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Reinventing news

Richard Sambrook | 11:30 UK time, Wednesday, 12 November 2008

I gave a presentation this week to a group of journalism students at City University, London about The Future of News. You can read a summary of what I said below. In case you're wondering why I'm talking about commercial funding, as I've explained before outside the UK the BBC's English TV and internet services are commercial and supported by advertising as of course are most other news services.


In Sidney Lumet's 1976 Oscar winning movie Network Peter Finch, playing deranged news anchor Howard Beale, rails at his audience about the banks going bust, environmental crises, crime on the streets, politicians and the media. "You've got to get mad!" he tells them. It seemed an appropriate way to start a talk to a group of City University students about The Future of News.

Because 32 years later we are still dealing with many of the same issues (economic crises, political apathy, a crisis of trust in the media) and anyone setting out now for a career in journalism needs to motivate themselves to overcome a vast array of forbidding problems. I didn't tell them anything new - the themes are now familiar.

Technological change is transforming how news is produced and consumed. Audiences are fragmenting and undermining the economics of commercial news operations and the more open, interactive and inclusive nature of the internet is challenging the culture and conventions of traditional news organisations. The media pages and blogs are full of counsels of despair about the future of serious journalism. But I prefer to side with Tom Curley, the President of the Associated Press news agency who said last year:

"The adjustment we're being asked to make is to a world of increased access, new competition and different business models. It's not about easing onto the obit page."

We are only at the beginning of the transformation of the industry - in much the same way as the music industry is also being changed totally by digital technology. As for the future, in Donald Rumsfeld's words, it's full of known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. It seems to me the known knowns will be a continued need for information about an ever more interconnected world; an appetite for storytelling in a way that engages interest, a need for analysis and explanation and an opportunity to debate and discuss.

But these things will increasingly be delivered through an internet that is more tailored and personalised thanks to data-driven services, video-rich and live (in the way we can now take video comments on some issues for example) and more open networks of people and information rather than closed systems offering limited and pre-determined choices.

But there's a paradox here. Just as the number of global channels and news sites online explodes, what it hides underneath is a contraction of international newsgathering. Costs are being cut, overseas bureaux closed, staff laid off.

One academic study [pdf link] said that only the agencies, Reuters, AP and AFP plus the BBC now maintain extensive international newsgathering resources. Link journalism, like The Drudge Report, for all its interest and benefits, is no substitute for original reporting. New models are emerging - like GlobalPost and Global Voices - but it's early days.

There's just that troubling issue of how commercial organisations get an audience and advertisers to pay for it. Newspapers and broadcasters have lived for decades by selling audiences to advertisers. Now the number of eyeballs per page or per programme is falling - but we have much greater detail and granularity about where they are going and what they are doing online. Media organisations have to find a way to extract the value from that.

The risk otherwise is that long standing newspapers or stations will disappear.

Those students just setting out on their journalistic careers will need to be multi-skilled, commercially savvy, creative and confident. They need encouragement - their generation has to reinvent the business of journalism.


  • Comment number 1.

    And in this brave new world of multiple news outlets, why should I be forced to pay for one I do not want? Why should I have to pay the TV tax when I can get all I want elsewhere?

  • Comment number 2.

    Striving for excellence is a commendable quality and is vital in every profession. Journalism is all about truthful, accurate reporting and writing. Professional training is highly necessary as there are so many pitfalls journalists could fall into. Any journalist worth his salt needs excellent journalistic qualifications and good training. All this does not come cheap. Just as all major disciplines in the sciences and arts are paid for by the government in the form of scholarship and bursaries, the tax payer should not grudge paying for journalists wanting to reach the apex of their field through creative dint!

  • Comment number 3.

    Yes. All right.

    But what concerns me is the growth of journalists seeking 'personality' status: the growing number of doyens posing as gurus or authorities on anything and everything.

    Dateline London; Daily Politics; BBC News. Any action and the same faces pop up to opine their opinions instead of reporting the news.

    Worst of all are their blogs, outlets for their ballooning egos.

    I think that's about all.

  • Comment number 4.

    And in this brave new world of multiple news outlets, why should I be forced to pay for one I do not want? Why should I have to pay the TV tax when I can get all I want elsewhere?


    So stop paying the licence fee then, as long as you are not using the TV signal you don't have to pay for it.

