Ros Atkins is the presenter of World Have Your Say, BBC World Service radio and BBC World News television. Speaking at the ‘Building and harnessing the power of online communities’ session at the news:rewired – full stream ahead conference that took place earlier this month, Atkins discussed World Have Your Say and journalism guided by the community.
World Have Your Say began life on the radio. Back in 2005, the BBC World Service decided it wanted to make far more of our audience’s clear appetite to comment on and help report the news. Mark Sandell was asked to create a new programme. He’s still the editor though World Have Your Say isn’t a radio programme any more.
The aspirations of WHYS have always been clear. First, to make the experiences and expertise of our audience central to our news coverage. Second, to create neutral, fair and civil environments where people all over the world can come together to talk about issues of common interest. Third, to allow our editorial decisions to be guided by the information people make public about their interests. And lastly, to use any technology available to make all of that happen.
There are a several things that we absolutely don’t want to do. In the early days, I think suspicious colleagues thought we wanted to replace editors, correspondents and presenters. We don’t. Nor do we want journalism driven by people who consume it to be an add-on – a larger equivalent of a few emails read out at the end of the hour. Rather we’ve always aspired for WHYS’ work to be a central part of how the BBC approaches describing and analysing the world.
We hope we’re getting there. We’re now on BBC World Service radio twice every weekday, on BBC World News TV once a week, and are active on bbc.com/news, Facebook, Twitter and anywhere else we can think of.
We’re always looking for new ways to meet our aspirations, and this has delivered plenty of successes, but some tough lessons too.
Editorial meetings seemed ripe for revolution. The idea of a group of BBC journalists sitting round a table and deciding what goes in a programme based on their judgement alone seemed closed off. We were right that it was ripe for change, but not, it turns out, as we imagined.
Along with many many other programmes, papers and websites over the last 10 years, we issued an ongoing invitation to help us ‘set the agenda’. ‘Send us your story suggestions,’ I must have said hundreds of times on air in the first couple of years. We even put the phone number of the meeting room online.
But the suggestions never came in any great number nor, to be frank, in a very useful form.
Those people who got in touch were often, quite understandably, pre-occupied with an issue that mattered a great deal in their country. For a global audience though they rarely worked. The open never-ending invitation just didn’t work – it didn’t generate enough for us to work with. In understanding why though we made some progress. We set out to reflect conversations that were happening wherever they were. The focus became the subject not the editorial process. (I’d add that we never ever seek to start conversations.)
If I posted that we were thinking about putting subject A, B or C on air later and asked which people would prefer, 95% of the comments would not answer that question, but instead would simply share a view or experience relevant to one of the subjects. People are far more interested in the story or the issue, than the procedure of putting a running order together.
We also found that rather saying ‘join us any day’, if we invited a number of regular contributors to take part in an editorial meeting on a given date, and we gave them some notice and explained in detail the criteria that needs to be met for a story to get onto the air, the results were far better. We still do this all the time on the road. We can also do it with phone conferencing, or more recently google+. We don’t do it every day though.
Another crucial realisation was that the hope held by many a media company that vast numbers of people will come within your online space to discuss and report the news wasn’t realistic and perhaps also wasn’t even desirable. That’s not to say I couldn’t quote some impressive numbers at you for WHYS and for bbc.com/news, but however many people come to get involved, many more will already be all over that story in a hundred other places. Once we fully understood that we needed to spend more time going to people, than trying to get them to come to us, the quality and range of our contributors increased.
None of these lessons altered our ambition that WHYS’ editorial decisions should be guided by the interests and experiences of people around the world. We just evolved how that would happen.
Sometimes you get an explicit message from a segment of your audience. One recent example involves two recent World Have Your Say trips to Sierra Leone. On the first we talked extensively about the country’s efforts to move on from its civil war. We’ve got a big FM audience in Sierra Leone, and plenty of loyal listeners felt we’d been wrong to talk about the war. This was, they argued, part of a pattern of ‘Afro-pessimism’ in the Western media.
We felt that our editorial decisions had been sound, but when we returned a year later for the Charles Taylor verdict, we made a film about their concerns and it broadcast during WHYS on BBC TV. Almost every guest was a WHYS listener who’d contacted us. They had engaged with the subject, but left how it appeared on air to us.
Many more times though our audience will leave us clues, and the challenge is to spot them, even when those leaving the clues often don’t think what they’ve said is of particular interest.
Years ago, I was hosting WHYS in a restaurant on Nelson Mandela Square in Johannesburg. One woman made a passing comment about how this swanky mall was the place everyone aspired to shop in. Another vehemently disagreed, rejecting this vision of South Africa’s future. We developed the discussion for the whole programme. One guest asked why we’d spent an hour talking about a mall, but of course that wasn’t what we were hearing.
Another example is when a group of middle-class Indians got into a discussion about how much you should pay your domestic staff. This was before we went on air. They were bemused when we asked them to carry on at the beginning of the programme, but it was riveting to hear them reveal so much about class and wealth.
There was another time when, during an open editorial meeting, a Zambian student complained to a friend that there was little point in studying as there were no jobs. ‘Would you like the government to do more to create jobs?’ I asked. ‘Well yes, but in the mean time they should stop spending so much on education.’ Too much education? I’d never have thought to ask. Nor would our guest have suggested this as a subject. But we tapped into a huge issue which resonated with many listeners in the developing world.
As well as looking for clues, we increased the time we spent analysing the huge amounts of information online about what people are consuming and what they’re commenting on.
Of course once you’ve selected a subject, there’s still the issue of how to let it play out on air. We’ve always aspired to recreate on the radio and TV the freedom people have online to shape their discussions.
Some things have worked very well. We frequently leave guests speaking directly to each other far longer than any other news programme I know. They converse, rather than being interviewed by me – and you get something different and often more natural when this happens.
People also ask different questions to the ones we might think of. I remember during the days that followed the Haiti earthquake we happened to be in south-west Florida where many Haitians live. During one broadcast we got through to a local reporter in Port-au-Prince and I invited our guests to ask him whatever they wanted to. One immediately took the mic and asked, ‘what does it sound like there?’ . It was an unusual question and the answer was both moving and informative.
On many occasions we’ve asked people to host programmes. Last year we broadcast a week of editions from Libya, each presented by someone different. One featured a former prisoner who led a discussion from inside the cell where he was kept. It was still news, but it sounded very different. At the risk of repeating myself, this is not to argue that this could replace the superlative reporting our colleagues have done in Libya, it simply added another dimension to our portrayal of Libya.
Trying all of these different ideas, along with hoping to develop a community around WHYS has been a lot of work. So is replying to everyone of the emails that we receive, and calling people who make a complaint. I’m often asked if it’s worth the effort and I always reply that this is a long game.
From the Kenyans who we know through Facebook who took us to burnt out homes in Nairobi, to the convicted murders in Indianapolis who listen and agreed to take questions from other listeners, to the Londoners with terminal cancer who have talked about approaching their end – all have seen us behaving in a certain way, and shared a great deal of themselves partly because of that.
The obligation to explain, invite and reply brings with it hard work, but it also develops trust and that makes many things possible. We found this when the Breivik attacks began in Oslo and in those first few minutes, it was BBC viewers who helped us report the story. They’d seen what WHYS does week-in week-out, and felt willing to be part of it when we needed them.
The word community is used a great deal. When WHYS began, and Twitter and Facebook were not widely used, we did have a small and very engaged community around our blog. Without meaning to sound like an old fogey, it’s not that simple any more! Stories and issues now act like magnets, with people moving from platform to platform according to the pull being exerted upon them. That means many more people pass through WHYS, but the make-up of those taking part in any one conversation is much more fluid than it used to be.
This isn’t a problem – the more the merrier – but it reinforces one of the key lessons of recent times. Definitely work hard to serve your community and your audience, but remember they’ll always be more people and more communities outside of your world than inside it, and they are just as important to the editorial decisions you take.
WHYS will always be a work in progress, so if you’ve any thoughts on anything I’ve written here, I’d love to hear them.
Ros Atkins Tweet @BBCRosAtkins