BBC Global News’ editorial and digital director Richard Porter is excited about the growing role of digital media in journalism, but a lot needs to be explored. In a conversation with Devina Joshi, Porter highlights how the nature of news itself has changed with a cross-platform approach. He views ad-blocking as an overestimated threat to digital news publishers, and until the numbers come in on its actual impact, it may be too soon to say journalism revenues are under attack. He speaks at length on the importance of media companies ‘befriending’ digital gatekeepers such as Google or Facebook, if they are to survive a change in consumption habits. Excerpts:
News providers globally are struggling with the digital wave. In BBC’s own case, more than 50% of users consume BBC World News on mobile and tablets, up from 12% in 2012. How has BBC coped with changed viewing habits?
Yes, habits are changing rapidly. At BBC, we are used to having to make changes and keep innovating. We can talk of our new app and other initiatives, but really it all goes back to what we’re doing it for. The starting point is to do things that are more convenient; launching better services for audiences who now have more choices than ever before. We have to do that in ways that are in line with our core values of being fair, accurate, objective and covering all sides of a story. We’ve stood for those values throughout the 93 years of our history. It’s also about hiring people with knowledge and expertise in the digital world—how apps work, the difference of content on the desktop and mobile etc. Analytics is becoming much more important to us.
What sort of specialised content drives BBC’s digital transformation initiatives?
We launched our new news app a few months ago, which included two big changes—it was more video-led and was more personalised. You now have 50,000 different topics that you can follow, in addition to a stream of news which is our selection of what we think is important. We believe this will be popular with the audiences—a combination of ‘curated by the BBC’ and ‘curated by the audience’.
The other thing we are doing is creating new storytelling formats that work better on digital. Everyone does versions of trending … we have BBC Trending, which we describe internally as our ‘bureau on the internet’. The idea is to go looking for stories that are maybe a bit below the radar or make a connection between two separate incidents. These stories are told in a digitally-led way. We’re doing it for digital, but sometimes it also ends up being tailored for a radio show or a TV piece. We will see more and more of this—news starting off as a digital video and ending up on TV.
One of our upcoming services is News Stream, a video-led mobile service (likely to be subscription-based). It will have videos produced specifically for the mobile device, with different production methods and values … more on-screen graphics, less commentary, more visual etc. We are experimenting with vertical videos on mobile, to add to viewing convenience. It should roll out in 12 months.
TV news itself is changing—it is becoming more like a digital product, because audience tastes and demands are changing. A secondary benefit of this blurring line is that it is an efficient way for news organisations to operate, because they do not have to produce different content all the time.
If you were to split your viewership pie across platforms, what would be the TV-to-digital ratio?
The BBC World News TV channel still reaches substantial numbers globally … about 85 million people a week. That is an estimated viewership number, not indicative of our distribution. Coincidentally, the number of people who visit bbc.com is 85 million as well. But that’s in a month, as digital numbers are measured on a monthly basis as opposed to weekly. On analysing the number of people who come to either our TV or digital services every week, we estimate the number to be 105-110 million a week across the globe.
With so many ad-blocking apps available today, what is the future of digital news media in such an environment? How can business revenues be protected from this threat?
It’s not only about ad blocking, but also about page load time—people get frustrated by that. The answer goes back to what’s good for audiences. If you provide a good experience, they won’t take steps to avoid something you are putting in front of them. The quality of advertising has to be good, as also the quality of content. If it is going to be intrusive, audiences will turn away from it. That’s really a challenge for both us and advertisers. Of course, it is being discussed lately because of the new Apple iOS 9 and its ad-blocking software. But we would tend to go back and look at the substance of it rather than look at the way in which it is being discussed. Is it actually having an impact? What is the impact? Where? We still don’t know the answers.
Audiences know that content is paid for. If they are not paying for it directly through subscription, then it is being paid for by advertising. People have broadly accepted the same for TV and print. In digital, everybody has to figure out a way to get around that.
What do you make of the scenario where platforms like Google, Facebook or Apple iOS may get to control ads/content on a web page? Do you see the advertiser/platform/telecom operator driving content? What happens to journalism?
I’m not sure yet whether these things are existential threats to journalism; I don’t have the data to support that. These ‘gatekeepers’ have been at it for a long time now—Google and Facebook are places where the audiences go to first and subsequently come to the media organisation. A media company can take two approaches—we can say we want people to come directly to us and we will be in charge of what we offer them, or we could just accept the reality of it: that this is what audiences are doing and we just have to make it work for us. BBC has a good relationship with Facebook; we work with them on some of their products, like this new instant articles feature that’s coming on stream where we are one of their launch partners.
We want to bring BBC content to as many people as possible. We know people trust it, and there is a demand for it. Whether they find us directly or on someone else’s platform, we recognise the reality. If you think of TV simplistically, it isn’t really all that different—there’s always someone between us and the viewer, like the distributor.
We can make the current digital scenario work for us. Content providers are in a good position. Platforms need content, and we are providers of content that people will want to consume.
Digital content creators are also struggling to arrive at the right subscription model. Do you see a pay-for-content model proving to be a panacea of sorts?
I don’t think anybody has the answer to that. I do think subscription could be part of the mix. NYT published a document three weeks ago talking about doubling their digital revenues. They are essentially doing that because, I think, they have a subscription model that seems to be working for them, including the paywall structure.
Come to India, and you don’t see that. People are used to getting very low-cost or no-cost content, so it is harder to see a model of that kind succeeding here in the near future. But it is not necessary that one model will emerge and everybody will follow that. It could be that subscription works best for services where there is a specific customer base for niche kind of information. That could be why FT or The Economist could be successful.