  • Comment number 5.

    JGScotland: If you don't want to pay for it, it is simple, get rid of your TV sets and you don't have to pay a single penny.

  • Comment number 6.

    The modern media has one problem,political bias, it often doe's not give the whole story mostly a slanted view point.In todays world anyone who will not go along with "the sky is falling global warming nazi's"is shouted down,or this idea every country must agree and run their affair's the same way sickens me.I believe that when the wall fell the west fell with it.

  • Comment number 7.

    Mr Sambrook, I have a great deal of sympathy with you. 'Flat Earth News' highlights a lot of the problems with respect to fewer journos covering more stories with consequent over reliance on news agencies, due to the closure of foreign bureau offices.

    But don't you see that for many people, it is difficult to reconcile that view with the 'cult of personality' presenters like David Dimblebore and Matt Frei [who I concede is excellent] who are parachuted in, along with about 170 others, to cover the American elections ??

    Granted you do have lots of foreign offices and try to cover 'world news' extensively, but please don't pretend that the problems lie elsewhere - you have to look inwards as well. 'People in glass houses..' and all that.

  • Comment number 8.

    Maybe you should show 'Network' on BBC soon..

    There never seem to be many good films on the Beeb these days - why is this ?

  • Comment number 9.

    #5. "JGScotland: If you don't want to pay for it, it is simple, get rid of your TV sets and you don't have to pay a single penny."

    Sadly it isn't. Boris Johnson ended up in court for non-payment of his licence fee on a cottage that doesn't have a TV. It is impossible to prove a negative and the licence people (who used to use detector vans and now just use databases) refuse to believe you don't have a set and issue court summons automatically.

    I don't mind paying my licence fee in general, but what I do object to is the backdoor commericialisation of the BBC while they simultaneously shout for more licence fees. Decent programs funded by the licence payer (the new doctor who, Rome, Tudors, Spooks etc) are shown once then sold on DVD and flogged to satellite channels. The terestrial schedules are filled with 30 year repeats like Dads army and open all hours while the decent stuff is sold on and never reshown.

  • Comment number 10.

    To those saying "don't want to pay the license fee, get rid of your tv" I would just like to say that I have a 32" TV, I used it for my PC and my PC alone, yet I HAVE to pay the TV Tax. WHY? I don't know!! I wrote to the TV Licensing department, they didn't bother to reply.

    If the BBC became subscription based then those who want it can pay for it. It's unfair to make people pay the tax (or rather over-inflated salaries of it's "stars") if they never watch the programmes. After all, they are just being 'dumbed down' and lacking in anything ground-breaking these days. Same old drivel, different channel.

    Oh before anyone says it, sure, I use the BBC news website but I could easily switch to any other for the same news items.

    Come on BBC, you used to be better then this. I _DOUBLE DARE_ you to make the BBC a subs channel. Perhaps then it may become less politically unbalanced and provide better content.

  • Comment number 11.

    Mr Sambrook,

    Your headline:
    "Reinventing News".

    News is News, surely. Why on earth should it be re-invented?

    RS: "Anyone setting out now for a career in journalism needs to motivate themselves to overcome a vast array of forbidding problems."

    What a pity that these 'forbidding problems' forbid journalists to get on with their core business: which is surely to ask questions, get the answers and report them in a clear, honest and as neutral way as possible.

    RS: "an appetite for storytelling in a way that engages interest, a need for analysis and explanation and an opportunity to debate and discuss. "

    I find the order, or prioritising, of your words here most revealing:
    1. Storytelling. What, pray, does storytelling have to do with news?
    2. A need for analysis and explanation. Surely this should be no. 1?
    3. An opportunity to debate and discuss. Great. When it works. Glancing at your blog threads here, I see very little evidence of journalists stepping in to 'debate and discuss'.

    RS: "Now the number of eyeballs per page or per programme is falling"
    - Ever looked into whether this has anything to do with disillusionment at the glaringly narrow news focus, or a growing awareness of bias and omission in news?

    "but we have much greater detail and granularity about where they are going and what they are doing online."

    Ah, so it's all about tracking us in the hope of 'extracting value' from us, rather than trying to inform us in any sincere or meaningful way, is it?

