:Ben Metcalfe Blog

Changes to BBC News Website reduces choice for users outside UK

Like many of its counterparts, the BBC News Website maintains two distinct versions of it’s front page – a ‘domestic’ orientated front page and an ‘international front page. The domestic front page contains a mixture of British and world-news orientated stories, whereas the international front page only includes British news if it’s of world-wide interest.

Any visitor to the site could select which version they wanted to receive.

Until last week, that is, when the BBC decided to start forcing it’s visitors to take the version intended for the territory from which they are visiting.

As an ex-pat living in San Francisco, California that means I am now forced to take the international front page despite being very interested in British news (I’m a British citizen, tax payer, voter and still have interests in the UK).

BBC News Website screenshot

Those of you who know my background will also know that I spent six years working at the BBC, predominantly on the BBC News Website – in a technical and product development capacity. I’m therefore doubly interested in this change, as I still feel very proud of the work that I contributed to at what is (in my opinion) the most upstanding source of news around.

Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, New Mexico (?)

The changes have angered a lot of people, as you can well imagine. Check out the comments on the BBC Editors blog post – which Steve Herrmann (Editor, BBC News Website) tries to address on another post.

The heart of the matter is that the BBC News Website is serving three distinct user stories:

  • I am a UK user wanting to view British and International news
  • I am an International user wanting to view world news
  • I am an International user wanting to view British and International news

Sadly, the changes made no longer allow for the last use case – which is a pretty vocal set of people.

Technical challenges that have caused this change

The BBC says it’s doing this for a number of reasons. Serving video has become complicated – pages designed for a UK audience don’t play the video intended to accompany the page when viewed internationally as the BBC rarely has rights to show such video. The BBC is also now serving display and text-link ads to international users – it needs to maximize the efficiency of those ads and design pages layouts that accommodate them while at the same time running a domestic version of the site that contains no advertising whatsoever. The BBC also points out that a section listing UK News is included on the international front page – although I would counter that it is included ‘below the fold’ and doesn’t reflect the same editorial list as the Domestic Front Page.

While I understand and sympathize with the issues raised by the BBC I believe both are solvable very easily and am disappointed that this course of action has been taken.

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The great news is that due to the way the BBC News Website is built, you can still access the “UK Front Page” via a special hacked-up URL, which I have bundled into a convenient bit.ly url:

http://bit.ly/ukbbcnews

I would suggest adding that to your bookmarks or updating your default start page with this url.

UPDATE: Following on from demand, I’ve also created http://bit.ly/intbbcnews as a dedicated url to the international front page.

Below I have pasted an email I sent to Steve Herrmann, along with Nic Newman (Technology Controller, BBC Future Media: Journalism), Pete Clifton (Head of Editorial Development, Multi-Media Journalism and former Head of BBC News Website) and Richard Sambrook (Head of BBC World News):

Hi Steve,

Just wanted to drop you a line to say that I’m really disappointed with the change to the site today. As you may know I’ve been living in San Francisco since leaving the BBC, so I’m an international-based user these days

Understanding the way the site is published I completely comprehend the point on your blog post that “all the same content will be available as now so you’ll still be able to get both UK and international news wherever you are” but that’s only true in so far as the stories themselves.

The specific editors decision as to what is most current and prominent across the domestic and international newscape for a British-focused audience – ie the UKFS Front Page – is no longer available to me (well it is at http://news.bbc.co.uk/nol/ukfs_news/hi/default.stm – but that’s only because I know the hidden urls of the system).

Today is a pretty international news-orientated day because of the Iranian elections, North Korea issues and Guantanamo Bay. However, I notice that a number of uk stories that appear high up in the UK homepage right now have no placing in the top 9 slots of the International Front Page at all. The “News from UK” is way down below the fold, and requires scrolling to get to – it’s nothing more than an after-thought.

I guess I’m not communicating anything new that hasn’t already been voiced by others, other than to say that I’m really really disappointed – both has a user and as a former employee. I understand the technical issues you are dealing with around serving templates built for advertising to the international audience while maintaining non-advertising templates for UK users. And I understand the video issues as well, where rights are not available.

From a product development perspective there are three user stories the BBC News Website has always served:

  • I am a UK user wanting to view British and International news
  • I am an International user wanting to view world news
  • I am an International user wanting to view British and International news

By implementing the changes to have made today, you have effectively trashed that third use case. Or incorrectly assumed the last two are the same, which they are not. It’s very sad and disappointing.

Let me know if I can brainstorm with you guys solutions that you could implement to help you get back to offering all three use-cases. I’m guessing that no one that works on the product development for the site actually uses it outside of the country, so let me know if I can be an advocate to that.

Best wishes,
Ben

Steve wrote to thank me for the email and promised to pass it on to the product development team. I will update this page if/when I get any further replies.

Update: Or, you could just check out the amazingly hilarious yet familiar looking NewsArse instead.

Disclosures: I am a former BBC News Website employee and companies I have a financial interest in supply technology to BBC