the indictment was based on the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a statute that has been abused in the past, as in the case of the Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide in January.
“I was 100 percent convinced it was some weird joke,” one social media editor told Betabeat. “But when I saw the press release from the D.O.J. my jaw literally dropped and I couldn’t gather myself for like 10 minutes. It just felt like someone from our community was getting fucked. There was such a huge wave of support at first that it didn’t even feel like it was real. Like, ‘That’s our buddy who was just indicted.’”
Almost three months later, after several public Twitter spats (including one with his then-boss, Anthony De Rosa), being let go from his post at Reuters and publishing a private conversation he had with Bloomberg LP’s director of social media Jared Keller that led to Mr. Keller’s firing, support for Mr. Keys, the once illustrious wunderkind who to many seemed a potent symbol of an exciting new form of journalism, has waned significantly, leaving only a handful of dedicated stalwarts to respond to his Facebook statuses and tweets.
“It’s something that’s becoming pretty sad to watch,” one professional acquaintance told Betabeat. “With the privilege of having the audience of 30,000 people [on Twitter] comes the peril of doing something really stupid in front of 30,000 people and he just doesn’t seem to understand that.
“I think three months ago a lot of people would’ve looked at the charges against him and been like, ‘Maybe he didn’t do this.’ But now, given all the stuff he’s done, it’s like, ‘Of course he did it. Of course he did it spitefully.”
Before landing the job at Reuters, Mr. Keys, who received an Associate’s degree in journalism from American River College in Sacramento, worked for the Tribune company-owned TV news station KTXL FOX40 News as an online news producer and interactive and mobile director. “Quick and precise, Matthew is an excellent online journalist who researches and sources stories so fast that he usually beats the competition,” reads a LinkedIn recommendation from KTXL news anchor Cristina Mendosa. Despite this glowing review, Mr. Keys was reportedly fired from KTXL in October of 2010, two months before the indictment alleges the criminal activity took place.
Ernie Smith, a fellow multimedia journalist and the editor of ShortFormBlog, met Mr. Keys online in early 2011. At the time, Mr. Keys, then unemployed, was following news and posting snippets gathered from social media platforms like YouTube to his Twitter profile, eventually garnering over 30,000 followers.
“We started working together a lot more and the result of it was just like, ‘Hey, we seem to have a lot in common and we were covering a lot of sort of the same things and one thing led to another and we just kind of turned out to be really good friends,” Mr. Smith told Betabeat by phone.
Mr. Smith recalled collaborating with Mr. Keys during the 2011 tsunami in Japan to bring breaking news to both Twitter and ShortFormBlog.
“When he first started putting himself out there on social media around early 2011, I think that a lot of people really were drawn to him because his way of doing things was so unique at the time,” Mr. Smith said. “The way he handled himself as far as covering a news story: trying to put little pieces together and surfacing videos, surfacing photos, doing everything you could do to give you a much further in-depth level of understanding of what was happening.”
Mr. Keys’ method was characterized by speed and the ability to tweet for what seemed like days without stopping. On a social media supplement (PDF) to his resume posted on his website, he writes that during his coverage of the Japan tsunami, “for two days, I was the number one reporter on YouTube, beating out the Associated Press by hundreds of thousands of impressions.”
“I’m often regarded as one of the fastest Twitter users to publish developing news, and my multi-media rich content has been re-blogged by thousands of Tumblr users,” he adds.
After an eight-month stint at a San Francisco-based TV station, Mr. Keys was hired to serve as Reuters’ deputy social media editor, alongside prominent journalist Anthony De Rosa. (Last week, Mr. De Rosa announced he was leaving Reuters to join mobile news startup Circa as its editor in chief. Requests to him for comment were not returned.)
In a post on Reuters.com announcing the hire, Mr. De Rosa wrote at the time, “Matthew is a recognized leader in helping journalists turn social media into valuable reporting tools.”
Still, some at Reuters had reservations. One former colleague said that before Mr. Keys was hired, the source believed him to be rather unreliable, as he had repeatedly tweeted things that he later had to retract. “De Rosa felt that Keys had raw talent, and he’d be able to rein him in on that sort of thing,” the source said.
Once the indictment came down, many expected Mr. Keys to take a hiatus from social media platforms, as many of the comments made there could be used in the federal case against him. But instead of clamming up, Mr. Keys continued to tweet and post Facebook updates about various news stories, including the Boston Marathon bombing.
