I remember when online journalism arrived at the CBC national newsroom in Toronto in the mid 1990’s. I worked on a program that produced hourly TV newscasts and because there wasn’t much of an online division then it fell upon us to fill out templates and put our content on the web. Many were grumbling about the extra task foisted upon us during an already very busy day, but the internet provided an excellent opportunity to repurpose content and we did it. Fifteen years later, some television networks are still doing little more than repurposing content by posting items and writing copy stories on their websites and they’re missing an opportunity.
This point was made abundantly clear at Face the Future, a conference on the challenges journalists face working in the digital age. The event was co-sponsored by Coventry University and the BBC College of Journalism and featured many excellent speakers but I was particularly interested in the folks from the BBC — arguably the finest TV news network in the world.
Here are some highlights from the presentation by Matthew Eltringham, who leads a project to teach social media skills to every journalist at the BBC:
- Of the many platforms and sources providing content and information on the web (YouTube, flickr, PicFog, TwitVid, TinEye, pipes, Storyful, Demotix etc.) the most important to the BBC are Google, Twitter and Facebook. Google is obviously about search but Twitter and Facebook are about conversation, communication and engagement — listening to what other people are saying. It’s not just about content and information, it’s about conversation, one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many.
- Without a shadow of a doubt, Twitter is the most important breaking news source at the moment. Anything and everything is on Twitter first and comes on the wires afterwards. The Haiti earthquake story for 36 hours was told exclusively by Twitter. It wasn’t told by AP or Reuters but by people who were found through Twitter.
- There are 600 million people in the world having a conversation on Facebook. The average time people in the UK spend at bbcnews.co.uk is one minute, while the average time people spend on Facebook is 11 minutes.
- Eltringham says social media is an absolutely crucial tool in the kit bag of contemporary journalists and if you don’t have social media skills “you are going nowhere”. He quoted Peter Horrocks, Director of BBC Global News: “This isn’t just a kind of fad from someone who’s an enthusiast of technology. I’m afraid you’re not doing your job if you can’t do those things. “It is not discretionary.”
- Have a conversation with people but don’t impose a preordained agenda on them. You can’t sit in the newsroom any more and decide what your story is. Eltringham told the cautionary tale of a BBC producer who posted on a blog during Hurricane Gustav that they were looking for someone who was “unhappy about being evacuated or that they think that the authorities (esp Nagin) panicked and misjudged the seriousness of Gustav.” This was one response: “Go suck an egg. Troll. Bend your stories to fit your euro-trash agenda on your own.”
- Apply traditional journalism techniques in a new journalistic forum. Don’t forget basics like confirming a story to make sure it’s true. Eltringham showed a photo of a headless animal from Twitpic identified as a polar bear. A TV newscast aired the photo without confirmation and it turns out it was a cow.
- Eltringham quoted the BBC’s Richard Sambrook who he says coined the phrase “we don’t own the news any more.” Eltringham says transparency and accountability are key issues and news organizations have to share news making decisions and the way they tell stories with the audience. It used to be that audience members wrote letters to the complaints department that sat there for six months. Now if we get it wrong, they tell you, they tell their friends and their friends’ friends and before long your reputation as a journalist is completely trashed.
The Face the Future conference was streamed live on the internet and you can view the presentations at the BBC College of Journalism.