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May 5, 2010, 10 a.m.

Drawing out the audience: Inside BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub

The BBC’s User-Generated Content Hub is responsible for connecting with the huge organization’s audience for news-gathering purposes, and they’re good enough at it to have won a Royal Television Society award for their coverage of the 2007 UK floods. They’ve also been instrumental in the BBC’s coverage of the post-election protests in Iran, the July 7 bombings in London, and the recent earthquake in Chile, among other stories.

The hub sits in the “heart” of the BBC’s newsroom in London, and has been operating 24/7 since last fall with a staff of about twenty people. Journalism student Caroline Beavon posted a tantalizing video interview with unit head Matthew Eltringham earlier this year, but there was so much more I wanted to know. How does one find sources for stories happening overseas? Why centralize all social media interactions within one unit at the BBC? To what extent does audience reaction and suggestion drive the news agenda?

So when I bumped into one of the hub’s journalists at a talk in Hong Kong recently, I fairly pounced on her for an interview. Silvia Costeloe, a broadcast journalist at the UGC Hub, very kindly sat down with me to explain that the purpose of the hub is to find and connect with the people around news stories, wherever they are in the world and whatever tools or sites they use to communicate.

What our team does is it interacts with communities around the Internet. So, where the social media communities already form, so obviously Twitter and Facebook. And it’s got a community of people getting in touch with our own website too. And we do a lot of news gathering, and we get a lot of reaction from users to feed back into our stories, to get human stories, and elements, and do some news gathering on breaking stories as well.

Hub journalists scour the Internet for pictures, videos, and other content that might contribute to a story, which they then verify and clear for use. But they also find people, sources who can be contacted by reporters in other departments within the BBC.

In many instances, the first pictures these days that come out are user-generated pictures. And so we get the thumbs up, so to speak, from people, and then we run with them. Obviously if the people were there, they might have a really interesting story to tell, so…what I’ll be giving to TV often would be just a name, a phone number, and a very brief two lines of what the person’s actually done. But we go through a very vigorous verification process as well…For example, in Iran during the election protests, some of the videos coming out were being said to be one date when they were actually another. So we had a really rigorous kind of verification process, and we worked with Persian Service at the time to verify the videos.

What sorts of specialized skills does this demand? “Well, you need to be a journalist, really,” said Costeloe. But the job is also about filtering the enormous amount of noise on the Internet for that one original tweet by an eyewitness. Costeloe said that finding those gems is mostly a matter of persistence and organization. Still, she offered a few practical hints, such as searching for people with a specific location listed in their Twitter profile, or putting “pix” or “vid” in your search to find multimedia content, or watching who local news organizations are watching.

The other thing is local news as well. If you know the area that you’re interested in, if you go to the Twitter sites of local news around them, especially if it’s in the U.S. where they’re quite sort of advanced, you will see that the local news people will be really good at being in touch with people from the area.

But the hub does more than collect what’s already out there: it uses the BBC’s own website to solicit content, sources, and stories. Costeloe told me that much of their most interesting news gathering comes from comment forms at the bottom of stories, asking for feedback.

And that usually generates really great stuff because it’s very targeted. And it’s low entry because, when we do that people don’t actually have to sign in. And obviously signing in is a huge barrier, not to many people in the U.K., but certainly someone who’s seen a bomb go off in Pakistan might not have a BBC account…but if they’ve been a witness they’re likely to go and look for it on the Internet, and if they find it, if we put a question at the bottom of the story they might reply, and then we’ve got someone who is an eyewitness who we can talk to.

The hub’s journalists answer emails generated by stories and read the comments. This makes them the primary back-channel from the BBC’s audience to its journalists. There was a fascinating and comprehensive 2008 study on the impact of “user-generated content” at the BBC, which found that “journalists and audiences display markedly different attitudes towards…audience material,” among many other things. So I asked Costeloe to what degree user feedback shapes the news agenda today.

Our team’s always kind of pitching ideas of stories, of new stories. We do cover new stories that come out from social media. But often it’s about finding new angles to a story. So, I don’t know, Maclaren’s buggies…kids were getting their fingers chopped off in the buggies…That was a big story in the U.S.. In the U.K. it didn’t seem like a big story, but the moment that we put up a form on the BBC web site saying about what happened in the U.S., loads of people wrote in in the U.K. with sort of similar experiences. So that really expanded the story. It turned into a really big U.K. story, whereas it wasn’t before. So often you’re expanding the story, sometimes you’re finding the story, and sometimes you’re just finding new angles on the story.

