King Canute is alive and tweeting...and he works at Sky News

The good old days of strong and exclusive reader loyalty are over, for better or for worse. By Axel Bruns.

The release of Sky News UK’s Twitter guidelines for its journalists – or rather, the Guardian’s not entirely disinterested commentary on those guidelines – has caused a bit of a stir across social media networks. The guidelines demonstrate that, two decades into the internet age, news organisations continue to have trouble coming to terms with the online world.

To put it simply, the rules appear to encourage Sky News' journalists to maintain the purity of their corporate identity. According to the Guardian’s coverage, they “ban” retweeting of peers working for rival news organisations, or of any other Twitter user, while encouraging the sharing of Sky’s own tweets.

They also ask staff to hold off on tweeting about breaking news until there’s a Sky-branded story available, in order to maximise traffic to Sky’s own sites rather than those of its competitors.

Tweet no evil

News staff at Sky have been nonplussed (or so the Guardian tells us).

While the guidelines make good sense from a corporate perspective, it’s not difficult to see why journalists whose first interest is in covering the news as it happens would object to anything that limits their ability to respond quickly, using whatever media is available, to breaking news.

Just imagine the breaking news scenario: a major political announcement is made; a Prime Minister is replaced by their deputy; a sudden natural disaster occurs – which journalist worth their salt will ask themselves “yes, but do we have a story about this on our website yet?” before hitting the social networks to spread the news?

Journalism without borders

This corporate enclosure of the news is nothing particularly new. The claims to (often highly spurious) “EXCLUSIVE” stories are written all over the front pages of the tabloids, and more respectable media have their own, slightly less shouty, versions of the same.

Such claims may have worked in the print and broadcast age, but they’re increasingly difficult to maintain online. Back in the day, news audiences had a greater level of loyalty to one publication or another; they’d buy one of a number of papers, watch one of a number of nightly TV news bulletins.

Online, we mix and match much more. Perhaps we still visit some news sites more than others, or follow the news feeds of specific news organisations via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter, but we are just as likely to encounter our news online through the aggregation services of Google News or links shared by our friends.

In that context, media organisations which still try to draw a corporate boundary around “their” news face a steep uphill battle. We’ve seen this first with links: quite a few news sites have attempted to restrict the ability of others to link directly to specific stories, in order to channel visitors through the front door of the homepage instead.

The recent (largely unsuccessful) attempts to paywall news sites are just the latest iteration of such measures: they try to enforce, through blunt technical measures, an audience loyalty which no longer exists on an emotional level.

Even more ridiculous is the absence of outbound links on the vast majority of news sites. Most sites (notably excluding the BBC and a handful of other leading news organisations) link only to their own content. In essence, they’re trying to pretend that their news is the only coverage that matters (or in fact, exists) online.

For readers, that’s both counterintuitive and impractical, and a major reason for the popularity of sites like Google News, which attempt to collect all the stories about specific issues or events. We know there’s more to the news than what a single publisher can offer, and we may well like to read a few different takes on the same story.

Corporate policies that prevent this are as annoying as they are anachronistic. Sky’s policies amount to asking its journalists to pretend journalists in other organisations don’t exist. Few Twitter users will be fooled by this.

Harnessing the hivemind

For all the animosity between Australia’s media organisations, corporate policies don’t seem to have descended far down similar paths so far. The ABC’s exemplary Social Media Policy, for example, is an exercise in simplicity, and ultimately amounts to the basic guideline “don’t do anything stupid”. There’s little in it which attempts to regulate the linking to or retweeting of non-ABC information.

On Twitter, in particular, the hivemind of the Canberra press gallery frequently leads to direct interactions between journalists working for rival news organisations. Breaking news stories, most of all, are often worked collaboratively, and this process does not exclude public figures and other non-journalists with an active social media presence.

In 2010, for example, my colleagues and I tracked Twitter rumours around the impending Rudd/Gillard leadership spill. The network of interactions around the unfolding story shows a great deal of bipartisan connections, rather than separations along artificial corporate divisions.

(Writing for PBS, Australian journalism academic Julie Posetti provides a very useful summary of the #spill effect, as she calls it, on journalists' use of Twitter.)

Similarly, Australian journalists very actively cover their beats on Twitter without necessarily waiting until their employers' news desks have cleared the information. The ABC’s social media reporter Latika Bourke, for example, frequently tweets live from Canberra press conferences, and even has a separate Twitter account for her live coverage of parliamentary question time.

Similarly, during the Queensland floods in January 2011, the Queensland Police Service’s tweets – themselves live-tweeted from the Premier’s situation briefings – were widely retweeted, at face value and immediately, by journalists and everyday Twitter users alike. Should journos have waited for approval from their editors first in this kind of situation? Surely not.

No turning the tide

Ultimately, then, attempts by news organisations to erect artificial barriers around their news content, to the exclusion of the rest of the internet, are as futile as King Canute’s fabled attempts to hold back the tides by royal decree.

The good old days of strong and exclusive reader loyalty are over, for better or for worse. Today, there’s a simple choice for news organisations.

You can stand out by consistently publishing good journalism. Such activities will be rewarded by widespread linking and retweeting, creating greater visibility for your stories – as the BBC and the Guardian have found, for example.

Or, you can waste your time imposing artificial and impractical restrictions on what your journalists and readers are able to do online. This, too, will generate visibility – but not in a good way.

Your choice, Sky. {jathumbnailoff}

Axel Bruns is Associate Professor, Creative Industries at Queensland University of Technology 

Originally published on the conversation logo under a Creative Commons by-nd 3.0 license.

Image top: Rosaura Ochoa.