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BBC Final Thoughts

The BBC needs to punch up its writing and make social-media less of a one-way relationship. (www.bbc.co.uk)

I was originally assigned to cover the BBC website as a class assignment. The goal was to look at the ways one successful media outlet utilizes multimedia journalism in its coverage. It was also a way to practice blogging on a regular basis, but anyone who’s read my sportsblog knows that isn’t really a problem for me.

When I learned the BBC would be my site, I was mildly thrilled. I love BBC television programming. Doctor Who? Awesome. Torchwood? Homoerotic awesome. Jeckyll? Creepy awesome. Top Gear? Automotive awesome.

The BBC makes awesome TV. But how are they at news coverage? Honestly, the answer is “not great.” They have great old-school reporters, able to write clearly, succinctly and informatively. But the BBC seems so wedded to old-school journalism that it forgoes any real effort to incorporate newer technologies into its reporting.

People can tweet or Facebook-share stories, but it only goes one way. Many US sites keep stats on which stories are shared the most, and make those stories easily findable. They also sync with Facebook so friends can see what their friends are reading. The BBC is happy to have its readers do its marketing for them, but they give nothing back. Social media is about sharing, not broadcasting, and the BBC is stuck solidly in the latter category. That may eventually cost them readers.

More puzzling with the BBC is that they clearly have good photographers (especially in the Sports department), but often the visual element of published stories is minimized. The BBC must find a way to make their stories more engrossing. The writing itself lacks punch, and without good, easy-to-find photos, people will lose interest in the site. Even better would be to incorporate video in a more effective manner (highlight reels for sports, packages from reporters, etc.).

Look, I get the worry that by incorporating all this non-writing into news-telling, the actual writing (which for me is the most fun, and I bet most journalists would concur) is diminished. It’s a legitimate fear, one that I struggle with. A journalist only has two hands and two eyes, and if he or she has to take notes, shoot video, take photos and record interviews all alone, obviously that reporter will shift time and energy away from writing. That it takes six hours to edit a 1:30 video and 1.5 hours to write a 750-word article doesn’t make it any easier.

I understand that concern. And the answer may ultimately lie in the creation of multimedia consultants who can be hired on-assignment, go out with the reporter, do the multimedia work necessary and then send it to the media station for their own use. This would free up the reporter to focus on the writing itself. This would improve the product and the mood of the reporter without diluting the non-writing element to storytelling.

But such ideas are far off at best. First, news sites would have to finally figure out how to make money (lots of it) on the web. Then, they would need to start making enough to expand their budget to allow for outside hires on a regular basis. Last, paid staff-photographers and videographers would have to accept a paradigm shift within their field towards almost solely freelance work.

Until then, to keep readers coming (especially in America), the BBC needs to find a way to shift the balance of its stories slightly away from writing and slightly more towards visual storytelling. They must make social-media incorporation a two-way street. And they must abandon the antiquated belief that substance must always trump style, and any effort to incorporate style automatically hurts the substance.

If they do these things, younger, more technologically-aware generations will continue to follow the site. If they don’t, the BBC will become a niche-news site, like NPR. Which is fine for those who like that style of reporting, but bad news for those who someday want to write for the BBC.

Niche outlets rarely expand.

At Last! Sports!

OK, fine, you all win: I’ll write about sports. Specifically, the BBC’s recap of an English Premier League soccer match between Arsenal and Blackpool. I suppose I could look at their live updates from the Masters and compare it with ESPN’s (ESPN’s is better), but golf isn’t a sport. George Carlin and Robin Williams can explain that far better than I.

Anyway, let’s talk about soccer coverage. I myself have written four times about soccer, so that qualifies me to criticize how the premier media outlet in England covers the premier English sport, right? Right.

Well, criticize is what I’m gonna do. Cause overall, I wasn’t crazy about this recap. First off, at 961 words, this story feels long. Really long. And the language is inaccessible. The lead, “Arsene Wenger’s side have reduced United’s lead to seven points with a game in hand,” doesn’t grab you. When I write sports leads, I usually start with game-play, not results. I get journalism’s inverted pyramid, but sports writing is slightly different. I don’t want people to read the lead and quit, which they can do with the BBC’s. I want them to read my entire story.