Keeping track of what’s happening online. Finding sources close to the story. Paying attention to audience feedback. Aren’t those things every journalist should be doing in the Internet era? Yes, says Costeloe, but there is still a strong argument for a specialized unit.

If you haven’t made it already as a journalist, you won’t become a journalist unless you engage with social media, I don’t think. But I think having a central team, especially in a news corporation as big as the BBC, is really vital because…often you’re trying to get in touch with people who’ve just witnessed traumatic events, and you have to do that delicately as it is…So we contact them first-hand, and then…if they have to be contacted by more people we can give the details out to the wider BBC. That makes a lot more sense as a model then having a free-for-all, everyone on Twitter going, you know, we want to talk to you and we want to use your pictures.

But also having people who are really dedicated and used to going through and sifting through what is often a lot of information, what’s often a lot of noise, to find these gems and to find those people, and to find those angles to the story, I just think it’s a very specific skill. And while journalists definitely need to know how to do it, if they’re out reporting on a story, doing lives, doing two-ways, they won’t be able to sit there and go through every comment that people have sent in.

We also discussed the BBC’s comment moderation approach, the working relationship between the hub and the developers of the BBC web site, how stories are updated based on user feedback, and other good stuff. Listen to the 20-minute interview in the player below, download the MP3 here, or read the full transcript which follows.

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JS: All right, so, can you tell me your name and what your job is?

SC: Yeah, sure. My name is Silvia Costeloe, and I am one of the journalists that works at the UGC Hub, which is a user-generated content hub at the heart of BBC news. And what our team does is it interacts with communities around the Internet. So, where the social media communities already form, so, obviously Twitter and Facebook. And it’s got a community of people getting in touch with our own web site too. And we do a lot of news gathering, and we get a lot of reaction from users to feed back into our stories, to get human stories, and elements, and do some news gathering on breaking stories as well.

JS: So, you were telling me earlier that there are specific reasons that the BBC has centralized the interaction with social media in one particular unit.

SC: Yeah, I think– I mean I’ve been on the team for a year or so, and the team’s quite a lot older than that. But it sort of started off when, you know, the Internet was getting bigger and getting more interactive. And there was a feeling that there should be a team, you know, it started off as a very small team [in mid 2005 --JS] I think sort of just to capture what was going on in social media, and see how that could feed into news, and sort of what difference that was– how that would evolve. And it’s grown quite steadily because it’s just been incredibly useful for news. Obviously the BBC’s a really big operation, so to have people that can be really focussed, especially on breaking stories, in finding eyewitnesses and case studies.

So whether it’s the Mumbai bombings, or whether it’s the Chilean earthquake, or whether it’s the Iran elections, to have people who can find those pictures, and find those eyewitness accounts, and then farm them out to output. So give them to TV, give them to radio, give them to online, and sort of make sure that, you know, the story’s being told across all our several platforms, and, you know, our output, is very important. I mean obviously journalists these days are increasingly, you know, it’s an absolute core part of their roles, sorting out, watching what’s going on in social media when they’re working on a story. But to have it centralized is really useful, especially when it comes to breaking stories, because, you know, our reporters will often be sent out on field location. They might not be living somewhere, so they’ll have to travel somewhere, and in the meantime we’re doing lots of news gathering, we’re giving them contacts of people on the ground.

So if there’s an earthquake we can put a form, even just putting a form on a story because we’ve got lots of users, obviously, using the BBC web site. Lots of really interesting people will write in, saying that, you know, if they’ve been affected. Something that’s obviously, a lot– you might have to trawl through a lot to find that special story. And it’s maybe something that a reporter hasn’t got the time to do when they’re sort of running out to be, to do field work. So we can kind of trawl through what’s happening on blogs, what’s happening on Facebook groups. I mean, recently there was a story, a big explosion in Connecticut, and within an hour of the explosion there was a Facebook group devoted to the explosion, and the families of the explosion, because no one really knew what was going on. So that proved to be a really good source of news gathering. But you can’t expect a journalist on that sort of breaking story who’s got to do a lot of output as well to be that focussed and find everything that’s going on on social media, whereas our team tries. And when we find those people then we share them, we share them with the rest of the BBC.

JS: So what exactly is it that you give to other reporters? It’s both sources and content?