    RS: "Media organisations have to find a way to extract the value from that"

    Is it all about money, profit and 'extracting value'?
    Not one word in your speech about journalism's social responsibility, journalistic ethics or the role of a muscular, free press in truly representative democracy.

    Fascinating stuff.

  • Comment number 12.

    The Italians have a book claiming Italian precident for all modern inventions. I'm not doubting its truthfullness. An American book tells of an earlier precedent for every invention of the modern world.

    Similarly I email my children and tell them what is happening in the world least they get the wrong idea from the BBC. I, like Alistair Campbell, love the BBC. But I, like AC, can also get irate about some reports, prioritisation and time spent on minor issues.

    For example:
    1. My children know more about the Eastern Front than has been mentioned in 10's of hours of coverage about the Great War on BBC.

    2. My children know the bigest Battle of the second WW. I don't think it has every been mentioned by the BBC.

    3. My children know the impact of the 70/30 rule on the mismanagement of housing development in the UK. But in hundreds of articals about houising development, house prices, supply and demand for housing you never mention the 70/30 rule and its deliverance of 10,000's of flats that nobody wants and its converse "shortage of housing that people do want".

    4. The BBC/media still use the word prudence wrt Mr. Brown. This was true for the first two years of him being Chancellor but that ended 9 years ago. He increased the tax on jobs (NIC) by 10% and doubled public spending whilst renaming spending as investment.

    I really could go on and on and on but I will stop.

    David Lilley

  • Comment number 13.

    The way to lose an audience:

    1. Mix journalists’ opinions (you call it ‘analysis and explanation’) with news events to the point that people don’t trust you

    2. Replace or shorten real news events on the main tv news to make room for a bloke in a suit and allow the bloke in the suit to gab on, pontificating and passing judgement about MPs that we elected. Regardless of falling trust and falling audiences, persevere with this nightly party political broadcast. Call the bloke in a suit a political correspondent.

    3. Get interviewers to ask questions only Guardian/BBC journalists would ask. DO NOT ask “how much is this costing the UK taxpayer”, but DO ASK: “what is the government going to do about it?” thus ensuring that such pressure from BBC journalists results in big left-wing government solutions and even less trust for the BBC

    4. Keep up political campaigns such as that recently waged against George Osborne and the push to bolster Gordon Brown

    Many journalists seem to enter the profession in order to change the world. It may be quicker and less painful than getting elected, but isn’t it cheating? In any case, those who want to serve some spin with their output should surely find a home in the many independent outlets that are available. However BBC News should not be the place for spinners, forecasters, speculators or philosophers. If the BBC is good at gathering news then surely it should concentrate on that. It may not meet Richard Sambrook’s intellectual ideals, but it would provide the UK public with unfettered, unbiased news, something the BBC has starved us of for too long.

    With 50% share of broadcast media and overwhelming complaints of left wing bias, something has got to give. I doubt that the whole BBC will be abolished despite any funding overhaul. Rather I see BBC News will reforming itself as a matter of self-preservation by stripping out the journalists who like to bloat their coverage with spin and replacing them with decent hard working hacks who will give us facts and events

  • Comment number 14.

    So, Mr Sambrook, who makes the news, or, more to the point, who "owns" the news. The "art" of reinventing a story is timeless because words just happen to be ambiguous be they written, spoken or imagined. Photographs and videos also suffer because they are two dimensional and are as easily made to lie as the words that accompany them.

    There is nothing new age about the media as it struggles to claim the rights to anything that it publishes. The BBC protects its intellectual copyright on its material and charges license payers the same or more than it does those who have never even lived in the UK let alone paid a license fee. Who "owns" that material, and what is the difference between the time grabbed from a casual "eye witness" and the paid for time contributed by an "on the books" expert?

    There is a big "old boys" network in the BBC and the media in general, infected by rabid nepotism, factional cliques, inflated egos, self congratulatory but hugely mediocre journalists, and pivotal presenters who bring their own, largely irrelevant, opinions with them. That the quality has plummeted hasn't really registered with this insular and unhealthily dysfunctional group because they are too busy contemplating their navels.

    The Internet opens an entirely new concept of "news" that is created by amateurs, disemboweled former professionals, people whose views are neither mainstream nor popular, and those who just have something to say. That it is largely unfettered by commercial considerations or "tactical" diplomacy means that it is much more likely to be either highly accurate or highly inaccurate. The "professionals" argue that this is dangerous and spend their time, just like the BBC, in moderating (censoring) output.

