5 lessons from the BBC’s Future of News

By Jon Bernstein


"The BBC has always been an innovator in news, providing risk capital for the whole industry," writes James Harding, the BBC’s director of news and current affairs and author of the Corporation’s Future of News report.

Explicitly about news journalism, the report launched last month nonetheless makes interesting reading for anyone looking to communicate widely.

It is a well­ researched and thoughtful document that seeks to address the challenges presented to those who have a story to tell and an audience to reach in an era of digital disruption. It also runs to over 15,000 words. So if you’ve not read it, let’s borrow some of the Beeb’s "risk capital", and present five lessons every marcoms professional can learn.

1. Be useful

The report suggests that "the task of journalism is to let you know and understand what is happening so you can make better decisions for yourself, your family, your community and your country - to be a better citizen."

Ring any bells? Minus the lofty ideals that come at the end of that sentence, this is a manifesto for well­ executed content marketing. Be useful, in other words.

2. Adopt “What Does It All Mean” journalism

In the world of broadcast journalism, being useful often means providing what it calls "news you can use". A personal finance story or practical advice on combatting the latest computer virus are examples of the genre. This report argues that it’s time to revisit "news you can use" to ensure content is "relevant, interesting and entertaining".

What might that mean? It might mean:

  • ­short, easily digestible snippets
  • making greater use of live blogs; and
  • introducing more explainer journalism or what the report refers to as WDIAM (What Does It All Mean) journalism

3. Use tools to tell stories

Allied to this What Does It All Mean storytelling is the use of multimedia tools. Examples in the news media worth investigating, the reports suggests, are:

  • ­The Washington Post’s use of StoryMap
  • The Wall Street Journal’s use of Tableau for interactive charts and data visualisation; and
  • online games and quizzes that form part of the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas

4. Think treatment to match audience expectation

"Sometimes audiences will want to find out quickly what's new on a story in which they're interested, at other times they will want real depth and long form journalism."

The report cites a YouGov survey which suggests that 55% of UK online news consumers prefer "bite sized content" rather than "really long articles".

For a news broadcaster which has been producing the same format television bulletins for decades this is a challenge.

The challenge for all of us is to match treatment and length to audience expectations.

Short form needs to complement long form, from 140 character tweets to a 4,000 word whitepaper.

5. Get the tone right

Understanding tone of voice is key to any successful editorial product. For the BBC it is about considering "adopting a more open style of journalism - explaining to audiences what the reporter knows (and doesn’t know), showing their working ... and being more willing to link and credit to others."

This meta approach to journalism is worth exploring elsewhere too.


Jon Bernstein is an independent digital media consultant and writer, formerly deputy editor, then digital director of New Statesman and multimedia editor at Channel 4 News. He tweets @jon_bernstein.

Jon is running two courses for DigitalFWD: