BBC R&D

Posted by Barbara Zambrini on , last updated

We have recently launched a pilot on BBC Taster called Newsbeat Explains. It's a joint collaboration between BBC R&D, Newsbeat and News Labs. We partnered with Newsbeat as they specialise at explaining the news to 16-24 years old - they felt like a perfect fit for trying this new format.

This is a mobile-first prototype aimed at young audiences using the concept of object-based production and atomised news - self-contained pieces of information linked together - to make stories easier to understand and access. It tries to break away from the conventional way of presenting news in an article format. It aims to give our audiences a quick overview of the main, key events of the story at glance as well as empowering them to choose what aspects to explore deeper to get more detailed information.

We first approached Newsbeat while we were finishing our Snackable News prototype – our first concepts on news for young audiences.

Newsbeat Explains is part of R&D's research on atomised news aimed at developing innovative concepts for creating and delivering news stories to a diverse audience - people who want to skim stories and those who want to dig deeper.

We think structured data and atomised content could enable truly personalised experiences with content adapting to context, preferences and devices.

Our pilot uses existing BBC News production systems for Newsbeat journalists to create the content as we didn't want to impose new production workflows upon journalists. Instead we wanted to understand how to harness the potential of existing systems and identify how production flows can become more efficient and enable new experiences.

It has been challenging getting different production systems to work together synchronously as well as presenting content in ways that they hadn't been originally designed for without impacting on their functionality. But it also allowed us to better understand those systems, how they interact with each other and, most importantly, their potential. By using them in new ways we were able to identify requirements that we then fed back to the production teams.

We were interested in experimenting with new ways of writing the content for news stories that could be re-used across platforms. We explored ways of writing a story where its 'components' aren't directly dependent on each other - making key elements of the story truly reusable.

Conventional news articles are usually written in a way that helps the information flow and each paragraph is often dependent on preceding ones - for instance, substituting he or she for full names because they were referred to earlier. This means it is not straightforward to take an existing article and transform it into our “atomised” format where we want each atom to stand alone.

We have worked with journalists to understand how to create and present news stories in new, more personalised ways and this is the first manifestation.

Editorially, it has been challenging defining what content and how much of it to expose at the overview and deeper levels of the story. How granular can an atom be before losing the ability to convey meaningful information? How to write the story in a way its 'components' could be reusable elsewhere? Those were some of the challenges we identified and explored during our research.

What we are calling an “atom” should describe some piece of information in a news story and we should try to ensure it is self-contained and makes sense on its own.

This pilot is the result of several concepts developed by the R&D team, which were tested with sample of our target audience in an iterative, user-centred approach.

A story is presented with a quick overview of its key points - we call it the spine. Each atom in the spine can be expanded to reveal more detailed information. Expanded sections can contain links to definitions of people, places and organisations that were mentioned in a particular section. This aims at giving contextual information avoiding having to search the term elsewhere.

This is ongoing research and we aren't showing the solution with Newsbeat Explains, but we hope it will pave the way to more radical propositions.

In a landscape where publishing and social platforms are multiplying at an increasingly rapid rate, we think atomised media can help reach out to our audiences across platforms and cope with a fast changing market. Atomising content can make information re-usable and scalable leading to more efficient ways of delivering the news, with focus on younger audiences.

For journalists, self-contained atoms could enable new ways of presenting news stories to a bite-size generation. Most importantly, our research on atomised news aims at identifying new ways of delivering more personalised, truly adaptive user experiences so we can remain relevant to our audiences.

By running a pilot on Taster, we will be able to test our concept at a larger scale, with real audiences and over an extended period of time. This trial aims at measuring audiences' interest and get feedback to understand if people engage with this new format for news stories. And with Newsbeat journalists writing the stories for this pilot, we want to test the end-to-end workflow and learn how to use this process for creating stories at fast, newsroom pace. A combination of quantitative and qualitative data will be gathered for the trial's duration to evaluate it against our research questions.

Our trial will run for three months and, if proved successful, we will need to think at ways to transfer it to production. But the fact that we are already using production systems as a backend for the prototype should be an advantage.