Tweeting the news

Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent
@BBCRoryCJon Twitter

Harry Rednapp talks to the media outside courtImage source, Getty Images
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First via the newsdesk, or first via social media?

I'm betting you've never heard of Neal Mann, but for a while on Tuesday this young producer at Sky News became a cause celebre, on Twitter at least. Under the hashtag #savefieldproducer he became a trending topic, one of the most-discussed subjects on the social networking service.

The reason was the leaking of what appeared to be a very restrictive new social media policy at Sky. According to the Guardian, the policy included a ban on retweeting stories from rival news organisations or people on Twitter, and staff will now be instructed to stick to their own beat, only tweeting about stories to which they have been assigned - or retweeting other Sky journalists. What's more, Sky's newsdesk, not social media, should be the first port of call for any of its journalists with a breaking story.

On the face of it that would make Neal Mann redundant. Under the handle @fieldproducer he has become one of the most effective - and followed - distributors of breaking news on Twitter. And while much of his tweeting involves promoting Sky News journalists, he will push information out from all kinds of sources, from news agencies, to bloggers, to rival news organisations. He prides himself on beating other news tweeters to the punch on every new line in a developing story.

The effect has been to turn a young unknown journalist - a backroom boy - into something of a brand, someone who lives and breathes not just the 24-hour news cycle but the sharing culture which has emerged since social media entered the mainstream.

You can see why that might cause disquiet at Sky because that sharing, collaborative culture is at odds with the fiercely competitive ethos of its newsroom - and every other worth its name. Why should Sky journalists promote stories broken by rivals, and why should they use Twitter as a platform for breaking news when their employer has poured huge sums into reaching audiences via satellite?

And these are questions that we debate all the time at the BBC too. As someone who was an early Twitter adopter - and an evangelist for its usefulness as a tool for journalists - I have on occasion been involved in discussions about how our social media policy should be framed.

We've made plenty of mistakes, from the senior news editor who inadvertently told the world the results of some job interviews, to various journalists who've learned the hard way that Twitter is a public place, not somewhere to air views that should be private.

But I think the Corporation, very nervous about the whole idea at first, has come to this settled conclusion - that Twitter and other social networks can be brilliant tools for broadcasters as long as they remember that the same rules apply as in any other form of broadcasting.

Image source, Other
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To tweet first, or to tweet after a live cross

But, like Sky News, we are still pondering a couple of key questions. Is it right, for instance, to break news on Twitter before it reaches any broadcast outlets? In a long-running court case, a series of tweets from the reporter who is following proceedings can be an invaluable way of keeping both the newsdesk and the world informed. But when it comes to the verdict, surely the reporter should rush to the live microphone or camera first - even if that means being beaten by a rival tweeter? (Breaking news - I've just had guidance from my bosses that yes, breaking news should be passed to the BBC first rather than Twitter.)

We are all feeling our way forward through the fog of this new media landscape. The social media revolution is changing power structures in newsrooms, allowing young journalists who understand this new world - and a few older ones - to build reputations independent of their own organisations.

Some would like to turn the clock back to a simpler time, when all power resided in the newsdesk, only star reporters got a byline, and sharing information with outsiders before the presses rolled or the bulletin began was a sacking offence.

But it is almost certainly too late for that.