What's the future for News?
I gave a speech at Broadcast's Future of News conference on Wednesday. You can read what I said there below. Let me know what you think...
I’d like to start by firstly thanking all the people here – broadcasters and journalists – who have stood by the BBC during the long 114 days of Alan Johnston’s captivity.
We are of course overjoyed that Alan has been released but we are also hugely grateful to everyone inside and outside the business who have shown him and us such support and solidarity. It really made all the difference.
Now... there’s a paradox about the BBC. From the outside it can often seem overbearing, over confident and frankly, at times, overwhelming – like a great big elephant apparently hoovering up audiences and stomping all over markets and shareholder value.
From the inside, it’s very different. There the BBC often feels less like an elephant and more like a mouse. Inside the organisation, we sometimes feel we’re too timid, too slow, not modern enough. And in that mode, you can forget the three billion or so of guaranteed income; forget the 80 years of glorious history with its extraordinary record of innovation and imagination; forget the organisation’s unique ability to unite the nation, if not the world, on the big occasions.
Over the years, BBC insiders have often had a frankly baffling ability to see their own situation in negative terms. Talk to any of the BBC leakers that crop up on Media Guardian and they will whisper that morale has never been so low, management has never been more out of touch and the future has never been bleaker.
It’s all a little perplexing given the real privilege and power of our unique position in the media marketplace.
Yet there are real challenges facing the BBC and my part of it – BBC News. And today I want to share some of those and talk about how we are planning to survive them and thrive.
Firstly the threats: what keeps me awake at night fretting now that Alan Johnston is safely home.
Well it’s not the obvious concerns like the new licence fee.
You will have noticed how our language on the licence fee has changed. Where once we called it “disappointing”, now we use that all-purpose management euphemism “challenging”. And in that shift we reveal the journey we’ve been on from dismay to disappointment to a new sense of realism. As Mark Thompson said on Monday, our much tighter funding along with the government’s proposed 3% efficiencies per year over the next five years, requires a change of size and of attitude. The BBC of the future will still pack a powerful punch but it will be smaller.
Do I hear the sound of hollow laughter from some of you at the very idea of the BBC shrinking itself? It is genuinely radical I know. But we recognise that the economics of our new situation will inevitably determine our size.
For News it’s likely to be an uncomfortable and difficult time as we adjust to a thriftier world. The BBC will always protect its journalism but no-one is immune from the pressure for efficiencies. We are working hard on ideas which we hope will meet the efficiency targets. I can’t talk in detail about those proposals because they need approval from the BBC Trust before we can implement them. We expect the Trust to give their judgement in the autumn.
I don’t relish another round of job losses after three years of Value for Money cuts. No-one in BBC management does. But I am a realist and I can confidently predict that within five years, BBC News will be somewhat smaller, even more efficient and as Mark Thompson has outlined, packing a punch in a multi-media world.
So I do worry about the money but not obsessively.
Because I started my journalistic life in a commercial radio station that nearly went bust – I actually took voluntary redundancy and walked into a BBC job the next week - I know exactly how lucky we are at the BBC to have guaranteed income at all. I thank God for Lord Reith and the remarkable resilience of the licence fee.
So what other real issues should I be fretting about?
Well there have been suggestions that our precious licence fee should be top-sliced. Clearly if that proposal is serious, there’s an argument to be had - but that’s not my biggest concern.
Nor is the new regulatory framework we are learning to enjoy at the BBC. No-one could dispute that the new BBC Trust is keeping us on our toes and demanding a greater accountability and transparency from us. And since those are things our journalism often points out are missing from other organisations, it’s not unreasonable that the BBC should have to demonstrate them.
And even the growth of new and daunting competition isn’t my top worry – though it comes quite close. And by competition I don’t just mean the tried and true competitors whom we love to beat but hold in real regard like ITN, Sky and CNN. It’s also the new boys on the block. I worry that a recent survey of the most trusted news providers in the world showed the BBC was top, followed by CNN. But it was Google – which doesn’t actually provide any of its own news but aggregates everyone else’s – which those surveyed decided was their third most trusted news provider.