The nature of athletic events allows for style and flair in one’s writing (unlike business or even political writing). Because sports are so visual, any attempt to write about them must carry not only the action, but the emotion and the grandiosity as well. The goal is to entertain, not just to inform (especially because sports are, at their core, just entertainment).

But this is the BBC, and entertainment is always forsaken. An ESPN editor blogged about the same game, but his writing has far more punch. Both lead with Arsenal’s using an old goalie, but ESPN’s articles makes the goalie interesting, not just old.

Additionally, I really dislike the BBC’s format of putting scores and stats at the bottom of the page. It might just be that I’m so used to ESPN’s style – score on top, box score, photos and recap all available as tabs – that I see the BBC’s as faulty just because it’s different. And putting the stats at the top and moving the photo would certainly look out-of-place on the BBC website. But if the goal is to inform as quickly as possible, hiding who scored goals from how far out until the end just forces the reader to slog through a very dense text.

The BBC does do some things right with this recap. The BBC has some quality (as they would say in soccer commentary) photographers on its staff, and their sports imagery is top notch. Take a look at this photo:

Whether the writing's good or not, the BBC always has good photos. (www.bbc.co.uk)

I love the color scheme. The orange Blackpool team looking forlorn, the goalie in blue, isolated as he gives up a second goal in three minutes, the yellow Arsenal squad swarming goal-scorer Emmanuel Eboue. Everything is so vivid. Full marks.

The article also includes post-game interviews with the coaches.

OK, you’ve got photos of the game, and videos of the coaches. But where are the videos of the game? It seems ridiculous to me that the BBC couldn’t send a videographer to cover an EPL game and cut a highlight reel.

Seriously, there were four goals. How long could it possibly take to edit a reel together? You shoot the game, you make a quick note when the goals are, you stitch the four shots into a 1 minute reel, that’s it! This isn’t basketball or football, when every play can be a potential highlight. It’s soccer, where four scoring plays is considered a lot.

There’s no reason any athletic event written about should forget about video anymore. I can shoot and edit a highlight reel on my iPhone, for God’s sake. But for the BBC to not do this for an EPL game goes beyond negligence to borderline cluelessness about what makes good sports coverage.

Still tired of reading about exploding Japanese reactors and dead Libyan rebels. Sports are my thing, but I also don’t feel like getting into how the BBC covers sports. This is for two reasons:

  1. I don’t know enough about soccer to tell if they’re covering it well or not (and that’s all they talk about).
  2. Because of how unpopular soccer is in the US (check out my mailbag column for thoughts on this), I’m not sure there are too many US sites to compare coverage with.

Instead, I’m going to focus on the BBC’s “Travel” section, which has an actual, honest-to-goodness blog called “The Passport Blog.” Take a look:

Screenshot from BBC's "Passport Blog"

For a website whose news section goes out of its way to avoid utilizing social media and other modern online journalism technologies, this blog is surprisingly good. It has all of the requisites: An outlandish subject. A catchy title. A very nice picture that puts the reader right in the middle of the action. Five different social media sharing options (you have to click the green button to get them all), with Facebook and Twitter getting their own.

Not only that, but there are actual external links dotted throughout the page, appearing as bold words. Most of these links only take you to subsections of the organizers’ page, so there might have been a missed opportunity there. It took me less than a minute to find this photo gallery of previous pillow fights. Linking to it would have helped sell the event more.

The writing itself is a little bit stiff. I’m not sure BBC writers know how to have fun with their writing, and this blog post reads that way. For such a lighthearted activity, you’d think there would be a more jovial tone to the writing. Instead, International Pillow Fight Day is treated as a basic news story: hard-news lead, then inverted-pyramid writing style.

The article concludes with the link to the organizers’ site (good), but the writing isn’t exciting enough to make me want to go there (bad). If this article is supposed to be just a write-up, that’s fine. If this article wants to double-function as an advertisement, that’s not fine. By showing the link but not making the story pop, the blog post suggests it doesn’t know which it wants to be. That might be the worst of all.

This article shows that when it wants to be, the BBC can blog and generate online content with the best of them. But this article also suggests that the BBC will only use that ability for “soft news” like this. There’s no reason why a story about Libya or Japan couldn’t be written with better imagery, links and social media sharing options; the BBC just doesn’t want to do it that way.