    For as long as the BBC engages in selling opinion as news (which is the disease you have sadly contracted and been consumed by) you can no longer claim to be the media of fact. One look at your record on Georgia, on Russia, on China, and on the US presidential election should be enough to chasten all of you. But it doesn't because you are not even aware of what you are doing are you?

  • Comment number 15.

    Telling lies, skewing the news, mixing editorializing with reporting, failing to put events in context, and other crimes against journalism BBC and others perpetually commit will never go over well with an audience no matter what the technology that's used to disguise propaganda masquerading as news. The internet only exposes the lies that much more quickly and efficiently. Dan Rather was exposed in 2004 for the phony letter about George Bush within fifteen minutes of his airing it. It was demonstrated clearly as a forgery all over the internet, sharp eyed viewers knowing that the fonts in the letter didn't exist at the time it was supposedly written.

    BBC's only hope is to go back to being the reliable and fair reporter it was many decades ago. To accomplish that, it will need to sweep out its entire nest of double talking liars. I wouldn't believe even one of them if their tongues came notarized.

  • Comment number 16.

    I notice how the apostrophes in No. 13 have been transformed into Question Marks ! This might kill two birds with one stone - transform the mis-used apostrophe, and introduce a more questioning approach to marketing hype.

    "Mr Sambrook here, I've just ?Reinvented the Wine Bottle? "

    "Hmm.. Tell us Mr Sambrook, isn?t it the same old wine inside ?"

  • Comment number 17.

    #12. Just of out of interest and quite off topic what do you think WAS the biggest battle of WW2? As an amateur historian I'd go for the Kursk campaign, but its a very hard thing to measure.

  • Comment number 18.

    Lordbeddgelert, we certainly don’t assume the BBC is immune - far from it. We are subject to the same pressures as everyone else, including, in BBC World News TV and, commercial pressures.

    Sirjohnwood, I of course agree serious journalism has a social responsibility and must have values and accountability. I have spoken and written often about this - but this particular presentation was about the "business of news".
    "Storytelling" is a term often used in journalism to describe putting together a clear and engaging narrative about a news event - in other words most printed and broadcast news items. I apologise because I recognise it is not a term understood in this context outside of most newsrooms and journalism courses. Analysis surely has to follow an account of the basic events.

    Meacoalpit, The public own the news - particularly in these days of interactivity.
    Through initiatives like the creative archive, and allowing some BBC video to be embedded on other sites, the BBC is allowing others to make use of our material.
    See my colleague Helen Boaden's latest blog post on citizen journalism and BBC News.

  • Comment number 19.

    My concern about the way the news is given to the public, is the constant rehashing of the news every fifteen minutes of so. You could be forgiven for getting very pessimistic, due to emphasis on the bad news. During a days news, you will hear constantly how bad things are, or how bad a story is.

    It is enough to make one depressed or worse. Yes things at present are not good in the financial world. unfortunately we are being told every few minutes, that people are not spending or so the city says. yet looking around my local area, it would seem people are still out buying for Christmas.

    The time to really worry in my view, is when businesses start talking about 3/4 day weeks due to lack of sales. Even then it will only be for a short time, and then we will get through this time.

    I also find the way some reporters feel the need to go for the jugular, looking to blame someone and ruin their career. Yet we seldom see the same when a reporter over does his/her job. Some small apology within their news columns. yet once they have had their way, the target will never fully recover. Why?, because many people will always assume there is no smoke without fire. The reporters need to temper the urge to crash someones career, because it is usually the family who loose out.

  • Comment number 20.

    That you Richard for explaining to the hard of thinking how story telling and news go hand in hand.

    If the beeb has a left bias (which I seriously don't think it has) the people generally commenting appear to be from Tory Central Office. In fact I feel that only a piad up member of the British National Party could seriously think that BBC news is left slanted.

  • Comment number 21.

    I'm a BBC World New viewer (I have to watch advertisements for watches, hotels, airlines, insurance companies etc.. in addition to the subscription fee to my satellite company).

    'News' is everywhere today. In my opinion, the BBC needs to go beyond news and into education and approach every news report as a mini documentary. Spend time on research and background as opposed to trying to be first to air a story.

