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.