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Graphic image of a laptop computer, the screen of which shows a large radio microphone, with the wording 'on the air' above. Picture credit: Getty
While the BBC World Service delivered via short wave maintains a crucial role for a vast number of listeners, many audiences are making increased use of online listening
 

The Communications Revolution

 

The digital age of information is changing the ways people access news. From the blogosphere to podcasting and user-generated content, Alfred Hermida explores what this means for the media giants

In the 15th century, monks toiled away in their hallowed halls, meticulously copying sacred works. The breaking of this monopoly on the written word (by the invention of the Gutenburg printing press) signalled a first step towards the era of mass media. The world is undergoing a similar transformation in the 21st century, thanks to an equally disruptive technology. The internet has ignited a digital age of information which is revolutionising how we find out about the world.

In a multimedia world, news junkies are just as likely to get their fix via the mobile phone as they are to tune in to the radio. The time when people turned on the radio or TV set in the evening to learn about the day's events is gone.

Keeping pace with change

 
 
The challenge for an organisation like the BBC World Service is to make sure it is still heard above the digital cacophony
 
The challenge for an organisation like the BBC World Service is to make sure it is still heard above the digital cacophony.

Latest listening figures showed that the global reputation of the BBC brand remains strong. A record 163 million people listen to the World Service and its 33 language services.

"In terms of radio, we have flourished as global media markets have developed by improving our audibility." BBC World Service Director Nigel Chapman says: "Now the next stage is becoming clear; a major expansion in our new media services, with increased interactivity and news reporting in video in our priority
languages."

Audience power

 
This trend is growing, fuelled by the spread of high-speed broadband internet connections. The web is evolving into a multimedia channel, offering text, audio and video at the click of a button.

"Broadcasting can no longer guarantee that it is going to be the principal outlet by which people consume their TV or radio," said the editor-in-chief of the UK's The Guardian newspaper website, Emily Bell. "The audience is saying: 'I'll watch what I want, when I want."

Domestic BBC, too, is in the process of reshaping itself to become part of this new digital era. In April Mark Thompson, Director General, BBC, announced plans to develop a whole range of new broadband, mobile and interactive content, as well as overhauling much of the BBC's TV and radio output. "The BBC should no longer think of itself as a broadcaster of TV and radio and some new media on the side," he said. "We should aim to deliver content to our audiences in whatever media and on whatever device makes sense for them, whether they are at home or on the move."

Trust

 
 
This is about more than just technology.
In an age of infinite choice, trust plays a key role
 
This is about more than just technology. In an age of infinite choice, trust plays a key role. An established media organisation like the BBC can count on its reputation as a news provider, at least for now, to make it stand out in a crowded media landscape. "I would say the BBC has high credibility and there are many reasons for this, its tradition, its history," said Nitin Desai, special adviser to the UN secretary-general.

But even a venerable institution like the BBC cannot rest on its laurels. A recent global poll for the corporation found that young web brands such as Google and Yahoo! were trusted as a source for news by a significant number of people. In this universe, where readers can compare and contrast information, trust has to be earned. As the world becomes ever more connected, traditional media will be forced to change or go the way of the dinosaurs. Those who act early are more likely to emerge as the news giants of the future.

Alfred Hermida is technology editor of the BBC News website. As a pioneer in online journalism, he was a member of the news site set up team in 1997. He began his BBC career as a news trainee working in radio and television before spending four years in the Middle East as a BBC correspondent.

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