    Typically Al Jazeera does a better job of reporting the news than the BBC I think.

  • Comment number 22.

    @Richard Sambrook - thanks for taking the time to respond. You've proven me wrong here on one point at least.

    I was mulling over 'news as narrative' (or is it 'narrative as news') as I turned on BBC World News last night, only to find an example of this blurred category unfolding before my eyes.
    Expecting news, I was surprised to find myself watching a mini-documentary, narrated by Gordon Carreira (if my memory serves me) - telling us all we need to know about a large US military base in the Thule area of Greenland.
    I took my watch out about a minute in and timed another four minutes of this item, because I was struck by both its 'non-newsiness', the repetitive narration and the length of the item.
    We were treated to numerous view of the base; zoom-ins of the impressive defence equipment; two soundbites about missiles shooting over the North Pole; a visit to the offices, the barracks and the mess where we were treated to a female sargeant's camouflaged rear swinging right and left as she played a Wii-game on the console; then a visit to the ten-pin bowling alley where someone tried for a full-house and then it was on to the rumpus room, where we heard a karoake song and saw female soldiers jiving on the dance floor; then a visit to the mail room where a lonely soldier collected post from his box.
    As this somewhat rambling, but chummy, feel-good item drew to a close I was left to ponder the following:
    - What specific NEWS did this piece encapsulate for the worldwide BBC audience?
    - I've noticed these longer 'narrated documentary ' pieces in news bulletins, and often wonder what exactly they have to do with news, or whether they belong in a top-of-the-hour news bulletin at all, especially given the very numerous, fairly urgent newsworthy issues journalists could busy themselves with?

  • Comment number 23.

    If this five-to-six-minute insert had appeared in a Russia Today news bulletin and featured, instead of Thule, a feel-good visit to a Siberian Russian army base, I wonder whether we would have put the whole thing down to puerile Putinesque propaganda :-)

  • Comment number 24.

    I agree with the gist of the posts from *7 * 13 *14 *15 *19 *22.
    When is news just news and not opinion?
    If opinions from journalists and talking heads are deemed to be necessary in a news programme then they should be clearly labelled as such, and not tacked on the end of real news items to infer that the opinions are themselves news.

    Watching some of the reporting on the recent U.S. elections, in which we have no vote.I was moved to wonder if the total air time devoted to the whole of this election process was not considerably more than that given over to U.K. elections, in which we do have a vote.
    Was it necessary?

    Was it strictly required that the BBC had to fly out more people to cover the finale of the election?

    This was reminiscent of the Bejing Olympics , where despite a more than adequate coverage it was felt necessary to fly in Huw Edwards.
    What for?

    News stories reported on the main evening news will be repeated on the regional news, not by the same reporter but by a local reporter if the story occurred in that region.
    If the local reporter is not felt to be up to the job to have their reporting on the main news
    why are they there?

    Duplication seems rife. The studio presenter will tell us a piece of news and will then "go over" to another reporter who will tell us exactly the same thing but from a different location.
    What for?

  • Comment number 25.

    "Analysis surely has to follow an account of the basic events". No No No. Not at the BBC!

    What should follow the account of basic events is a more detailed account of events. The BBC's formula of basic events followed by droning analysis is your big rotten problem.

    The moment you go beyond the facts you are inevitably speculating and leaving yourself, and the BBC we pay for, vulnerable to accusations of bias. Leave the analysis to independent media. Don’t do it with our money.

  • Comment number 26.

    “The business of the journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, so what folly is this toasting an independent press? We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. They pull the strings and we dance.” - John Swinton, New York Times Chief of Staff

    You're all slaves, dont talk to us about political apathy, you help to keep things just so at the request of your real masters. Why don't some of you 'truthful', professional (the root of which means to believe in what one is doing) journalists actually tell the truth, or have you got mortgages to pay too....?

  • Comment number 27.

    I want to see working class writers from all communities, ALL religions, and that includes single mothers, junkies, people on low wages etc regardless of colour. I want to know their opinion on everything, including these unelected community leaders or members.

    I don't know about you guys, but I'm getting fed up with reading what people from Cambridge or Oxford have to say. (apologies to those who do have something to say.)

    I wouldn't even mind writers from all classes who have had real life experiences.

    I am saying this because I have a suggestion ;


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