SC: Yeah, or pictures. So often when there’s a breaking story, often it’s just pictures that are needed. So if we find the pictures on the web, we get permission. I mean depending on what kind of story it is, whether we feel that it’s covered by fair use or not. Obviously if it’s stills it isn’t. So we try and get– and talk to people, and first of all get their permission to run the pictures. So we might have, in many instances, the first pictures these days that come out are user-generated pictures. And so we get the thumbs up, so to speak, from people, and then we run with them. Obviously if the people were there, they might have a really interesting story to tell, so we then, what I’ll be giving to TV often would be just a name, a phone number, and a very brief two lines of what the person’s actually done. But we go through a very vigorous verification process as well. So we’re giving out these contacts and we’ve verified them beforehand. So it really speeds things up, once we give our people out. And, sort of, you know, it– wires now are often sending round YouTube videos, and often they’re absolutely fine and we’ll run with them. But, for example, in Iran during the election protests, some of the videos coming out were being said to be one date when they were actually another. So we had a really rigorous kind of verification process, and we worked with Persian service at the time to verify the videos. So, I think that’s how it works, quite well, in a sort of centralized way.

JS: Interesting. So what specialized skills does someone working in this type of news gathering need?

SC: Well, you need to be, you need to be– well, you need to be a journalist really. So have a sort of interest in the story, and have a bit of a, I don’t know, sort of a nose for a story. And you need to want to sort of dig around, and you need to be interested and have a passion for social media, really. I mean often, the other thing that we’ll do is we’ll find stories in social media that maybe aren’t being covered by the mainstream outlets, and make something of those stories. So, you need to, yeah, you need to know how to sort of dig around. I mean, there’s lots of websites out there, so it doesn’t really matter, I guess, what you use. I mean, different people use different things. There’s the main ones that everyone uses, like Twitter and Facebook, you sort of have be across those, but you know there’s lots of aggregators, and whichever ones people want to use, I think it’s sort of up to them.

But yeah, you need a real passion for it, and you need to want to dig, and you need to be able to kind of go back, you know, and you need to know who you’ve contacted and who you haven’t, so it’s quite a lot of organization. And, yeah, the usual journalist skills really. But on a breaking story as well, you need to know how to refresh a lot and know what sort of searches to do, because it’s not– I mean there’s so much noise on Twitter as well, with so many people re-tweeting. You know, when there’s a breaking news event, if it’s a big event, it can be absolute hell to find that one tweet which is actually a person saying, I’m living here and this happening down my street. That can be really tough. So, a real notion of how to search for– how to search for pictures, and how to search for people with experiences. I think that’s sort of, that’s a skill that comes over a lot of practical work, really. Looking for stories and people.

JS: Any hints you can give us, on how to make sense of a flood of Twitter messages and find that one good one?

SC: That’s the– it’s difficult, it’s difficult. I mean obviously if you search by location, so if you go to search engines like search Twitter, you can, if people have entered their location you can search for that. So the Chilean earthquake we’re looking for the epicenter, then kind of fan out fifteen, twenty miles around that and see who’s tweeting around there. But a lot of really good stuff, you know, a lot of people won’t put where they’re from, or the search engine’s not that reliable, so, I mean that’s one of the many things you can do. Again, there’s search engines that will let you look for, sort of search people’s profiles as well. So again there, you might be able to see if it’s someone who’s in a specific area, they might have mentioned that there.

Or you might, if you’re looking for pix and vids, often just putting in “pix” or “vid” in your search actually really helps, because often then you’ll get the link to that YouTube video that you want to see. So often it’s really simple things, but it’s just, sort of, thinking around them, and coming up with different searches, because if you’re just going to search for “earthquake in Chile” you’re going to have literally thousands of tweets every, you know, every handful of seconds. And it’s just too much, you can’t sort of physically go through everything.

The other thing is local news as well. If you know the area where, that you’re interested in, if you go to the Twitter sites of local news around them, especially if it’s in the US where they’re quite sort of advanced, you will see that the local news people will be really good at being in touch with people from the area. So sometimes it’s their local reporter so it might not be useful for you because they might, you know, they might be working for a different news outlet. But often local, if you’re working– I mean we work globally, so obviously our local knowledge isn’t always, you know, will never be the knowledge of a local news agent. So if you go to them and see who they’re talking to, maybe that can also help you find interesting conversations, as opposed to just looking for the hash tag.

JS: Right. Would you consider that there’s a community of users around your news, or a community of readers?