I still think the BBC subscribes to a lofty, Medieval perception of the news, in which certain stories deserve so much respect that they can’t be written about without washing out all style or flash. The reality is, those standards are what have pushed consumers of the news away from print (and to a lesser extent television) in favor of the Internet. All the BBC is doing is perpetuating that same alienating style of news-reporting.

A Musical Interlude

I’m tired of writing about the BBC‘s coverage of Middle Eastern rebellions. I need a break. Let’s check out a different section. How about “Music?” Hmm… “For One Night Only: BB King Live at the Regal.” A narrative radio segment of American blues music. Why not?

Hey, this is pretty interesting! Who knew the BBC had soul?

BBC Radio’s “For One Night Only” recently went back on the air after taking a three-year hiatus. Paul Gambaccini is the narrator, and he covers musical events of all sorts, from Elvis’s Dec. 1968 TV appearance to Leonard Bernstein’s conducting Beethoven’s Choral Symphony in Berlin on Christmas Day, 1989.

BB King, "Live at the Regal" (www.bbc.co.uk)

The BB King episode, about the “Live at the Regal” album that has become the gold standard for live blues albums, is very well done. Gambaccini does a solid job of constructing a beginning, middle and end. I never knew how BB King got his name (“BB” stands for “Blues Boy,” acquired while working for a radio station in Memphis), and now I do.

The episode is well recorded, with clear sound quality for the interviews, narration and actual clips from the album. The episode actually goes into why the sound quality for the album is good, which I appreciated.

Great job mixing up the interviews: the local DJ who sponsored the show, backing organist Duke Jethro (the only backing musician from that show still alive), guitar legend Carlos Santana (who gives some context to the album and its impact), and of course King himself.

My favorite segment was when interviewees discussed how, due to limited radio play, Black musicians had to build their reputations on live performances. The interviewees proceeded to name the key theaters in major cities that could make or break a Black musician’s career (including the Apollo in New York and the Regal in Chicago). Gambaccini overlays each person’s voice on top of each other, creating an echoing cacophony of theater names.

The result is you that feel as if these theaters really carried weight in the Black community, as every musician can still remember their names 50 years later. Great audio effect.

The one error I think the show made was in their use of John Mayer’s voice. There’s never a clear transition or attribution to anything Mayer says, so I can only assume the nondescript voice I hear is his, because everyone else mentioned in this story is either a) directly attributed, b) dead, or c) Eric Clapton.

The episode is bookended by previews for other BBC radio programs. I found this problematic for two reasons. First, it’s very strange to hear a British guy talk for awhile, then hand it over to an American for half an hour, then hand it back to a British guy. Now, it would sound even stranger to have a British man narrating a story about a blues concert that took place in Chicago. But a better solution would have been to let Gambaccini himself introduce the bit, let his voice be the first heard, then when it’s all over bring back the accent.

The second reason I didn’t like this is that the previews are not for music programs. The first program is about Tolstoy, the second about an Islamic poem called “Shikwa.” Again, perhaps either find different programs to preview or at least do it all at the end. I clicked the link for BB King, and for the first minute I’m listening to something about a Russian novelist. Very confusing.

Overall, I really liked this program, but I found the web integration a bit lacking. The photo (above) is great – classic BB King, rockin’ and makin’ a face – but the text doesn’t really grab me. For what appears to be the seminal live blues album (or perhaps just “seminal blues album”), you’d think the text would have more punch. On NPR’s “All Songs Considered” page, they introduced an album with “Imagine if Dark Side of the Moon was composed on an 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System.” That is good writing! That makes me want to listen and learn more! The BBC’s introduction? Boring.

But what else is new?

