A case in point was the free flow of information act for bloggers. I learned about it from an Italian publication. It may come as no surprise to you, after all, I have spent most of my life in Europe where I learned to appreciate the differences in reporting style and philosophy from country to country.
The world might or might not be flat, the news is still very much imprinted with cultural references. That is good.
That is why I am thrilled to have had the opportunity of a conversation with the editors of one of my daily news destinations, the BBC. Recently, the BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons has unveiled a list of "promises to audiences" for the corporation's regulatory and governance body, which includes delivering "spin free" reports and statements on BBC activities as drawn in consultation with the public.
When I reached out to the BBC, I was pleasantly surprised by their responsiveness and willingness to participate in this series of conversations about new media. Robin Hamman is a Senior Broadcast Journalist for BBC English Regions and currently leads the BBC Blogs Network. He blogs at Cybersoc.com about the collision of journalism, online community, blogging, citizen journalism and, sometimes, law.
I've noticed that many European media groups have been quite on top of their online models, integrating mobile news with their digital homes and linking to bloggers -- in many cases ahead of US media corporations. The BBC News is a well established brand and a well respected news source. One people have relied on for years. When was the transition to blogs implemented? Was it fairly smooth to execute?
Robin: In early 2006, following several forays into blogging by the BBC, most notably BBC Scotland's Island Blogging, Ouch! and Nick Robinson's Newslog, the decision was made to customise and install an off-the-shelf blogging solution and create the BBC Blogs Network, which launched in April.
The graph below provides four snapshots, taken at six month intervals, of the unique visitors and visitor sessions for the BBC Blogs Network, starting with that first month and ending with October 2007.
Implementation was done very quickly, even though we made fairly extensive customisations to the software to enable it to work within our existing infrastructure, but we have suffered recently from some instability caused by database issues. Over the next few months we intend to install a new engine to drive our blogs based on recommendations provided by a recent technical review we commissioned from an external agency.
How have you made the transition to the publication's online presence as a specific destination for readers, a complement to the rest of the BBC's properties? Are the blogs an extension of the regular news columns?
Robin: We currently have around 50 active blogs. A lot of people outside the UK tend to think only of news when they think of the BBC but we do all sorts of other things. On the publicly funded side, we have eight network television channels, ten national radio networks, over 50 local and regional radio stations, interactive television services and bbc.co.uk. There's also the BBC World Service, funded by a grant from the UK Government, which provides 33 radio language services and websites in native languages around the World, commercial channel partnerships in the UK and abroad, including BBC Food, UKTV, and BBC America.
The BBC Blogs Network comprises around 50 blogs, tied to our domestic (UK) publicly funded operations and those of the BBC World Service. As you can imagine, the blogs reflect the diversity of our offerings and are, in that sense, often an extension of our existing brands. Each blog is a distinct offering with its own purpose. In November 2006, in a lengthy post titled “What’s the Point of TV and Radio Blogs?”, I explained that blogging would:
- Allow us to join in conversations about the topics we cover and programmes we make
- Bring some of the BBC’s best and most widely recognised talent closer to their audiences
- Make it easier for journalists and programme makers to gain exposure to and learn from the knowledge and experiences of our audiences
- Make our editorial decisions and policies, as well as our production values and techniques, more transparent and those who make them more accountable
These remain the core reasons why the BBC Blog Network exists and, because our blogs each tend to have a different style, voice and audience, they each tend to focus more or less strongly on each of the goals above.
"He actually comes over as being quite like how he is on TV, which is to say that he seems to be a happy-go-lucky, decent bloke. All in all, the kind of chap you wouldn’t mind spending some time in the company of.”
Everyone is after the same attention pool, which keeps shrinking. Online is fast becoming a very competitive business model -- how do you keep the value from turning into commodity?
Robin: It's increasingly important that we get our content out to new audiences rather than remaining insular and stuck in a channel mentality. One of the great things about blogs is that, where we're able to embrace the blogging techniques of sharing content, quoting others, and linking out to become part of the wider conversation, we're able to get our stuff in front of new audiences.
A broadcasting company at heart, we used to think that our content went out and that was it. Now many of us at the BBC understand that the moment we put content out there need not be the beginning, nor the end, of the conversation - that a broadcast has a social life of its own.