SC: Yeah, I mean there’s definitely a community of users, and we’ve got our blog, and we’ve got our sort of community of people commenting on stories. So, we’ve got talking points, and we publish three or four talking points a day, and write blogs, and people talk about that. So there’s definitely a community of people who come back, and return. But we also link to our talking points or ask for comments on stories. So we’re always sort of expanding that community, who will come because they’re interested in a specific story and might want to have their say and contribute in that way.

And often the most interesting stuff that we get is, we’ll sometimes put up post forms where people, you know, just kind of, just a little form at the bottom of a story, saying, you know, contact us, send us your comments. Are you in the area? Send us your story. And that usually generates really great stuff because it’s very targeted. And it’s low entry because, when we do that people don’t actually have to sign in. And obviously signing in is a huge barrier, not to many people in the UK, but certainly someone who’s seen a bomb go off in Pakistan might not have a BBC account, so to speak, but they are– if they’ve been a witness they’re likely to go and look for it on the Internet, and if they find it, if we put a question at the bottom of the story they might reply, and then we’ve got someone who is an eyewitness who we can talk to.

JS: Right. Do you have to manage that? I mean do you ever– do you have to moderate flame wars, do you have to delete offensive comments? What’s involved in terms of work load on your side in managing that group of people?

SC: Well we’ve got sort of community boards and we, you know, everything is pre-moderated so there is a lot of work involved in terms of moderation. We do actually, we do do reactive debates as well, but I’d say most of our debates are probably pre-moderated. So somebody does read the comments before they go up. So there’s, you know, by all means there’s a lot of work in moderation in comments. There’s only so much that we can get away with saying as there’s kind of a responsibility I suppose, with the BBC, to have certain standards, I guess, in your comments. And if people– we’d sort of be held liable for all sorts of things on our web site. [US sites are generally not legally liable for comments, but UK sites probably are --JS] So, yes, everything is moderated. Most things are moderated.

JS: How many people handle all of that moderation?

SC: We’ve just, to be honest, we’ve just gotten a wholly new moderation system, so I can’t really say, but we’ve just literally outsourced our moderation, so I’ve got no idea now how many people have been–

JS: Oh, interesting.

SC: Yeah, because we did it in-house until about a month ago. And now it’s gone. [At the end of 2008 the BBC said there were four in-house moderators for Have Your Say --JS] So I’m sure there’ll be– there’s an editor’s blog actually that we, we’ll be sort of posting up what’s going on with the new moderation, how that’s going. But you know it’s a lot of work. We get a lot of, a lot of people writing in wanting to talk about stories, and commenting on stories, but within that we also get really valuable, well obviously we get valuable comments, but we also get valuable stories for news gathering purposes, and case studies to illustrate and to add to stories, whether it’s UK based– if it’s a health story and people have had experiences of a particular story, or, as I said if it’s a bigger event then people who are sort of out in the field.

JS: And how many people are the UGC team?

SC: Oh it’s about, I don’t really– we work rotas so maybe 20 or so? I couldn’t be quoted on that. [There were 23 in September, according to this report --JS] But yeah, there’s a lot of people because some of us are assigned to specific areas, and contribute a lot of content to the BBC news web site, so some people are more web site production journalists, so they’re writing lots of stories for the BBC News web site, or stories that come from the experiences of specific people who’ve got in touch with us. Whereas others are specifically chasing people and comments and breaking news stories.

JS: So what are the areas? How do you divide that work up?

SC: There’s different areas in terms of– someone’s covering Europe, and the States, and so it’s geographical areas.

JS: And did you say you rotate people through? Did I understand that, or…?

SC: We rotate in the sense that we open 24 hours, so there’s always someone overnight.

JS: Oh, okay, okay.

SC: Yes, sorry, yeah, no, we rotate time-wise.

JS: Got it.

SC: So it’s a bigger team than it seems when you’re, when you’re out there in the day time, because there might only be eight people or something in the day time, but then there’ll be someone overnight as well.

JS: Right, okay. Yeah, right.

SC: So there’s always someone on the news desk.

JS: So how do you see this evolving? What do you see happening in the future?

