Category Archives: BBC News Website

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

Great example of why rights management DRM sucks

I live in the USA, and I can’t access the BBC’s stream of John McCain’s acceptance speech… because “the media is unavailable in my territory”.

BBC NEWS | News Front Page
Uploaded with plasq‘s Skitch!

Sure, this is nothing new to those of us familiar with online media. But equally, one has to ask why the BBC doesn’t secure worldwide distribution for ‘general news’, esp like in this case where it’s probably recording the broadcast live from the convention… it’s BBC copyright end-to-end.

And of course, it’s just plain stupid that I can’t watch John McCain’s speech here in the US from a website that is even served from the US (BBC serves international users mainly from servers in New York). Crazy.

Apture: elegantly adding context to your site

“Wow, that’s really really slick!”

That was my reaction when Tristan first showed me a demo of Apture (which just opened for signups, if you want to add it to your blog or website).

We’d met a few times previously and he’d been teasing with hints about the product he was working on – but refused to show me anything, or even give me any detail about what he and his fellow co-founders were really up to.

All I knew was that we shared a common interest in both grassroots and mainstream media, and importance of innovation given the nature of the content often being communicated. We’d spent several meetings discussing all sorts of interest stuff – from the way the media is often the last resort to keep governments and business in check, the need for informed society, through to the power of building products with a platform-orientated architecture.

Very much a meeting of minds – and so when I finally got to experience Apture, I was delighted that it too was at the intersection of so many of my favorite topics. I’m also proud to say that I am a member of Apture’s advisory board.

Welcome to Apture

For me, Apture is about bringing light-touch context and background to topics within the page you are looking at. In essence, it provides a simple framework to attach background context and ancillary content to subjects mentioned in your page – all without interrupting the flow of your reading and crucially, without leaving the page you looking at. In fact, you have already experienced Apture! (unless you are reading this in a feed reader, in which case check out the page on my blog)

When I saw the first demo of the product, what excited me the most was the implementation – which I think is slick and impressive. The thoughtful UI makes the product simple and intuitive to use, backed up by some pretty tight code that makes the seamless experience possible.

Elegantly handling off-site links and embeddable media

From my days working at the BBC News Website, I’ve seen first hand the importance of providing background information on the subjects discussed in a news story. Not everyone follows the news agenda as deeply as others, and providing a bit of context can really make the difference and ensure the reader is able to engage with the latest developments being written about.

I’d also seen examples of how the BBC had got some of it’s interface and style guidelines wrong – like not using hyperlinks inside body content and completely missing the early emergence of embeddable media (arguably pioneered by YouTube). I have to hold my hands up to these as much as anyone else at the Beeb as I was there at the time these things took off.

On both counts Apture solves these problems in an elegant way.

The concern around marking up body content with hyperlinks is about usability. When the user clicks on them she is taken to a new destination page mid-flow of her reading. Apture solves this concern by providing the essence of the page you want to link to in an easily manipulated floating window that the user can quickly digest and either get back to the copy or potentially elect to click through to a fuller page of content. The point is that the reader makes an informed decision whether to jump to a new page or continue reading. Apture also lets the reader position the window around the content so that they can interact with it later on when they are ready.

Another key part of this is the selection of the media you use to provide that background to your post. Apture helps you there too – by recommending relevant content from across numerous repositories on the internet – including Wikipedia, Flickr and IMDB. Finally, it reformats these pages so that the pertinent information is displayed clearly inside the Apture window that is associated with your subject.

Apture also provides a unique way to embed media, and can even handle certain types of media asset just by it noticing you are linking out to a photograph or a video in your piece.

Open for business

Having been in closed beta for some months, this week Apture was released to the public. Getting Apture on your site is really simple (just a line of javascript or the installation of a WordPress Plugin) and of course it is totally free.

You can also take a tour of the product and see more demos of it in action.

Reaching the tipping point: Online ad spend overtakes newspapers in the UK

I guess if this headline didn’t end with “in the UK” this news would be getting a lot more attention than it currently is. I actually don’t know what the online vs newspaper spends are here in the US, I’ll try and research it when I’m not on the client’s time.

