It used to be the case that the news media’s engagement with social media and the commercial web was once reminiscent of Dr Samuel Johnson’s quote about women preachers  ‘..like a dog walking on its hinder legs.It is not done well, but you are surprized to find it done at all’.  Not any more.

Rupert Murdoch’s gift to the rest of the ailing packaged media this New Year was his sudden, spontaneous and apparently authentic appearance on Twitter . It is astonishing to see (apparently) a man that the world’s media media has spent decades trying to decode, announcing as a casual aside that he favours Rick Santorum in the GOP race . The feverish delight at his debut gave way to slow news day speculation about his interest in Twitter in general. I was one among many wondering (on Twitter, naturally) what would happen if Rupert Murdoch liked Tweeting so much, he bought the company?

A Murdoch purchase of Twitter is not the point of the thought experiment. The point is really to sharpen focus for journalists on what their use of  third party platforms really means for the long term. 

News organisations are placing an increasing amount of their interactions and journalism, their own and their users data, into the hands of third parties such as Twitter, Facebook and Google. Tweeting Rupert is a wonderful meta metaphor for what is happening to us all. The bargain here is implicit; these platforms scale so well to the open web, they allow media to reach, research and interact with audiences at close to zero cost. In exchange you surrender well, quite a lot.  Even Arthur Sulzberger Jnr., the publisher of the New York Times recently spoke with great enthusiasm about the power of social media and how the Times has benefitted by embracing it.  Journalism schools routinely teach the use of third party tools as a way of creating valuable and high quality journalism quickly, at low cost, for a world which increasingly demands and reacts to real time news through distributed networks.

This dilemma in choosing between connectivity and control is normally viewed through the commercial prism.  But how many editors can answer detailed questions about what is happening to their journalism and the information about people who read it on any one of many platforms they use?

The famous New York Times graphic on the expansion of Facebook’s privacy policy was created before the controversial launch of  Timeline and Profiles, and there continues to be a trickle of thoughtful people who are deleting their accounts as a result of the unpredictability of data use by the befriending behemoth. Google produces a laudable transparency report, but the fact that Google complies with 93 per cent of the 6,000 requests it receives for user data from law enforcement agencies is very different from the approach news oganisations would take to handing over sources. Or as cyber security student and activist Chris Soghoian pointed out in this article last year in the New York Times, security is often so lax around sources and communications in news a subpeona isn’t necessary.

The world of securing your publishing platform, your archive, your sources and even the confidentiality of your readers or viewers has been transformed by commercial companies whose primary purpose is not journalism. It is not a binary choice either; if publishers choose not to participate, they risk editorial irrelevance and commercial isolation. We have to absorb some of the technology lessons from these services and think through what needs to happen to make them more predictable and suitable for journalism.

Every day we give away more, but understand less about the ultimate consequences of the action. News leadership needs to do more thinking about these core questions. A task for many editors that seems about as interesting as reading through a print contract or becoming au fait with the compliance standards of a broadcast licence; dull work to be done by another department . Not true.  The use of third party tools and platforms is key to developing reporting in a digital environment, it is at the heart of reporting and not a wrapper for it . These are not just distribution networks, they record the fragments and fingerprints of how your readers and sources interact with what you do. As we rapidly enter the ‘post geographic’ era of news, journalists also need to know what the same issues look like in different territories where the risks and vulnerabilities are far more apparent.

One of the big themes for this year is likely to be computational journalism. I really hope we see more and more courses like the joint degree we run at Columbia for computer science and journalism , and an influx of engineers into journalism to tackle some of these complex challenges. Maybe Rupert Murdoch, or the plethora of other media businesses which embrace Twitter and other services, are already working on interesting solutions. Maybe they will buy them. If the prospect of Rupert Murdoch buying Twitter makes you rethink your digital strategy,chances are you should be rethinking it already.

*with apologies to Jeff Jarvis.

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