16 February 2021

Applied innovation for BBC News

BBC News is the product of radical innovation. News at the BBC originated on the frivolous, toy-like technology of radio, and evolved through pioneering journalism on the frivolous, toy-like technologies of television and the internet.

Today it takes no effort or imagination to recognise these initiatives as successful innovation on the grandest scale. It is harder, however, to perceive the opportunities for productive innovation in news that exist in our own time.

The 2020’s will continue to be characterised by fundamental changes in media wrought by the internet. It is clear, however, that news innovation in this era will be less about pioneering monolithic distribution channels than about providing genuinely valued digital news experiences to extraordinarily diverse audiences. This article describes how BBC News Labs, the innovation unit serving BBC News, develops those experiences.

The goals of innovation in news

The primary goal of news innovation at the BBC is to provide pragmatic options to its senior leadership, helping them to raise the ambitions of the organisation. The accelerating changes in the digital media ecosystem require the BBC to change how it produces, distributes and communicates news, which in turn requires the availability of specific alternative products and processes. It is News Labs’ responsibility to develop, demonstrate and test those alternatives.

Additional innovation goals arise from the BBC’s status as a public service organisation. This requires BBC News to deliver real value to every household in the UK, not merely to a preferred niche audience or to a particular region. Its news products must offer impartial and socially valuable news experiences that might otherwise not be available in the marketplace. These public service responsibilities act as both constraints and as opportunities for news innovation, and are important criteria for the selection and development of innovation projects.

News Labs pursues these goals firstly by facilitating communication about editorial, technological and process innovations within the BBC, across the news industry and with academia. Promising opportunities that match the organisation’s priorities are then identified and developed into working prototypes that can be used to test the usefulness of concepts, verify their feasibility and assess their scalability.

Examples of innovation in news

Let’s look at some specific examples of themes where BBC News Labs has developed innovation projects in recent years. Each is a strategic thread of work, comprised of multiple projects, and each is aimed at providing a specific response to challenges and opportunities for public service and world service news in the evolving digital media ecosystem.

Personalised storytelling: A core challenge for the BBC is delivering value to very diverse audiences using a single website and a single app, while simultaneously maintaining our public service responsibilities of universality and impartiality. Meeting this challenge requires personalised audience experiences: news stories selected, formatted and even customised in different ways for different audience segments. It also requires new tools for journalists to maintain full editorial control over those personalised experiences. Pursuing both of these objectives simultaneously provides the BBC with options for a public service interpretation of the data-driven personalisation that is increasingly expected in the digital media ecosystem.

Localised stories from data: More and more news stories originate in data, and the authority of data in societal debate is growing. There is an immediate public service need to make data stories more available, personally relevant and genuinely accessible for more people – especially people who are less comfortable with numbers and charts. Our work generating local and election stories directly from data, localising graphics for stories and supporting the BBC’s elections and civic participation projects is intended to offer options for addressing that need.

New storytelling formats: Intense competition for time and attention means that fewer people are willing to consume news as long blocks of text. Providing alternative ways to tell news stories is therefore a sizeable area of development. These new formats include bullet point summaries, image galleries, comics, interactive audio bulletins and more. These options for communicating the BBC’s journalism in different ways to different audiences contribute to the goal of making our news appealing to everyone.

The editing tool showing each phone screen image.

The graphical storytelling prototype aims to make creating visual stories for social media less time consuming for journalists.

Measuring readability, consistency and impartiality of language: The way in which news articles and scripts are written has a profound impact on its accessibility to audiences. Language that is too formal, too complex, too inconsistent or even too biased or depressing can make news ‘not for me’ for too many people. Tools that help journalists avoid difficult or non-inclusive language, and tools that let editors measure the impact of language on audiences can help make news more accessible to more people.

Cross-language news: The friction that once prevented consumption of news across languages is declining as powerful new language and translation models become widely available. The potential of these technologies to expand the news content available to the BBC’s global audiences is considerable. New tools that help journalists to move news easily between languages, and new automated translation models for smaller linguistic markets can help realise that potential and provides new options for growing World Service audiences and deepening their engagement with the BBC.

User scrolls through feed of different translated stories

An early version of the live page translation prototype

Authoring and managing structured evergreen context: Audiences are inundated with text, audio and video, and their need for context around news is increasingly urgent. Evergreen news artefacts like explainers, question & answer pairs, fact checks, timelines and even voice or chat bots can provide that context for journalists and audiences alike. Developing tools for journalists to create, manage and access large repositories of these artefacts, and new audience-facing experiences based upon them, can open up options for expanding the usefulness, differentiation and authority of BBC News.

The future

The BBC’s early experiments with radio, television and digital news succeeded because they were embryonic examples of the enormous value that new combinations of technology and editorial judgement could unleash for audiences across the United Kingdom and the world. They were the logical outcomes of audiences’ latent demand for news communicated as speech, in images and in self-navigable catalogues, matched with technologies that could fulfil that demand.

Today’s digital audiences clearly have enormous latent demand for personally relevant and trustworthy news, delivered to them in ways that fit their personal needs and preferences. It would be difficult to argue that the current news ecosystem and the experiences delivered by current news products are satisfying to news consumers in their current form.

We don’t know with any certainty what successful news products will look like in 10 or 20 years, but we can make some educated guesses. They will probably be highly personalised, delivering real personal relevance for each individual and delivered in ways customised for the individual and their circumstances. They will probably be less dependent on traditional articles – an increasingly commoditised format that remains essentially unchanged from the 17th century. They will probably be produced using workflows that augment and scale the work of journalists using AI-driven tools and that are partly based on structured content, much of it localised or customised in some way. They probably won’t be one-size-fits-all blocks of video, audio or text, competing for attention in a digital environment awash with attention-seeking content.

What will those news products be? Quite possibly variations of projects that are already under development in News Labs. Article 15 of the BBC charter requires the BBC to “maintain a leading role in research and development” focused on “technological innovation to support the delivery of the UK Public Services … and the World Service”. The BBC has a clear mandate to pioneer what public service news can become in a digital, networked world. We boldly embraced the opportunities of radio, television and the early world wide web, and we will also boldly embrace the opportunities of digitally-native news.

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