So what is my top worry for BBC News – if all these aren’t enough?
Well it’s really about our relationship to the people who matter most – our audiences.
It’s about capturing and keeping their hearts and minds.
The one thing that we need to guard against more than any other is the possibility that BBC News could become a heritage brand – living on past glories and brand value but increasingly irrelevant to a significant part of the audience.
It’s not that people don’t think News is important
It’s just that gap between what people say and what they do.
Now that may sound daft when at the moment we reach 80% of the adult population with BBC News on TV, radio or online. But the picture is complicated:
TV consumption is dropping as we all know. And the online services aren’t yet making up the gap.
And with particular audiences, it’s clear that like other broadcasters, we are struggling. It’s not a disastrous story – we know that 70% of 16- 24 year-olds are connected to BBC News in some way every week.
But the ways they get their news are definitely changing.
Fewer than 25% of 15- 24s watch 15 consecutive minutes of BBC News on TV in any given week.
For the record, I am not someone obsessed with “The Young” – I used to run Radio Four so I know the value of the so-called “older demographic”. I also recognise - as perhaps more of us should - that we are an aging population and we ignore that trend at our peril.
But if BBC News is not to slip silently and gently into a service for the Saga generation, it needs to connect deeply with the interests and habits of the young whilst being confident enough not to feel it is simply led by them.
In our search to find new ways to connect to this vital audience, we are lucky to have a fantastic model in Newsbeat on Radio One which is the epitome of a confident news service utterly in touch with its audience but unafraid to give them the difficult, public service stuff too. For example, if a story on the European Union is really important, Newsbeat will find a way to do it with as much intelligence and insight as they would a major entertainment story.
And it’s often Newsbeat listeners who alert us to important stories with wider implications. It was Newsbeat listeners who told us about the army equipment failures in Iraq. Why? Because among Newsbeat’s audience are a large number of squaddies and their friends and families. And they trust Newsbeat to tell their story.
But of course we need much more than Newsbeat. And in recognition of that fact, we’ve recently completed a major piece of work which we’ve called Creative Futures. You will have seen and read both Mark Thompson and Mark Byford – the Head of BBC Journalism – talking about it.
What that revealed was that while many of the young may rate the BBC, we can’t assume, as we did with their parents, that at a certain point they will simply migrate to being BBC News consumers. They are growing up with far more choice in terms of their news providers.
What’s more, we have to ask ourselves how much they will actually want the kind of News that we like now once they are adult.
In all honesty, I don’t think most teenagers have ever really been passionate about news. I certainly wasn’t. But we’ve relied on them becoming more interested as they took on financial and family responsibilities.
That may happen again. But we can’t assume that today’s under-25s are as interested in civic society and the wider world as their parents were. They certainly don’t seem to share the baby boomer’s enthusiasm for marching in support of social and political change.
But we have to be careful here. Their reluctance to vote and their apparent political apathy does not mean that they aren’t interested in what’s going on around them. Our research suggests they feel passionately about all sorts of issues – but they expect to get their News in ways that work for them.
Remember: this is the generation of Facebook and YouTube - which can seem a tad trivial and self-obsessed to an older generation. But they are simply a way of life for many teenagers in Britain today.
So how are we planning to woo the next generation into News?
Well no-one pretends it’s easy but we are working on several fronts.
The heart of our approach is the strategy you need with any audience: start where they are, not where you would like them to be.
So we know that the penetration of broadband is higher among audiences which currently consume less journalism (the young and those in digital TV homes).
While 16-24s are watching less TV than their counterparts in previous decades, they spend three times as long using new media than over 25s.
We also know that in the US, the internet is the primary source of news for people under 30.
So you will be unsurprised that our major focus for reaching the young is interactivity via the web and mobility. We have plans – still to be approved by the Trust - to build on our prize-winning website to create a service we are provisionally calling My News Now.
