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

26 thoughts on “Changes to BBC News Website reduces choice for users outside UK

  1. Funny, I noticed this last week and on reading the first part of your blog, was about to suggest you use that URL…. ah, the benefits of being BBC born and bred.

    It is an unusual choice, especially given the current movement towards super personalization and localization of web services. Please sign me up to your former-BBC-employee-living-in-California-and-wanting-to-hear-about-home advocacy campaign.

  2. I belong to the fourth user story: I am a UK user wanting to view world news.

    I live in Britain, but I’m not British, and I used only the International view of the homepage, until last week when I was forced onto the UK view.

  3. @Ki, yay – great to hear from you. We need to convene a meeting of ex-BBCers living in California I think. :)

    @Christopher Scollo. Yes, that is a valid 4th user story that I neglected to cover for the sake of editorial simplicity. The answer, my friend, is http://bit.ly/intbbcnews (same url munging but for international front page)

  4. Strangely, and annoyingly, I am in the UK and can only view the bbc ‘international’ site. I believe this because of my service provider – AOL!
    I think I’ll have to make a phone call to them.

  5. I can see why it would be annoying for ex-pats outside of the UK, but lets face it, although they may be able to vote in the UK, and may pay takes to HMRC the BBC isn’t elected and isn’t funded by the government. Ex-pats don’t pay the TV licence fee that funds the BBC. There’s a lot of video and audio content that needs to be delivered to UK visitors and the BBC already has peering agreements with UK ISPs and providers of copyrighted content, having the same agreements in place to support a global audience isn’t a good use of the TV licence fee

  6. Ben
    Thanks so much for the link to the UK version of BBC News- and for sending that letter.
    I don’t have much hope in things changing, but let’s hope for once they do.
    Cheers

  7. Hi Ben

    Glad to see you got a reply from Steve Herrmann. His replies to the two blogs (to date) about the changes made have been very unsatisfying. Will bookmark your page to see what response (if any) you get

    Thanks for the link to UK Version of BBC news

    Regards

    Ged (in Geelong)

  8. Thanks muchly for those URLs. I’m in the UK but using Opera Mini on my phone which uses a Swedish proxy server. I had lost my football, cricket and london news on the front page until you helped me get it back!
    This episode has lost a lot of goodwill . If it wasn’t for the poor design of other news sites I would have been long gone by now.

  9. Hi Ben
    I see that Steve Herrmann has now opened 4 blogs on the “Changes to the International Pages” subject.

    Although in blog 4 he finally (IMHO) elaborates in a bit more detail as to the reasons behind the changes I still feel his answers are not satisfactory. The other dissatisfying aspect is the length of time it has taken Steve to reply

    I suspect that the BBC will not reverse the changes but it is interesting to watch them twist and turn as they try to defend the indefensible

  10. As an expat ben, how much tv licence do you pay towards the BBC. I really don’t think you should expect anyone to take any notice of you.

  11. For UK users, AOL appears to use a server in switzerland which makes the BBC think such users are outside the UK. The hacked link to the BBC works but the easiest solution appears to be to use IE or Firefox which use a UK server and that makes the BBC happy. Wont work for non-UK users sadly.

  12. I’ve never lived in the UK but I’ve been a BBC addict since 2005. It’s simply frustrating to stumble on videos for UK users only. In all common sense, it doesn’t make any sense!

  13. I am also an alien living in the UK, and I was very disappointed that the BBC removed access to the “international” front page.
    Worse, in the last couple of weeks they seems they have decided that the international RSS feed http://newsrss.bbc.co.uk/rss/newsonline_world_edition/front_page/rss.xml
    should no longer be accessible from the UK. I can see no reason for this at all – neither feed contains adverts, they all contain links to pages served wherever you are in the world.

  14. I am a UK citizen who pays the licence fee in full and find it annoying that I cannot access BBC UK content when I am abroad. I have to spend time abroad each year. I am in the ‘other’ category of being a UK citizen who pays the licence fee but has to spend time abroad and wishes to access BBC UK content.
    Surely the BBC could dupply a pin number or similar system which identifies you as a UK licence fee payer and allows you access to the UK content of the BBC site and iplayer etc. Civilisation is becoming more global yet the internet is becoming more localised and insular.

  15. Hi, do you have an updated URL? the site has been updated and the old one no longer works. Thanks.

  16. As an expat who has spent quite some time living abroad it was always great to be able to stay in touch with news form home and other familiar places. I think this is a backward step.

  17. Hi Ben

    Just wondering if you’re aware of a URL that would work with the new set up?

    I have a proxy I can use when I’m at home to get the UK version, but at work I’m stuck with the international version.

    Thanks for the original URL, it was great while it lasted!

  18. I’ve set up a way of accessing the new version of the BBC’s news site from outside the UK. Essentially a reverse connection:- http://www.digitalhen.com/?p=88.

    Videos don’t work – they’re pretty bandwidth intensive, but otherwise, it’s works perfectly, and finally lets me see the version from home.

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