However, it’s significant. Really significant.

This week, there’s been a lot of talk here in the US about the future of local newspaper business – reports suggest the San Francisco Chronicle is about to go out of business as it’s in such dire straights. The SF Chron has some interesting opportunities given it’s in a uniquely placed geographic location for technology adoption and pioneering, but it doesn’t seem to be able to capitalize that – that’s another story I guess.

What’s important is that newspapers finally newspapers can begin to ‘move their core focus’ over to Internet. That’s if they have the balls – but the finance people should now be armed with the relevant figures to help them find their balls.

The one issue no one seems to be talking about is whether the combined spend has changed. Is it simply a shift in existing revenues, or has online suddenly found new advertising budget (or newspapers lost out on evaporated budget). That’s important to think about – especially with the CraigsList factor – where advertising is free.

However even if overall budgets are down the opportunity here is the potential cost savings that come from running an online operation. During the SF Chronicle debate, various journalists and editors were arguing with the blogosphere that the cost of keeping a newsroom needs to be paid for.

True, it does. But there are many other parts of the salami that can be sliced without any noticeable loss. Those printers, for example, they’re the bit at the end of the salami that no one wants to eat yet you still have to pay for. In the UK at least, newspaper printing has traditionally always contributed a significant cost to the newspaper business because they have such strong unions – and that could be the case in other markets. So you can chop that end bit off.

Setting – both page and advertising can go – it’s part of the template in the case of the page, and advertising is handled by the fact that the advertiser accommodates your existing space rather than you have to accommodate their space requirements.

Distribution, pah that’s easy too – it’s part of your existing web op. Just scale up.

The new concentration on the Internet means that better relationships with the blogosphere can have them write some of your stories (I don’t buy the whole ‘bloggers will eat your journalists’ argument. Bloggers also make good stringers for new leads.

This is a quickly written post as I’m getting used to writing these in 10 minutes or less during my 30 min lunch break, but I think it’s indicative of interesting times for newspapers. This is an opportunity that is their’s to take – the question is how many will take it. I’m pretty sure in the next 10 years we’ll find one or two of the current ‘big name’ newspaper fall onto hard times as they didn’t embrace the opportunity that’s before them today.

Equally, I predict in the rise of new ‘online-only’ newspapers entering the market – perhaps not first in the UK. These will differ from the likes of BBC News by offering the kind of background and detail-led journalism that the BBC isn’t in the market to do – not with it’s 24/7 news website, anyway. There’s an emerging gap in the market for this kind of proposition, fueled by changing habits in reading – with more consumers owning laptops and PDA’s and a general willingness to read from the screen instead of from a newspaper. And if this foldable e-paper ever emerges, then it’s game-set-and-match IMHO.

Exciting times are a-foot in the world of news media – it’s ultimately all about wrapping the adverts with news that people want to read, and suddenly the majority of those adverts (in terms of $ spend) are now online. What will happen next?

YouTube’r lands presenting job with BBC… sort of

Susi Weaser spends her time reviewing gadgets on YouTube (and her blog Shiny Shiny).

She came to the attention of the BBC when a producer was looking for someone who could present short, ‘for-a-mainstream-audience’ gadget reviews for a forthcoming daytime program.

Apparently the fact she had effectively created a show real of her talent made it very easy for the BBC to decide to invite her in for a screen test.

This is probably the first person in the UK to move from grassroots video to mainstream media.

More on BBC News Website.

UPDATE: My former BBC colleague Jem Stone says that in fact she’s going to work for Princess Productions, and independent TV production company that will sell the show to the BBC. Also, as Jem quite rightly points out, ShinyShiny is a Gawker blog – so not quite as ‘grassroots’ as I initially thought. Thanks for the update, Jem.

BBC Global News’ Richard Sambrook comes out…

…into the public blogosphere!

Euen Semple reports that Richard Sambrook (Director, BBC Global News) is now blogging ‘in the wild’.