This will be a service which allows highly sophisticated personalisation – so whatever your age or interests, you can get the subjects and the styles of news which you find attractive – when you want them, for the present moment or to download for later. There will be audio and video on demand and aggregated pages on a huge range of specialisms.
This should also be a service which offers you incredibly detailed information and news on your local area.
And of course, all of this should be available as a mobile service – as long as we do it with sensitivity to those already in the market place.
But interactivity isn’t just about personalisation. It’s also about reshaping the relationship we have with our audiences so that those who want to engage directly with the News – and that will often be the young – can do so easily and effectively.
Our user-generated content hub – the rather pompous description of the desk that takes in the texts, e-mails, stills and video which our audiences send us – has been expanded and expanded but is still struggling to keep up with the huge amount of material that our audiences send us. The 7 July London bombings demonstrated that there were hundreds of newsgatherers out there who could collect images which we couldn’t.
And last Saturday’s attack on Glasgow airport was another sharp reminder of the newsgathering capacity of the general public with a mobile phone camera or video.
This kind of two-way relationship is now so important we are opening our UGC hub for 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
But as I made clear earlier, it’s not just about the way we deliver news; it’s also about what we deliver.
And this requires a really subtle and often difficult balancing act between being inspired by what the audience is interested in – without being led by it.
Let me be quite clear. If the BBC ever simply followed audience taste in an unthinking way, we should hand back the licence fee. We are not a market-led organisation. We get the privilege of the licence fee to give people more than they expect. It is our job to make news judgements about what is important and significant - as well as what is popular.
And part of that balancing act is clocking where subject work best for audiences. So on Radios One and Two and the Six O’clock News on BBC One, there is a genuine appetite for intelligent news about big brands, entertainment and major developments in the lives of superstars. Whereas on the Ten O’clock News on BBC One, there is much less appetite for entertainment news.
Lord Reith might not have liked it – he had a problem about the very idea of entertainment on the BBC at one time – but if we are to remain relevant to a new generation, we have to engage with subjects that once seemed quite alien to us and apply our usual values and journalistic rigour.
Once upon a time the BBC cringed when a major Royal story hit the headlines and we left it to the newspaper review to tell the public what was happening. Now we have two incredibly effective Royal correspondents who manage these stories with confidence and all the journalistic rigour you’d expect from an story on the BBC.
Eventually of course, we can envisage a world where many audiences have abandoned news on channels altogether and will simply log on to connect to the range and type of stories they feel like watching or listening to that day. They won’t bother to find out what the BBC thinks is the most important – top of the bulletin – story. When that time comes, tensions about where and when entertainment news appears on air will disappear.
But I think that day is some way off.
In the meantime, we will be pursuing as much innovation as possible within the idea of interactive news via broadband. It’s not just about connecting to the young now. It’s about making sure that when they are middle aged, they feel engaged with the BBC because it’s absolutely not a heritage brand. It gives them news they trust in ways that are convenient and in a style that resonates with them.
And that word “trust” brings me finally onto our values.
Because when I worry about us becoming a heritage brand, I never worry about our values.
They are perhaps old-fashioned, though I would never claim that the values of accuracy, impartiality and fairness are ours alone. I have far too much respect for our domestic competitors.
But in a highly crowded news market place where there is pressure on everyone to make impact, there could be an inevitable drift towards views not news in all parts of the media.
And we know that some audiences like that. The Fox News model works incredibly well for a lot of viewers.
But for the BBC to earn its money – and continue to have outstanding trust levels – I can’t ever see a time when we would abandon impartiality as our core value.
At its crudest, it means we don’t take sides either implicitly or explicitly. That may not make us friends in parts of the press, the chattering classes or indeed parts of the audience – but it’s the bit of our heritage brand we lose at our peril.
So – if you ever think of me lying awake at night fretting about the future of BBC News – remember that what I am really worrying about is the most fundamental and important question of all. How we keep the engagement, the interest and above all – the trust - of audiences now and in the future.