It’s Sunday afternoon in Boston. I click over to the BBC website, and what do I see? “Explosion in Tripoli” staring me right in the face. I click over to CNN, and it’s basically the same story, but they call it “Gunfire heard in Tripoli.” The stories – about the Allied strikes against Col. Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and its capitol, Tripoli – basically give the same information. But the BBC does the far better job providing supplemental information. Take a look at their sub-header bar once you click the main story:

BBC's Libya coverage gives background, updates, analysis and multimedia. (bbc.co.ul)

Each link presents the story in a different way. The “Live” section provides minute-to-minute updates and tweets from embedded journalists (there’s also a video section, but it doesn’t appear to do anything). “Analysis: Aims” breaks down why any of this happening in the first place. “Airstrikes mapped” is a decent visual depiction of who’s bombing who and where. My personal favorite is “Firepower,” a breakdown of the vehicles and weapons each country is using. The New York Times briefly mentioned the available weapons in an article over the weekend, but nothing like the fully illustrated breakdown the BBC provides. The BBC breaks the artillery down by nation, then gives each fighter plane’s crew-size, speed, and available weapons. There is also a succinct explanation of what each weapon means for the plane’s fighting capabilities (attack from long range, attack ground vs. air units, tracking, etc.).

But if you want to talk pictures, check out the BBC’s gallery. These are high-def, colorful, action-filled photos that really set the scene. I’ll give you one as an example:

How's THAT for an airstrike? (Reuters/www.bbc.co.uk)

What I found odd about the gallery is that, as good as the images are, not one appears on the BBC homepage, nor in the main section of the article. An image of a flaming, smoking crater would definitely catch my eye, make me want to read more, make me want to click the related links.

But instead of any interesting visuals, we just get this:

Does this catch your eye? Does it look like anything at all? (www.bbc.co.uk)

What exactly is this thing? It looks vaguely like a map of Europe and Africa, but it’s so tilted and distorted that it really just kinda looks like a blood-spatter pattern. And the circles emanating from the middle of the upper border don’t do anything to sell the image either. I look at it and I get confused. Instead of an image that actually conveys the urgency of the story (and I think we’d all agree this is a pretty urgent story), we’re just left to assume from a graphic that says “breaking news” that it’s important.

 

No one can deny that the BBC has some of the most informative, nuanced and complex coverage in the world. Maybe the most. But BBC’s continuing unwillingness to try and package it in a more easily consumable way drives me crazy. The BBC must feel that in order to give the maximum substance possible, they must sacrifice style entirely, or at least beyond the barest minimum effort. And that’s ridiculous!

 

Take a look at CNN’s coverage of the same story. The gallery and video (which works) are integrated into the main page. There might not be as much overall information, but the reading experience is way better. The images and video are integrated with the text, creating a full multimedia experience. You can have your cake and eat it, too.

 

The BBC? You can read about cake, or you can look at cake, but in the end you’re still left hungry.

As hockey and basketball slog through their remaining games before the playoffs, the US sports media have focused on the continuing labor disputes between the NFL and the NFL Players Association. On Saturday, the two sides broke off all discussion for a new collective bargaining agreement. The NFLPA decertified, meaning it declared itself as no longer representing its players. The owners imposed a lockout. The 2011-2012 season is in jeopardy.

So how does the BBC handle coverage a sport that only plays one game in the UK every year? How does its coverage differ from, say, ESPN’s?

DeMaurice Smith's scowl greets you as you read ESPN's coverage of the lockout. (espn.go.com)

What first jumps out at you from these two stories are the pictures. ESPN’s article on the lockout has a video component, but the still image from it is of DeMaurice Smith, former Executive Director of the NFLPA (former because the union no longer exists).

The subtle message of this image at the beginning of ESPN’s article, backed up by this video’s top spot among available videos, is that whether you agree with the players or the owners, the lockout was a result of Smith’s actions above all others. Is that fair? Who knows. Certainly Smith bears some of the burden, since he was the primary voice for one side of the dispute.

It could also be that ESPN does not blame Smith so much as they find the solitary image of him more provocative than that of any one owner. There isn’t an owners union representative, just a bunch of old and often not telegenic cronies. Different owners have seemed to take command of their side throughout these discussions, and it may simply be that there isn’t one clear leader to represent that side. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t work in this capacity, either.

Compare this with the BBC’s image (there’s no video, but no surprise there):

A stretched and faded NFL logo characterizes the BBC's coverage. (www.bbc.co.uk)

The simple NFL logo doesn’t imply blame one way or another. If anything, this image is almost prophetic. The logo lies flat on the rug, faded, stretching towards the horizon. That might be how the BBC views the future of the NFL- a flat product, a faded afterimage of the $9 billion league before the collective bargaining agreement expired, something riding off into the sunset.