SacredFacts is Richard’s public-facing blog, which complements his private, internal/BBC-staff-only blog on the BBC’s Intranet.

Sadly, it doesn’t look like Richard is posting the same posts as he does to his internal staff – but maybe that’s understandable.

Richard has been a champion of blogging for sometime, and has also embraced Flickr and del.icio.us.

Now a really cynical (and slightly snarky) commentator might wonder where Ashley Highfield’s blog is… (His Flickr is here, btw)

Kevin Anderson’s off to Guardian

I’m finally allowed to tell you all that my good buddy and esteemed former BBC colleague Kevin Anderson is to join Guardian as Head of Blogging and Interaction.

Congrats all round.

So another one bites the dust from the BBC.  And not only that but another Knight of the bbc.co.uk Roundtable.  Despite the fact that he is probably best known publicly for broadcast roles on both BBC World Service radio and BBC 5 Live, Kevin was instrumental on getting the BBC back on track with blogging and citizen journalism.

An announcement like this brings mixed emotion.  I continue to have a soft spot for the BBC, and want it to succeed led by the right people in the right direction.

But I also know that success for Kevin ultimately lies elsewhere.  The problem is Kevin is yet another cross-discipline person who just doesn’t fit into the BBC’s structure.  They just don’t know what to do with him, and I got the impression that many of his editorial colleagues ostrocised him because he aspired to do more than just write within the medium.

People are often afraid of what they don’t understand, and sadly many BBC journalists just don’t understand (even now) what blogging really is.

Somewhere like the Guardian, which dare I say it is leaner and more agile, is probably a great move for him.  Like many I actually have great issues with ‘Comment is Free‘ – starting with the name and moving through with the proposition itself. 

But the point is they both get it and have much to do.  And commercially I think their wider blogging platform is potentially the most lucrative part of the site for monetisation.

So well done Kevin, it’s great news and I wish you all the best! :)

Ashley Highfield puff-piece in the Independent

A whimsical article that contains lots of words, but says very little.

Ashley’s been taking a bit of a beating recently in the blogosphere (which he doesn’t read) and the more ‘mainstream’ online press. It looks like his PR team sorted ths puff piece for him which sickenly ends with “It’s just as well, then, that we have Ashley Highfield.”.

What I did take away from the article is:

  • Ashley got to drive an F1 car around Magny-Cours grand prix track. Bastard :)
  • He describes his job as “the janitor”. lol
  • It turns out he is the person responsible for the excruciatingly cheap ‘Dolls House’ concept for Bravo a few years back (take a bunch of babes and put them in a house covered in webcams whilst nerdy blokes perve over them).

The rest was fluff and spin.

I guess my frustration here is that the article portrays an Ashley Highfield I don’t recognise… which is odd considering I would walk past his “lofty perch…, overlooking the modern, wooden staircase [in the BBC Broadcast Centre]” every day when I worked there.

I had a change of heart…

So look, it’s the morning after the night before and I’ve decided to take down the links to the JSON and RSS feeds.

In general don’t feel it ‘wrong’ for someone to link to them directly, after all they were all listed in a javascript file on the BBC News Website (or derived by changing easily guessable paths in the URL). That’s how I discovered them, it’s been years since I had access to the BBC News Webservers so there was no ‘insider knowledge’ of paths etc.

BUT yes I do admit that because I personally know the licensing position of this data it wasn’t something that I should have done.

And despite the fact that I warned on the blog post that the data wasn’t licensed for off-site use, I take the point that it was little irresponsible to encourage people to do it anyway. Feel free to ridicule me on your blog posts, mash-up photos of me with egg on face, etc etc.

I do, however, still maintain that if I hadn’t posted the urls, it’s highly likely that someone else would have as they were put into the public ether by the BBC on their site.

But please, kids, don’t try those urls at home. They’re bad for you.

(BTW I decided to take this down after a night’s sleep on it, the BBC didn’t ask me to take it down)

BBC confirms plans to put adverts on International websites

BrandRepublic have published an article which publicly confirms that the BBC is planning on putting advertising on their International-facing (ie non-UK) website at BBC.com.