Sure, we get value out of becoming more transparent and by bringing audiences closer to BBC reporters and talent, but for me, the idea of using the blogs to engage in wider conversations with our audiences, and potentially new audiences, is the most interesting part of having programme related blogs.
How do you keep things relevant and sustainable at your publication? What is your definition of success?
Robin: Measuring success has, so far, been something that has been done by the editorial teams who author or produce blogs within our network. The first 18 months have helped us learn more about what we, and our audiences, from different types of BBC Blog offerings. Now that we have that learning behind us, we may very well decide in the coming months to begin to apply editorial standards across the board and close down BBC blogs that don't meet those standards.
As far as making blogs sustainable, I often argue that the more integrated blogs are into the overall planning, production and output of programmes, the less they drain upon scarce resources. That's why we're starting to have blogs, some of which are listed in my response to the second question above, which really are part and parcel of the production process - helping teams plan and organise, sometimes with some help from their audiences, in the run-up to transmission and to make additional material, as well as gather audience feedback, and extending the life of the programme.
Where our blogs aren't integrated closely into our production and output we really miss a trick.
What is your strategy for inviting blog contributors? What about free lance contributors just online?
Robin: Our bloggers are, for the most part, members of BBC staff. The exceptions to this are where freelancers have been brought in to post and on BBC Scotlands Scot Blogs where we supply a blogging platform to volunteer citizen bloggers in the Scottish Islands. We haven't, and I don't expect us to, gone down the road of providing a blogging platform for members of the public.
We have, however, been quietly wondering if it might be a good idea to try hiring one or two bloggers to come author blogs for us rather than trying always to turn our journalists, production staff, on-air talent and editors into bloggers. It's an interesting idea and I hope we are able to try it somewhere.
How do you create a culture of participation? Do your writers consider themselves members of a community?
Robin: All of our bloggers, as far as I'm aware, read the comments on their posts. However, we don't always do a good job of responding to those comments publicly, even if they do affect the way we do things.
We're also not particularly good at linking out to other bloggers and websites - recent research commissioned by us shows that just one in eight BBC blog posts links out.
These are areas we are going to focus much of our attention on improving over the coming months because we think it's important that our bloggers, if the BBC and our audiences are to gain as much as possible out of blogging, to participate in the conversation.
Where do you draw inspiration? Do you read other online publications? Which ones? How are you influenced by them?
Robin: Personally, I find most of my new web based content via my del.icio.us network and, what I don't find that way, I hear about using Twitter, Facebook and other services where I network with others who share my interests. I also subscribe to around 100 RSS feeds. I try to encourage the BBC's bloggers, and just about anyone else I come across, to learn about and start using del.icio.us and RSS - there are some great videos for beginners at commoncraft.com.
I'm also a firm believer that the best way to learn about social media and blogging is to participate yourself. I try out just about every social media service that comes along but tend to stick with a few firm favourites - those mentioned above as well as Flickr, Plazes and Dopplr. I also have a few blogs of my own including a private baby blog for my daughter, a blog about the town I live in which consists almost entirely of mobile cameraphone posts, and my main blog, cybersoc, which, apparently, is one of the leading "journo blogs" in the UK.
Do you feel threatened by the idea of user created media? How is what you do different from user created content? Is there still a place for traditional editors in the 21st century?
Robin: Although it's probably true that bloggers, who generally focus upon a niche, and others who create and share content online are gaining audiences, I don't think that this necessarily indicates a decline in audiences for other forms and sources of media. I think that the two - amateur and professional - can quite happily not just co-exist but can learn and benefit from each other.
At the moment, most journalists and editors think almost exclusively about content they create and own. In the future, we're going to need to improve our abilities to find, curate, quote from and editorialise links to the content of others. People will always find having a known and trusted guide more useful than a simple search engine result. At the BBC we’re increasingly trying to think of the whole web as our canvas. I guess that means that, regardless of the topics we cover or geographical areas we report on, the web is also increasingly going to be part of our beat.
Thank you, Robin. A couple of thoughts you put forth that really resonated with me are your willingness to participate to social media and choose what fits your style best and the idea that journalists' role is increasingly that to "find, curate, quote from and editorialize links to the content of others." You have the experience and the access to more resources -- for example research and news networks -- so that reporting can take on a depth and richness we can all benefit from.