Since its first broadcast in 1922, the British Broadcasting Corporation has been at the forefront of global news service. Reputedly the world’s most trusted news provider, the BBC has been under pressure to transform and lessen its reliance on the UK tax payer for funding.

In May 2022  it set out its blueprint “to build a digital-first public service media organisation” with a £300 million investment.

At the time, the BBC had reached its largest ever audience outside the UK, a total of 438 million people.

‘It’s not enough to transform business models and delivery and production methods; our journalism has to transform, too.’

Relooking, re-evaluating and repackaging formed the crux of the BBC’s digital newsroom transformation, Naja Nielsen, Digital Director for BBC News, told a session at WAN-IFRA’s 75th World News Media Congress in Copenhagen last month – with truth, storytelling and people proving core values.

“Our newsroom transformation is determined in delivering value for the audiences. I do believe that our journalism has to transform, too. It’s not enough to transform business models and delivery methods and production methods; our journalism has to transform, too.”

The BBC, says Nielsen, has been “learning from other newspapers … and have supercharged our digital content.”

Nielsen cites the New York Times’ All Access offer as an example: “We were looking at New York Times, and thought, ‘Oh, that’s really smart; they’re creating a bundle.’ And then we realised we already have a bundle – it’s more about how we are showing that to the audiences.”

A human-centric focus

The use AI of and AI tools is under development, with several GenAI experiments in process. And product changes – such as bundling news and sport – and targeted subscription campaigns, are by no means overlooked: “We are a driving sign in, in the UK, very hard – and have 23.5 million people living in Britain, now signed in to our products.” 

Yet the focus has been largely human-centric. 

“The real change for us has been that we have put the digital people at the centre of everything; working alongside news journalists, and editing and curating their work, and supercharging our digital content.

“The key is to value both the data skills as much as the journalism skills, with one caveat: public service journalism has to be very, very good. We have to know that it is holding power to account, that it is accurate, impartial, that it is finding stuff out.”

‘People choose stories, rather than the news.’

The BBC is the most trusted news media brand “by some length” says Nielsen; used by everyone in the UK and 430 million internationally.

Broadcast in 42 languages, with journalists in more than 70 countries, it also boasts a mixed business model.

“We’re uniquely positioned because our news channel is now both a channel, and multiple streams publishing every day, that focus on one story at a time – because we can see people choose stories, rather than the news.”

Meeting audiences on their terms

The broadcaster’s audience-first approach was determined on the understanding that “we used to be very big, in people’s lives, but now every, every click and engagement has to be fought for,” explains Nielsen.

To ensure the BBC met its audience mandate on the road to transformation, it conducted in-depth audience surveys – in the UK, and worldwide – to ascertain what people expect from the broadcaster.

“A decade or two ago, people wanted daily news output: a bulletin, a newspaper; nowadays, audiences – especially the younger audiences – either want things to believe; they want to follow stories as they unfold, or they want to have added value, with in-depth analysis.”

This led to an investment into journalism that meets the needs of an audience with limited time for and attention to news –  with context analyses, graphic explainers, and verification: “Because the window of attention closes as soon as the big breaking news is over.”

Building on a known brand

The result is an enhanced digital portfolio which includes iPlayer, Sounds, News and Sports – and an increase in sub-brands such as BBC Verify.  

“We have gone to greater lengths than most newsrooms in verifying and double checking, sourcing everything. But we did not show that to our audiences.

“Now we have decided to pull back the curtain and show people what we know, what we don’t know, and how we know what we know,” explains Nielsen.

Also new – launched late last month – is BBC Indepth, longform journalism offering expert analysis, on par with similar shows on radio and TV.

BBC documentaries are also now freely available on YouTube, and a range of newsletters are in the works too. 

What’s more, the broadcaster best known for soft launches is also applying these proactive measures to its own brand awareness campaigns.

“In our branding, advertising and campaigns, we are talking more about who we are and the values that drive us,” asserts Nielsen.


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