BBC Logo

LONDON – BBC Worldwide has confirmed that it will launch an advertiser-supported international website, BBC.com, as soon as the first quarter of next year, one of the first advertising channels to be affiliated with the BBC brand.

The article goes on to speculate that the BBC News Website may carry advertising Internationally too:

The BBC.co.uk news website does not carry advertising at present. However, some of the BBC’s commercial businesses, including the BBC World television news channel, do take advertising on air and online.

Well, I can confirm that the BBC is indeed investigating the feasibility of putting advertising on the International facing BBC News Website (I should stress that users accessing from the UK would continue to see an advertising-free service).

This study was kicked off whilst I was working at the BBC, and I know there is great concern at all levels of the organisation as to the consequences of a decision being made.

This is not the first time this idea has been raised, but unlike previous times the decision is clearly being made at an executive level only – without staff consultation. Journalists and other staff working on the BBC News Website even sent a petition to Helen Bowden, Head of BBC News.

Staff at all levels of editorial, technical and design are deeply concerned about the issues from taking advertising on the BBC News website. In short, they include:

  • Impact upon the BBC’s reputation of impartiality.
  • Fallout from the “Citizen Journalism” community who tend to prefer to support non-commercial sites over commercial ones.
  • There are no current funding issues staff are aware of
  • Money generated would not return directly to BBC News Website
  • Prevents the BBC from releasing it’s news content under a Creative Commons licence in the (near?) future and/or BBCNewsAPI.

Reputation of impartiality
This is the big one, really. People I meet and talk to about the BBC always comment on it’s neutrality and lack of bias due to it’s independence. Even those who think the BBC is biased often concede that they perceive it to be less biased that it’s competitors because of it’s funding model.

The other issue, closer to home, is the issue of SEO (Search Engine Optimisation). I know that journalists working on other news sites are encouraged (sometimes forced) to write and construct their stories in a way which maximises the advertising return. That’s just plain wrong. And bad.

Citizen journalism
The BBC benefits arguably more than any other news organisation on the Internet from the “Citizen Journalist” community. When breaking news stories happen, people send their camera phone images and eye-witness accounts to the BBC more than any other news provider.

I believe this is, in part, due to the fact that the BBC is non-commercial. The content that they are donating is not being monetized but published purely for the benefit of the audience.

No current funding issues
The BBC News Website operating in the UK is paid for out of the UK TV Licence fee. Any marginal cost for serving the content abroad, and the managing of International news agenda pages, is covered by the BBC World Service (which is funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in the UK Government).

I’m not aware of any issues of that funding being removed or reduced (although presumably it would be retracted if the BBC was to take it’s website commercial).

Return on investment
The money generated from the sales of The Office Series 1 and 2 on DVD (and, I guess, the sale of the show format itself to other TV networks) doesn’t go back to BBC Comedy. Instead it goes to BBC Worldwide (the BBC’s separate commercial division).

Where that money goes is often unclear (to both the licence fee payers and the staff) – but it’s not the department that created the content that was monetized. There is no reason to assume that a sudden influx of advertising from the BBC News Website would result in the investment being driven back into the department.

Prevents BBC News being released under Creative Commons
I would like to see a day where the BBC News content is released under a Creative Commons licence (I think many BBC’ers would too!).

This would be in the form of full-content RSS feeds and perhaps even a BBC News API (that’s why I helped to create backstage.bbc.co.uk, basically!)

Whilst CC advocates would argue that you can release content under Creative Commons AND monetize it directly, it’s beyond the comprehension of the business development people at the BBC – and I can’t see them supporting both concepts.

The BBC would be taking a big risk by putting adverts on the site it would therefore be difficult to argue for any content licence changes that prevented the BBC from maximising their new revenue position.

What YOU can do

If you like outside the UK, use the BBC News Website, and are concerned about this then there are a few things you can do. Even if you live in the UK and are concerned about this there are things you can do: