Social media has quickly become a major source of traffic for news sites. (See the Pew Research study Navigating News Online published May 2011) People spend a lot of time on social sites and find a lot of relevant news through them. It seems imperative for news websites to “go where the readers are” and engage with them through social media. All the major social networking players even have special media relations teams to help news brands use their networks to the fullest.

Initial steps into using social media usually seem to succeed with increased site traffic in a big way. And newsrooms have before been faulted for failing to innovate enough and embrace the web. So it seems they should jump into Twitter and Facebook with both feet and join the modern web before it’s too late.

Not such a good idea?

By investing effort into Facebook and Twitter, news sites give the social networks more mainstream legitimacy and consequently more new users. And by easily making news available on social networks users become more locked in to those platforms. By all means reporters and editors should be using social networks to find sources and do the business of reporting and spreading a story. But for any specific social networking site to become a major part of a news website’s strategy is giving up too much control of the reader relationship and could be a dangerous mistake.

If users always interact with a news site through Facebook or Twitter, then that news site is at the mercy of the platform and a small algorithm tweak could easily send all that traffic to a competitor.

The interests of profit-seeking tech companies are at best orthogonal to those of any media company. Depending on their platforms to engage with readers would turn a news organization into a sharecropper, putting in journalistic effort but letting others reap the majority of the rewards in exchange for a pittance of pageviews.

To thrive, news sites need to own their reader relationships with social networking sites playing a secondary role. The user experience should be such that they are not substantively harmed if the social networks were to disappear (or change the rules) the next day.

The key concept is lock-in. Is the news site building user engagement in a way that increases a user’s lock-in to the news site more than their lock-in to Facebook and Twitter? If not, then it’s probably a mistake

For an elections news app, it may be smart to use Facebook to provide recommendations to a user based on their friends. But the apps core manner of engaging with the user should be something independent, like the ability to pick candidates or races of interest to follow.

Print publications have long known the value of a loyal, locked-in audience of subscribers. A successful online strategy will be one that focuses on user engagement and making the news site irreplaceable for users. Social media is then just another customer acquisition channel to bring new readers in.

This is a topic I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and talking with people about (including one long discussion on a rainy hike in the south Jersey Pine Barrens) but this is the first time I’ve tried to set the ideas down in a fixed form. I did write about social engagment for news sites from a paid content perspective a year and a half ago.