The BBC article’s writing, as always, is straightforward and simplistic. The lockout happened. The union decertified. Lawsuits are on their way. The sticking point was revenue sharing. Other issues included more games, drug testing and pension plans.

But lost in the BBC article is what any of this actually means. What happens in a lockout? Doesn’t say. The ESPN article makes it very clear: no communication between teams and players. No new contracts, including with draftees. No more health insurance or benefits. It’s as if the BBC thought that the only people who might read this article have already been following it elsewhere (there’s only one other article on this issue on the BBC’s site) so they can write for an audience that already knows the stakes.

This BBC article doesn’t educate so much as just update. You couldn’t read this article out of the blue and understand it; you’d need to already be following it.

The last thing that I find interesting about the BBC’s coverage is that it’s published in the “business” section, not “sports.” And the first related article is about the profitability of the NBA. In treating this story as a business story and not a sports story, the BBC drains all humanity out of it.

A lot of people just lost their health benefits and jobs, and a lot of fans lost their favorite product. But all the BBC can see is the money.

Time and time again (well ok, I’ve only been blogging about the BBC for a month, but you get the point), I’ve complained about how little multimedia there is at the BBC website. Sure, there’s an interactive map to help figure out the situation in the Middle East. And yes, the sports section has some pretty slide-shows, filled with action and color. But unlike basically every American media outlet, from newspaper sites to CNN.com, the BBC seems to go out of its way to not take advantage of some of the technologies that make Internet journalism unique.

BBC’s writing is economical: it gets the information across without wasting any words on opinion, analysis or style. Some might complain that makes it boring, others might applaud it for remaining impartial. But there is zero flash to the BBC website, and that’s perhaps what makes the website unique.

That’s what I thought, anyway, until I saw this. No way! An actual video segment! Something that isn’t just text or text with a tiny picture? Have I stumbled onto the wrong page? Apparently not.

The segment is on Cebit 2011, a tech convention in Hanover, Germany. Which makes perfect sense, when you think about it. What better way would there be to report on a tech convention than with the latest technology possible? People have been writing text articles since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440. So BBC and it’s technology program “Click” sent reporter David Reid to do a piece using more than just text.

Not only that, but this article actually links to a Twitter account! The BBC barely uses social networking; I’ve never been sure why. Perhaps Facebook and Twitter haven’t penetrated into England (or any of the other countries that the BBC airs in), although I doubt that. In any event, this is the rare article where there’s actually a writer you can follow. For convention coverage, it’s likely that Reid and the other “Click” reporters will be filing many short stories. I’d even go so far as to say they might actually blog (gasp!). Being able to follow them on Twitter is a quick way for readers to stay on top of what seems like fairly extensive coverage of the convention.

It doesn’t make any sense that the rest of the BBC refuses to acknowledge the potential value of social networking and multimedia journalism. You can still have flash without giving up the bang. NPR does its best work using audio, but their website isn’t just a repository of audio segments. There’s punchy text, video and still photographs to help make the story come alive.

When you read, watch and listen to an NPR segment, you feel as though you’re listening to a friend tell a story. And not every friend of yours tells stories the same way, so you look forward more to certain people telling certain kinds of stories. The same goes with NPR and its reporters.

The BBC holds to the old notion that the reporter should not be part of the story, which is definitely honorable. But there’s nothing wrong with letting a reporter use a little of his or her own voice. In the case of the Cebit 2011 video, that meant literally, with a voice-over. But even just allowing the writing itself to have a bit more personality might start to breed a fanbase for individual writers. Then social networking tools like RSS feeds or Twitter accounts would be valuable and popular.

But until the BBC recognizes that, we’ll have to take segments like the Cebit 2011 video as momentary breaks in the monotony, and nothing else.

A Bit From the Science Section

If I wasn’t gonna be a sports reporter, my next choice would absolutely be science journalism, especially space exploration and discovery. Nothing cooler than the stars. Call it a by-product of my love for science-fiction. So this time around let’s take a look at BBC’s coverage of the space shuttle Discovery. Specifically, there is some.

Now, let’s not pretend that the BBC is giving comprehensive coverage to something that nobody else is touching. They’ve devoted a couple of articles to the last flight of the space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station, but that’s all. It’s a short article, gives four of the five W’s and more or less nothing else. The writing carries the same lack of “punch” that plagues the BBC’s website as a whole. Enough substance, but zero style.

