BBC Turkish goes social and wins big

BBC Turkish team in NBH Editor Murat Nisancioglu with the BBC Turkish team in an editorial meeting

Some of the best ideas are born out of necessity. If you need proof, ask the team in BBC Turkish. The language service is the pioneer of a new type of social media journalism that is catching in popularity.

It all started with the Gezi protests in Istanbul, a story that went global last year. In Turkey, however, the government was clamping down on the media, with the BBC and its local partners no exception.

Turkish editor Murat Nisancioglu recalls pressure to keep quiet about Gezi for a local world affairs TV programme made by his team.

The language service's TV partner in Turkey, where the programme aired, decided not to broadcast the programme during the escalating crisis in the country, to accommodate pressure from the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which is currently in power.

Start Quote

I was a bit sceptical about social media for myself. I thought it was an artificial world”

End Quote Murat Nisancioglu Editor, BBC Turkish

It resulted in the cancellation of the TV partnership, with two BBC-produced programmes the casualties.

From his London base in Broadcasting House, Nisancioglu explains that instead of 'panicking and feeling demoralised', the 18-strong team started working on live pages for the BBC Turkish website, reporting on the Gezi protests that way for up to 10 hours a day.

'Audience numbers peaked at that moment,' continues the editor, 'because most of the media [in Turkey] wasn't reporting it and that gave us a lot of prestige at that time.'

As the protests died down, and the news in the country slowed, people in the team inevitably started asking what next?

Social first

Out of that turmoil came the idea for Social First, a live social media page that would find topics that are trending in Turkey and create stories out of them.

Murat Nisancioglu Murat Nisancioglu went from social media sceptic to convert

Think of it like a social conversation. You find a topic buzzing on a social media platform such as Twitter and Facebook, you seek out experts to talk about it and you write about what you have learned for the website, bringing the conversation full circle.

David Cuen, World Service's social media editor, explains the project: 'We wanted to capture that young, active, social audience in Turkey and bring it to the site and the only way you can do that is to talk about the things that matter to them.'

He points out that the move in this direction required 'a lot of bravery' from Nisancioglu and his team. 'They were operating under a very difficult situation, where suddenly the government was cracking down on social because of the size of the protests.'

Cuen admits it wasn't necessarily the best time to launch Social First - but it has been a success.

More relevance

During the Gezi protests, the Turkish website was getting up to 100,000 unique users a day. 'The live reporting online got everyone's attention at the time,' says Nisancioglu, 'and that seems to be carrying on today.'

Their reporting on the Soma mining disaster - in which 301 people died earlier this year - also increased the team's credibility.

As with the Gezi protests, the pro-government media tried to hush up certain things, explains the Turkish editor. 'Most of the mainstream media didn't want to upset the government too much. So, again, we came to the fore because we were there immediately.'

Part of their reporting included giving a voice to people who were critical of the government in Turkey.

Nisancioglu believes that people are now looking at their improved website as an outlet they can trust. It has made the team realise that perhaps they weren't as relevant in the past.

Social living room
BBC Brazil's sala social page BBC Brazil's sala social page during the World Cup

The team now has people working exclusively on social media, one who is the editor of live pages, while two more people are dedicated to online video after BBC Turkish launched a YouTube channel.

Cuen has now introduced the idea of Social First to BBC Brazil, calling it 'sala social', which translates to social living room.

It has become incredibly popular on BBC Brazil's website. One story, for instance, followed the exploits of an 80-year-old woman who became a Facebook activist when she organised a campaign to increase the number of green spaces in the city.

A three-month pilot with BBC Thai has also recently launched, in which short stories - optimised for mobile devices only - are appearing on Facebook and Audioboo. The stories rely on interaction with users. In just 24 hours, the service already had 38,000 fans. Cuen says: 'It's mental'.

The social media editor is now hoping to launch Social First for Mundo, Arabic, Russian and Indonesian, adapted to each country's habits and culture.

Even though it requires journalists to think differently about their work, it's not about learning things from scratch. 'My take has always been that if you have the journalistic skills and the desire to learn and become more digital, it's really easy to do it,' Cuen says.

David Cuen and BBC Brazil's editing team David Cuen (standing) with some of BBC Brasil team
Recognition

Nisancioglu is a convert. He didn't even have a Twitter account about a year ago, but now has about 4,000 followers, which he is finding 'great fun'. BBC Turkish's official Twitter account, meanwhile, reaches about 900,000, just behind Spain's BBC Mundo with about 1m.

'I was a bit sceptical about social media for myself,' he says. 'I thought it was an artificial world. I still think it is, but in terms of [Social First] I had no doubts.'

Murat Nisancioglu picking up Press Freedom Award Picking up Press Freedom Award on July 24

What has convinced him is the belief that this type of social media journalism is tapping into old-fashioned reporting from the field. 'Even though you are sitting at your table, through social media, you are outside talking to people, finding out information, getting in touch with those people and trying to verify whether something is true or not.'

He's now hoping to get into internet television, but he is cautious about entering into another partnership because he wants BBC Turkish to retain editorial control over their content.

It has been a learning curve for the team - but it has got them noticed, and not just by a growing number of Twitter followers.

They recently won a Press Freedom Award from the Turkish Journalists Association for their coverage of the Gezi protests and the Soma mining disaster.

They were praised for 'informing the public during the periods when access to news was restricted'.

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