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90% of the time, we ‘get it’

Warning – massive rant

90% of the time, I’m proud to be working for a broadcaster and internet company (well, organisation) that “gets it”. One that understands the ever emerging opportunities that ‘new media’ affords us. But one that also has the foresight to ensure that the overlap where ‘old media’ meets ‘new media’ is as great and far-reaching as possible – creating exceptional propositions that capitalise on our strengths in both areas. The Creative Archive is a fantastic example of this.

However, there are also times where new collides with old. And I do mean “collide” – with both acting as an apposing force to the other. This is the frustrating 10% of the time where out of fear, ignorance, miss-understanding or perhaps the unwarranted need to self-preserve; ‘old media’ chooses not to embrace ‘new media’.

For the past few months I have been flying high in an environment that ‘gets it’ 100% – for so long in fact, that I had almost forgotten that there was a side that still doesn’t.

Then I attended a BBC News away day last Friday that bought me back to Earth with a bump.

The aims, objectives and outcomes of the day no doubt fall under NDA and so I’m not going to dwell on these as it would be an abuse of my position to do so. However I do want to highlight the feelings, experiences and emotions I felt on the day – as they exist on a more fundamental level regardless of the context, NDA’d or otherwise.

I found myself on a table of about 5 other people, almost all of whom represented ‘old media’ aspects of the BBC News operation (namely TV and radio). I was the only person solely from a pure ‘new media’ background, with one other person currently working in an editorial role in ‘new media’, having previously come from an ‘old media’ background. Most of the representatives around the table held a senior position, with everyone attending the event seemingly being ‘an opinion former’ to a greater or lesser extent.

We had been given a specific challenge which faced BBC News– and were expected to discuss it, debate it and form a solution to feedback into the rest of the attendees.

At this point, I’d love to disclose what that topic was, as a bit of context would help illustrate my points immensely, however I can’t. Suffice it to say it had a direct relevance to, which was no doubt why I was invited. The rest of the people on my table represented various aspects of TV and Radio within the BBC News operation but nothing specifically relevant to the challenge being discussed.

Alpha members of the group (other than myself) immediately wanted to focus on ‘analogue output’ (ie ‘old media’). Considering we have been broadcasting TV and radio for over 40 years, I voiced my immediate frustration – the issue we had been given was not a new one, and as such solutions for these two mediums had no doubt been debated in such circles for longer than anyone would care to remember. “Online”, I interjected “continued to offer new opportunities in this area, and had hardly been investigated by such a cross-section of people at an event like this before”.

It soon transpired that the same people who had voice their ‘analogue medium’ preference were not even regular users of the Internet. Clearly they felt threatened by it – perhaps professionally, quite possibly personally.

I guess it’s unfair to expect that the Internet exists as part of the fundamental fabric of everyone’s life in the same way it does mine. However it’s equally frustrating that concepts such as remixing content, tagsonomies, user generated content, collaborative filtering and so on could not be bought into the debate because most of my fellow participants were unfamiliar with even simple examples of them (eg Flickr). And the few that did viewed them as frivolous follies that would not form mainstream interests and behaviours. As it turned out all of these were potential building blocks to some mind-blowing solutions which I was unable to tap into due to ignorance of the medium on there part.

Open-media and the concept of external user annotation and discussion were criticised as they existed outside of the BBC’s realm (read: control). The fact that we are already embracing such ideas in ‘new media’, together with my description of seemed to ‘surprise’ a number of people in the group, to say the least.

At which point I was effectively ostracised by the group as to these people it all appeared too radical, too unfamiliar (and probably too scary).

To them, it didn’t fit with their interpretation of BBC New’s values of trust, accuracy and unbiasedness. I couldn’t have disagreed more – but it was not a battle I felt the energy to fight, nor was it “on topic” at that point.

However, it was clear how threatened most of them felt. Here was a medium they barely understood, with behaviours and opportunities they had no comprehension of, being communicated to them by someone who, for a few of them, had lived for fewer years than they had worked at the BBC.

As frustration and disappointment set in, I was ready to quit the table (and the event) knowing I would be far more productive back at the office. As it turned out, many of my new media colleagues on other tables were having similar frustrations, with one or two actually going all the way and leaving the event completely.

However, I decided to stay as I felt it would look like I was throwing my toys out of the pram having not got my way. That’s not who I am, and I was prepared to stick it out, if only to prove a point.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with the construction of a pitch that involved radio in schools. Podcasting was initially dismissed as “iPods were expensive and children didn’t have them” (apparently). Not sure where this lady lived, but here in Tower Hamlets (the most deprived borough in the UK) most of the local youth seem to be flossin’ iPods, iRivers and the like. I won through in the end with my desire to focus on podcasting, although it felt like they relented in order to appease me rather than because they agreed (and also probably because “podcasting” was one of the buzz words they knew were current; even if they didn’t really understand what it was).

Practically all of the ideas that came out from the other tables during the day were either:

  • Unoriginal ‘old media’ proposals that missed the opportunity to incorporate any new technology in order to offer a genuinely fresh solution, or
  • Half-baked ‘new media’ proposals that had been worked up typically by the wrong ‘old media’ people who simply didn’t understand the medium.

As I said above, I don’t want to break my NDA contractual obligations; however I have to mention one idea which was described as: “a wiki for news”. The representative of the table that came up with the idea went to say that he felt quite strongly that the BBC should pick this up immediately, as it was a good idea and someone else might “nick it”.

I had to bite my tongue in order not to hoot with laughter, whilst at the same time wanting to cry at the sorry state of it all. Perhaps I should anonymously email him a link to and suggest that he take up their “blatant plagiarism” immediately. 🙂

It is quite disapointing just how much they don’t ‘get it’; that they assume that only “professional old school news people” can come up with these ideas and as such further assume no one else outside of a news background might have already thought of such an idea.

It seems to me there are generally three groups of people in ‘old media’:

Those who do get it, rare but there are a few!

Those who want to bury their head in the sand and pretend it will all go away (like the people who were on my table).

And there are those who are beginning to realise that there are ‘new media’ solutions to many long-standing issues we face, but lack the knowledge, insight and fundamental understanding of the medium to take advantage of it (like the chap who felt he was such a clever fellow for coming up with the wiki news idea).

Surprisingly the latter type seem uninterested in engaging with the ‘new media’ folk whose profession it is to understand all of this. It would seem that as the Internet proves to be a serious broadcast medium, and things are really looking interesting, many of these ‘old media’ types want to own it for themselves rather than utilize the professionals from the industry who already ‘get it’.

What’s dangerous is that they tend to want to apply their old media values to it rather than embrace the already established culture of openness, freedom of expression and equality that is so much more apparent on the Internet than in the traditional broadcast industry. (This is, of course, nothing new as we’ve seen this elsewhere – for example the music and film industry taking on p2p)

So the lessons learned from all of this are as follows:

  1. In general let ‘new media’ people do Internet and ‘old media’ people concentrate on traditional broadcast. Overlapping is great, but you have to know both sides of the coin in order to get it right. In general not many people do, and so it’s better to leave well alone if you don’t know what you’re doing.
  2. Where overlapping can exist, ensure that there is proportional representation. There’s no point asking 6 people to come up with a cutting edge solution that uses the Internet to offer a new insight if only one of those six people actually knows anything about the Internet.
  3. Try to understand the other camp better. Understand the tools of their trade, and the issues that dictate their modus operandi.

An example of this in action is a person who I have a lot of respect for (but won’t name without their permission). Despite working in a senior capacity as an editor for a number of leading BBC news-related websites, he has decided to take a traditional television broadcast journalism job with a rival news organisation in order to find out more about the issues, challenges and values of ‘old media’. This is, I believe, with the view to move back into ‘new media’ in the future, armed with the experience of both camps.

I just wish more people were able to do this, without having to change jobs let alone employers.

So life goes on. Us ‘new media’ folk continue to push the boundaries and the ‘old media’ folk continue prop up the established broadcast mediums. On the outside we try and look like we’re all connected and know what each other are doing. And most of the time it works – we appear to be a progressive organisation working together in harmoney. Inside people like myself are desparatly trying to pull the old guard, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century.

Published in Thoughts and Rants


  1. Suw Suw

    You have my sympathies, Ben. I’ve suffered similarly at the hands of people who ought to get it but don’t, although in my case, it was a sort of cultural clash of values – they got what the technology could do, but not how it should do it. Nothing more frustrating than trying to explain to someone why their marketing faux blog is so crap, when all they can see is ‘but it’s a blog! blogs are cool! we have a blog! So we must be cool!’. Gah.

  2. Hi Ben

    I used to be the original Marketing Director in Europe for Netscape. Imagine how it was for me trying to explain what a broswer was. Imagine having to try and explain the internet.

    In my career I have faced many similar brick walls but like the Berlin Wall they all fall down eventually. It takes longer than we want or expect. But on a positive note the BBC is making great stirdes with RSS, Podcasts etc.

    I have also just heard your beta pod and would like to speak with you shortly about my new project but that’s under another NDA 😉


  3. Tim Tim

    Ben, as the person who I think you are referring to at the end of this fascinating and thought-provoking entry, I have to say that you have my total sympathies. I can imagine how frustrating a day like that was.

    However you need to know that the BBC overall is in a pretty good place. It is slowly but definitely incorporating new media into its fabric, partly as a result of this apparently endless battering-down-of-prejudices which people like you have to keep participating in. The appetite, if not the understanding, is there and growing.

    Stay with it: it’s all about turning round a supertanker; but turning round it is.

    Personally, I think that the user content sent in to interactive news operations on 7th July was a real turning point. Suddenly, even for the most die-hard old media types, having a good online operation was to be embraced and celebrated, rather than treated with reluctant tolerance, a bit like an aunt at Christmas.

    And a personal addendum: you’re right about me wanting to get more ‘old media’ experience in order to position myself at the future junctions of old and new media. But it’s not quite for the reasons you say.

    A little more depressingly, it’s partly because it still seems that, if you want to move on, old media is more respected than new in organisations such as the BBC. What’s more likely to get someone like me promotion in years to come? Being Deputy Editor of the Six O’Clock News or UK Editor of the BBC News website? (Both hypothetical situations, of course, but you get the point.)

    My children would probably respect me more for the latter; but my current bosses?

    All of which is completely ironic, because the depth, variety and flexibility of covering and getting news via the internet is so much more satisfying and consumer-centric than TV news. But TV news it is for me now…..

  4. Josh Josh

    Your comments on old media attitudes and new media seem quite pertinent in light of a recent interview between Mark Lawson and Tim Berners-Lee on the BBC website:

    I can imagine that Mark Lawson doesn’t use the internet very often, or doesn’t think much of it – that’s certainly reflected in his choice of questions, some of which are quite ridiculous (I’m all for critical, but informed questioning, but this certainly isn’t it!).

  5. Just wondering… who accused Wikinews of “blatant plagiarism”

    (Ben replies: “That would be telling!”)

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