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Jan. 28, 2015, 2:20 p.m.
Audience & Social

Here’s how the BBC, disrupted by technology and new habits, is thinking about its future

The British broadcaster released a new report looking at the future of news as it looks toward its royal charter renewal in 2017.

As the United Kingdom’s national broadcaster, the BBC operates under a royal charter, a formal document issued by the British monarchy that sets out the BBC’s priorities, ensures the broadcaster’s editorial independence, and details the responsibilities of the BBC Trust, its governing body.

BBC_CharterThe BBC was first granted a royal charter in 1927, and the charter has been renewed every 10 years since then. Its current charter expires on Dec. 31, 2016, and the BBC has already begun preparing for its renewal.

As part of that process, the BBC today released the first part of a report entitled “Future of News” that examines the changing news industry and how the BBC plans to adapt to evolving technologies and new ways that the broadcaster’s massive audience — both locally in the U.K. and globally — consumes the news. The second part, which is forthcoming, will offer more detailed proposals on how the BBC will address these changes.

“The internet is not keeping everyone informed, nor will it: it is, in fact, magnifying problems of information inequality, misinformation, polarisation and disengagement,” the report says. “Our job is keeping everyone informed. To do this, BBC News is going to have to start thinking how it is going to deliver on its mission to inform in an age beyond broadcasting.”

In addition to the 46-page report, the BBC also released an interactive summary of its findings and a 13-minute video with interviews of digital journalists on the future of news.

Here are a few of the biggest points on how the BBC looks to grow from now until its 2027 charter review. (Disclosure: Several of us here at Nieman Lab and the Nieman Foundation were interviewed in the preparation of the report, but I doubt our fingerprints on it are particularly distinct.)

Rethinking global coverage

Last year, BBC News covered the Indian elections on WhatsApp, sending users in India news updates through the messaging app. It’s also experimented with using BBM in Nigeria and Mxit in South Africa as means to distribute news. Its Thai-language service is run exclusively on social media.

Audiences in different parts of the world consume news differently, and though traditional television and radio remain crucial, in order to remain relevant, the BBC will need to continue to expand its reach on different platforms.

“If the UK wants the BBC to remain valued and respected, an ambassador of Britain’s values and an agent of soft power in the world, then the BBC is going to have to commit to growing the World Service and the government will also have to recognise this,” the report said. (For decades, the BBC World Service was funded through the government’s Foreign Office; last year, its funding source was moved to the same license fees as the rest of the BBC.)

As many countries in the world limit free speech and press freedom, BBC News could seize on an opportunity to further position itself as an arbiter of independent news: “We find ourselves increasingly reflecting on the position of the media in Russia and Turkey,” the report said, adding that the BBC is looking at how it could develop a news service for North Korea.

But in order to maintain and expand its global presence, while competing with other well-funded state media, the BBC will need to find ways to finance itself beyond its current system of international advertising and the license-fee that all TV-watching U.K. households pay. “It will have to weigh the possibilities of asking global audiences to fund its future as well as exploring new commercial opportunities,” the report says.

Covering local news in the digital age

Bradford is a city of more than 500,000 about 200 miles north of London. It has one of the highest infant mortality rates in Britain, and the gap between wealthy and poor is also among the highest in the U.K.

Bradford is the type of place where local news coverage could make a significant impact, but three years ago, as part of larger budget cuts, the BBC closed its local operations there.

The report details how, in England, the broadcaster’s local radio news stations usually only cover live local news for about 12 hours each day. It pre-records its local Sunday politics shows on Friday to save the costs of broadcasting live on the weekend. And in order to meet its local news requirements, it’s also shared more regional content throughout England.

The BBC and other local news outlets in Britain have faced many of the same issues as their global counterparts in terms of decreasing revenue, shrinking budgets, and reduced staff. But unlike privately owned newspapers, part of the BBC’s mandate as a public broadcaster is to provide news and information to the British public.

“The changes in the news industry mean that there are gaps in the coverage of our country and they are growing,” the report says. “At the same time, power is devolving. The BBC is going to have to make the most of digital services, alongside radio and television, to ensure people have the information they need where they live and work.”

The BBC’s evening regional news broadcasts still draw large audiences, and more than half of adults in the U.K. said they were interested in local and regional news, according to survey data cited in the report. And when another survey asked respondents how news coverage could improve, 56 percent said they wanted more local news. Somewhere among changing news consumption habits and a reduced reach, the BBC says it will need to find ways to better provide these services.

“BBC News is defined by its requirement to serve everybody. But if BBC News is going to serve the whole of society in the UK, it must reflect it,” the report says.

A more open and accessible BBC

As the Internet and social media become further engrained in daily lives across the world, the BBC will need to rethink how it tells stories and interacts with readers and sources.

Aside from publishing on new and varying platforms, BBC News has tried out other ways to reach new audiences. Last year, for example, it began a six-month experiment where it set up various pop-up bureaus in different cities to tell under-reported local stories everywhere from Tucson to Pittsburgh.

But as its resources are limited, the BBC will need to be defined by the quality of journalism it produces, not the quantity of the news it reports. There’s no shortage of news coverage and other content competing for audiences’ attentions online and over broadcast, but the report emphasizes that the BBC must focus on “value-added journalism of explanation, investigation and holding people to account.”

The tone of stories and how they’re told is also important to reaching new audiences, the report says. Outside of traditional radio or TV spots and a classic 800-word news story, the report recommends further use of newer forms of storytelling, such as charts, animations, or even quizzes and games.

“The voice of God is no good to people who are not believers in the news. If we are going to serve everybody — if we are going to ensure that the people who are switching off the news tune back in — then we are going to need different people, telling different stories in different ways,” the report says.

Photos of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth, and Princess Margaret visiting the BBC’s Broadcasting House in March 1939 via BBC Radio 4. and of the BBC’s 2007 royal charter by Mo McRoberts used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 28, 2015, 2:20 p.m.
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