But the BBC still promotes this story more than most other media outlets. Boston.com places it below an article on asteroids in the science section of the main page. CNN gives it an iReport, which is a video and nothing else. The New York Times doesn’t mention it on either their front page or the science section. So despite how limited the BBC’s coverage is, it still is the best.

All of this is a little surprising, given that Discovery is an American spaceship that took off from an American launch site. US media aren’t really covering this story, but the BBC is.

All three of the top articles in the “Science & Environment” section are about space (Discovery, future European Space Agency missions, gas-filled galaxies). Perhaps the British are more interested in understanding space than Americans are. But even if they are, they’re certainly not as interested in space exploration as we are. The British space program is far more interested in unmanned satellites than manned missions. Heck, England doesn’t even fund the International Space Station where Discovery docked! So why does the BBC think its readers would care about this?

And it’s not like this article delves into whether anyone cares about this. The “why” of this article is completely ignored. There aren’t any person-on-the-street interviews to see if Discovery had some emotional impact on people’s lives, nor are there interviews with anyone at NASA about why any of this is happening. The related articles don’t have interviews either.

This article lacks depth, feels half-assed, and yet there it is, top story on the home page’s science portal. With a pretty picture, rich with detail and color, on top of everything. So I ask you, readers: what do you think? Why did the BBC put such an incomplete article as the head of the science section? Do you think the BBC does not take its science journalism as seriously as its political/international coverage?

New photo uploads

Which Comparison is More Revealing?

Egypt’s revoluton (and there’s no other word for it anymore) has had a ripple effect on the Middle East, and many news organizations have started creating graphic guidelines to rising unrest. Let’s take a look at the BBC‘s and CNN‘s:

BBC                                                                                                                                                  CNN

CNN’s interface is a little prettier than the BBC’s (in general, the BBC website has very little visual storytelling, I still wonder if this is a British thing, where print newspapers are still so common), but it’s bound into a slideshow. If you want to know the specific data about any one country, your only recourse is to cycle through until you find the one you want. The BBC, meanwhile, uses an interactive map, so you can bring up any country you want right away. You can then compare  that country with the others in the above table.

The comparison feature is neat because it allows readers to play political analysts. Which country will revolt next? Additionally, the BBC website lists a series of contributing factors that CNN leaves out of its slideshow. The BBC compares poverty percentage, literacy rate, median age, and unemployment. It also assigns a “corruption score” to each country’s current leader. As scary as the thought of widespread political revolution in the Middle East might be, this is a kind of fun way to present the info. And the BBC tosses up a little “score card” for each leader to the right of the map when you click a country. Bigger text makes it easier to read.

CNN, meanwhile, only lists population, gross domestic product and unemployment. It also says who is in power, and for how long, but the white text against a translucent gray background makes it hard to read. The BBC has a longer description for each country’s recent history of protest and unrest, and you come away from those articles with a far better understanding of the underlying causes of these protests.

Overall, the BBC’s presentation looks a little more simplistic than CNN’s, but it conveys far more information. I’ll take substance over style any day of the week.

As a final comparison, let’s look at the New York Times and their protest graphic. It’s a single still image- nothing to click on, nothing that moves. The text boxes do a good job of summarizing the underlying causes of unrest in the various countries, and they choose to include the poverty and/or unemployment rates for each country. These are usually two of the major causes for protest (like in France a few years ago), but I still like the BBC’s “corruption score,” age breakdown and literacy rate. The corruption score quantifies the various issues discussed in the Times’ graphic in a way that’s easy to understand and compare. But the number of youths in a country, and how literate and aware of outside political ideologies they are, may contribute as much to rebellion as poverty. Let’s not forget that much support for America’s own civil rights movement came from college students.

The Times’ graphic tries to do too much with too little function. It doesn’t have the linear feeling of the BBC’s map and article, nor does it all fit on one screen (or at least not mine) like CNN’s. So you’re constantly jumping back and forth trying to match the information to the right country, and it’s visually arresting. This is the only graphic with images of protesters, which I like, but I would’ve preferred a map that has pop-up images and data rather than just a screen to stare at and try to make sense of.