To tweet or not to tweet?

Head Strategic Delivery

There is no doubt that Twitter has become a valuable newsgathering tool. Increasingly, BBC journalists find themselves using this clever resource to root out information and to reach people and places. The recent earthquake in L'Aquila clearly demonstrated the journalistic power and potential of this new media.

Parts of the BBC are also going to great efforts to participate in Twitter as a two-way process. Some use it to build up relationships with their viewers and listeners; others use it to trail to key bits of output. But what do our audiences think of us fluttering alongside them in cyberspace?

At our recent College of Journalism 'Meet the Audience' event on the recession, we invited a group of tech-savvy young adults, ranging in age from 20 to 35. Session findings here. Intriguingly, the majority view seemed to be that there was a time and a place for news, and social networking sites wasn't it. Although a significant minority said they enjoyed sharing BBC News content among themselves, part of the pleasure for them was discovering cool stuff themselves and passing it on.

When it's too top-heavy, it can feel too corporate.

But when it's someone like Richard Bacon, who clearly really gets Twitter and does it because he loves it, there's an authenticity there that the audience appreciate. They don't feel he's doing it to advertise his wares - they think he's doing it for fun. He's a natural networker.

But mindful that the group of young adults we'd invited was just a small representation of their demographic, I wanted to explore this issue further. After all, everyone from BBC Radio 5 Live to Radio 4's Today programme is experimenting with Facebook and Twitter these days - and the numbers of followers continues to grow. So clearly - as ever with audiences - this is a subtle paradigm.

From younger adults who are passionate about the BBC, such as our new Journalism Trainees, there's a very different response. They can't get enough of our output and want BBC News available across as many platforms as possible.

Similarly, a group of journalism post-graduate students from Sheffield University visited the BBC the other day and I was giving them a presentation and used the opportunity to ask them what they thought of the BBC dabbling in Twitter and Facebook.

As someone who had appointed a web producer for BBC News and Sport on Tour for the first time when I was running it, I have a keen interest in this sort of thing. Back then, we set up MySpace and Facebook profiles and radically revamped the website for the Tour.

The series I wrote, produced and directed last year for the BBC's Natural History Unit, Fossil Detectives, has a Facebook profile, a cool website and a significant presence in the palaeontology blogosphere. Connecting with the audience through the virtual world seems to me as important as connecting with them in the real world. It's recognising the way many of them live their lives.

The Sheffield University students broadly felt it was a good thing that the BBC was getting involved in more experimental media, but urged caution, too. Someone said it could be a bit like your dad dancing and embarrassing you at a party.

Personally, I think the BBC needs to reach its audiences in as many ways as possible, but accept that its not always going to get it right for everyone. It's the BBC's job as a public service broadcaster to attempt to meet the needs of all its audiences, or do its damned best trying. Attract the new, retain the core, replenish the old.

I'll leave you with Stephen Fry. Pip, pip.


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