During the event, Mr. Keys frequently conveyed news lifted from social media and TV news programming to his more than 30,000 followers, as well as, most controversially, information he gleaned from the Boston police scanner. Many, including Mr. Keys’ boss, Mr. De Rosa, had discouraged reporters from tweeting scanner information, as it had not been independently verified. Still, during the manhunt for the Boston bombers, Mr. Keys was a go-to source for many and, as he told the Columbia Journalism Review, he gained 10,000 followers for his quick coverage of the event.
Though Reuters had suspended him with pay following the indictment, he was still technically employed by the company during the Boston Marathon bombing, which is why it was so surprising when Mr. Keys instigated a public spat with Mr. De Rosa on Twitter, accusing him of “copying and pasting” tweets that he sent paraphrasing a national news broadcast. Shortly thereafter, Politico broke the news that Mr. Keys had been fired from Reuters. (Mr. Keys points out in the comments that he “broke the news on Twitter,” but Politico was the first news organization to write about it.)
“It’s my understanding that Reuters did not agree with some of the coverage I did on my own during the Boston Marathon events from last week,” Mr. Keys told Politico.
“You have to think about it this way, this is a guy who became Internet famous on his ability to basically go at it full-throttle,” Mr. Smith explained. “I can understand why he’s kind of in this position right now: Telling somebody who has kind of been wired to not stop to suddenly stop–that doesn’t necessarily work.”
Still, it’s this tenacity and zealousness that may have distanced Mr. Keys from many of his original supporters. The vast majority of sources Betabeat contacted for this story declined to go on record, or requested anonymity, for fear of retaliation by Mr. Keys, who has been known to attack those he believes have crossed him, as was the case with Mr. Keller. “I had been talking to people for weeks, and we were all saying how crazy he is, and no one will call him out on it,” one social media editor said.
When Gawker published a story about Mr. Keys’ checkered online past, several commenters flocked to the thread to share tales of times Mr. Keys had gone after them by blackmailing them with nude photos and posting defamatory things about them on Craigslist.
Another social media editor cited the incident with Mr. Keller as a turning point. “In the weeks after [the indictment] happened, almost everyone around was still totally in his corner, but then he went on his ‘scorched-earth’ campaign, just shitting all over everyone and everything, and that more or less lost him any support he still had,” the source said. “When he came out against Anthony De Rosa, the dude who hired him and made him — and a dude the entire community sort of reveres — that was it for a lot of people. But then when he got Jared fired, people actively turned against him. He not only didn’t have supporters left, but he had people rooting against him.”
Still, Mr. Keys continued to air his opinions on Twitter, Facebook and, more recently, the private social network App.net, despite the fact that he seems aware of the fact that doing so could get him into trouble. “I need to cool off,” he wrote on Facebook on April 30 (a post no longer visible on his public news feed). “I think I’m treading close to ‘Charlie Sheen’ territory.”
When Betabeat reached out asking for an interview, he immediately published the news on his Facebook page, despite the fact that he declined to speak with us.
“Three times I have told a reporter for the New York Observer I did not want to talk with her for an article. That’s twice more than was necessary,” he wrote, adding that he expected us to “file a slam piece soon.”
On April 23, Mr. Keys pled not guilty to the charges levied against him by the Department of Justice, and was released without bond, pending a status conference scheduled for June 12. Prosecutors told the AP that despite the lengthy sentence that the charges carry, Mr. Keys will most likely serve a sentence of 10 to 27 months because he has no prior criminal history.
Still, it’s been a tumultuous spring for the once highly revered social media editor.
“After the indictment came down, my roommates kicked me out of the apartment,” Mr. Keys told CJR. “With nowhere else to go, I packed the trunk of my car with the stuff I wanted to take, had it shipped, booked a plane ticket, and moved back to California. I’ll be here for a little while.”
Mr. Smith, who remains close with Mr. Keys, believes this could just be a bump in the road for his talented friend, who in the wake of numerous think pieces about the death of the social media editor recently launched a beta version of MatthewKeysLive.com, which Mr. Keys calls a “new breaking news platform.”
“There is a next step for him,” Mr. Smith said. “I think that may seem tough for some, but he’s still good at his job and he still has a profile. That doesn’t necessarily change because all of this.”