To the BBC and others: Twitter is not your competition

Just a day after Sky News told its journalists they should not post any kind of breaking news to Twitter — and also blocked them from retweeting anyone but an official Sky News account — the BBC has released a new version of its social-media policies that also requires reporters to file updates to news editors first rather than posting breaking news to Twitter. The BBC’s social-media editor says the policy isn’t as draconian as some critics are portraying it, but the emphasis on protecting the British national broadcaster’s existing news structure is just another example of how traditional media entities are struggling with their relationship to Twitter in an era of real-time, distributed news.

In a blog post at the BBC site, social-media editor Chris Hamilton says that the broadcaster recognizes the value of Twitter as a platform for distributing its content, a way of gathering news and a way of engaging with readers. But for now, he says, the national news network wants breaking news to be processed through its existing news system so that it reaches BBC viewers and readers through the broadcaster’s channels and sites rather than on Twitter. As Hamilton put it in his post:

[O]ur first priority remains ensuring that important information reaches BBC colleagues, and thus all our audiences, as quickly as possible – and certainly not after it reaches Twitter.

Hamilton and other BBC staffers, including BBC World Affairs producer Stuart Hughes, pointed out both on Twitter and in comments on blog posts about the move that the BBC has an internal publishing system called Quickfire that allows journalists for the news service to put content into its system via SMS or email — so that they could theoretically post something for editors and to Twitter at the same time. In other words, Hamilton said, the service is “talking about a difference of a few seconds” between content making it into the official system and being posted to Twitter.

Serve the reader, wherever they may be

That said, however, the focus of the policy update is clearly to put the emphasis on publishing news to the BBC’s existing properties first, rather than on Twitter. Why? Hamilton isn’t quite as clear on that as he is on the specifics of the rules. It could be that the news outlet wants to have news checked first by an editor, so that the BBC avoids the kind of fiasco that occurred when CBS Sports and other media entities repeated the erroneous news that Penn State coach Joe Paterno had died. Or it could be that the BBC is worried about competitive issues, as the Associated Press seems to be in promoting its own “don’t break news on Twitter” rules.

Financial Times columnist John Gapper, who defended the move in a conversation with me on Twitter, said it makes sense for news outlets like the BBC to try and preserve some news for their existing readers and viewers, and added that it doesn’t make sense to employ a journalist whose “loyalty is to his Twitter feed” instead of his organization. In other words, news should be saved for the company in an attempt to maintain its brand (and revenue), rather than being given away on Twitter for nothing.

To me, this puts the emphasis in the wrong place. I think news outlets that encourage their employees to break news on Twitter — such as Reuters, where social-media editor Anthony De Rosa wrote a critical post about the Sky News move — see the value of having journalists who become sources of news for their followers, many of whom may already be readers of their journalism, and others of whom may be potential readers. Whether that news comes after it has hit the wire, or after it has appeared on a BBC website, or whether it is even a retweet of someone close to the events, doesn’t really matter to most people.

One of the realities of a world in which distribution of content — including news — has been fundamentally democratized is that the value of a “scoop” or breaking news update is declining rapidly. The half-life of that kind of news is so short, and it becomes a commodity so quickly, that there is little value in trying to protect it for very long (although some are trying hard to do so via the courts). Look at it this way: if a single tweet from someone on your staff gives away enough of the value of your story that you have to forbid it, you have a lot bigger problems than just breaking news on Twitter.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Lili Viera De Carvalho and Rosaura Ochoa