SC: Well, you know, I’m part of a wider team, so I’m not really privy to a lot of the, sort of, wider conversations that go on at a higher level. I think there’ll always be– I think it’s a very important role. I mean lots of people say, the view of many people is that this team will eventually die as journalists get more and more advanced at using social media tools. Which I completely— I agree that journalists will get a lot more advanced, I think a lot of them are already, and I mean it’s just such an obvious, I mean I don’t think you can be a journalist anymore, definitely not in the future. If you haven’t made it already as a journalist, you won’t become a journalist unless you engage with social media, I don’t think.

But I think having a central team, especially in a news corporation as big as the BBC, is really vital because when you’re getting in touch with people who are, you know, going through– you know often you’re trying to get in touch with people who’ve just witnessed traumatic events, and you have to do that delicately as it is. And the problem is, if everyone at the BBC is trying to get in touch with someone, trying to get their pictures, trying to– you can’t possibly– that needs to be an organized approach. So if we contact them first-hand, and then we can give the details, if they have to be contacted by more people we can give the details out to the wider BBC. That makes a lot more sense as a model then having a free-for-all, everyone on Twitter going, you know, we want to talk to you and we want to use your pictures. But also having people who are really dedicated and used to going through and sifting through what is often a lot of information, what’s often a lot of noise, to find these gems and to find those people, and to find those angles to the story, I just think it’s a very specific skill. And while journalists definitely need to know how to do it, if they’re out reporting reporting on story, doing lives, doing two-ways, they won’t be able to sit there and go through every comment that people have sent in, to find the comment, you know, written by the family of someone who’s just suffered an event. They just wouldn’t have the physical time, or the patience in a moment of stress to go through it, to go through that, because often it is a matter of sticking to the story and trying to find something, and finding that needle in a haystack.

JS: So you mentioned finding angles on a story. To what extent do discussions happening on social media direct your coverage, or direct the BBC’s choice of what stories to do?

SC: Well, I think in terms of completely new stories, I mean that happens all the time. I mean our team’s always kind of pitching ideas of stories, of new stories. We do cover new stories that come out from social media. But often it’s about finding new angles to a story. So, I don’t know, Maclaren’s buggies, that was a big story in the UK and the US recently. Buggies got, dangerous buggies, it was a consumer story, you know, kids were getting their fingers chopped off in the buggies. We ran US– that was a big story in the US. In the UK it didn’t seem like a big story, but the moment that we put up a form on the BBC web site saying about what happened in the US, loads of people wrote in in the UK with sort of similar experiences. So that really expanded the story. It turned into a really big UK story, whereas it wasn’t before. So often you’re expanding the story, sometimes you’re finding the story, and sometimes you’re just finding new angles on the story, you know, new– if you’re covering a massive disaster like an earthquake, there’ll be people writing in with really interesting new stories, whether it’s about not being able to get certain aid through, or sometimes really unexpected angles as well. It’s just trying to cover a story in as many, trying to get as many stories out, valuable stories out, as possible. And often we’ll write something up, and people will write in and say, you know, “that picture is not of a Boeing 572, it’s of something else.” So sometimes people will just write in and just point out errors and mistakes, or suggestions, and so we take all that into account as well.

JS: You actually update the stories based on people’s comments?

SC: Yeah, well if someone writes in, often I won’t be the one who’s written the original story, but if I’m, you know, someone sends an email saying, “oh, that’s the wrong ship,” that happened a couple of weeks ago, and then someone else writes in saying something similar, you’ve got alarm bells going and you need to double– obviously you don’t just, you don’t take that that as certain, but you will do more digging. I mean obviously you go through it and you have a look, and then you update the story. I mean, yeah, absolutely.

JS: Right. Does your team have any say in the software design in all of the system? You know, what the actual interface for comments are? Do you work with the developers, or how is that…?

SC: Yeah. I mean, the future media technology team, they are, at the BBC they’re the people who actually do the build. But it’s sort of, they do that working along side us. So we’ll have like one or two people in the team who will constantly have meetings with them, and you know, check out their design, kind of product manage it to certain degree. So yes, absolutely they work closely with the journalists. They don’t work as closely as, you know, it’s not sort of a scrum, agile kind of session world, although it is in other areas of the BBC. It’s more, you know, it’s more the two teams working sort of in parallel, rather than sort of physically sitting together. But it, you know, it works.

JS: Right. Okay. Thank you very much.

SC: No problem.

JS: I realize you’re terribly jet-lagged, so I apologize for ambushing you, but–

SC: Well I apologize for any slurred words. It is due to the jet-lag.

JS: All right, thanks a lot.

POSTED     May 5, 2010, 10 a.m.
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