Facebook is moving into the news business, hoping to capitalise on news outlets latest refocus on social networking.  It’s Edition’s project will see the networking giant face-up to Apple and Google, who are both working on project to monitise our appetite for news in real-time.

Fifteen years ago news outlets opted to make the content that had a cover-price free online, a strategy based trying to get a slice of the then large online advertising pie.  Then, after putting all of it’s eggs in one basket, it faced with a severe decline in advertising revenue, forcing many newsrooms to cut their staff.  Then, after much strategising some outlets opted for paywalls, a decision that to this day still causes plenty of debate in the news industry.  Some outlets, like the The Times, Sunday Times, New York Times and the Financial Times delivered various options – fully restrictive or freemium services.  It all appears to have provided some security for the medium-term.

Enter Facebook, who with over 750 million members has decided to move into the news business with it’s Facebook Editions – an app that allows users to consume news within it’s walls.

News outlets had been working with Apple and it’s Newsstand offering which would update subscribers news subscriptions via an exclusive App.  I wrote a post about this in September 2009 about the ‘Changing And Charging TimesFor News.’ Many outlets have signed-up to Apple’s Newsstand.  Others haven’t, not liking the terms set out – including a 30% fee for Apple.  The Financial Times is a case whereby they have taken their content from the App Store and have developed an HTML5 site that can be accessed through iPhone, iPods and iPads.  Developed by Assanka, the HTML5 app is fluid and smooth and as a subscriber I have to say that it set’s the standard.

Facebook knows that over a third of its 750 million users access the site through mobile devices, and those who access the site on a cell-phone or tablet as active than traditional desktop users.  This explains why news outlets like CNN, The Washington Post and Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily are wanting in on Zuckerberg’s next project.

The fact is that the consumption of news has not diminished, it has most probably risen.  Start-up’s like Flipboard show how we the consumer like our news to be gathered from trusted sources that can verify content, such as journalists, as well as from friends and peers that can deliver unverified news, enabling us to be the first for news.

The speed at which news is consumed is what the PR community is going to have to focus on as outlets compete to deliver quality content.

BBC DG Mark Thompson

Convergence.  This was one of the keywords that came of out of this year’s 2011 Financial Times Digital Media & Broadcast Conference.  It’s taking me some time to pen this, but I wanted to share some of the key points that were discussed.

Last year the conference coincided with the BBC unveiling the results of it’s Strategy Review.  This year gathering started on the same time as Apple unveiled its much-anticipated iPad 2, Facebook announced the rollout of its Comments plug-in and the all-important decision from the Department for Culture Media and Sport Minister Jeremy Hunt MP to allow News International’s full take-over of BSkyB.

Chief executives and senior board members gathered in London to outline their thoughts on an industry that is changing at breakneck speed.  It’s an industry that is no longer operating by itself, but a sector that is being driven by the technology that their own consumers are engaging with.  And the speed of adoption is forcing many boards to re-evaluate how they engage with their audiences.

Mobile and social networking are the two platforms, the two elephants in the room, that media and broadcast organisations are still struggling to grapple with.  They are also the platforms that public relations professionals must fully grasp for themselves and their clients.

BBC Director General Mark Thompson highlighted this year how ‘new media’ and the consumer have shaped how it offers content.  The corporation accepted that consumers want the BBC’s content on every platform.  Its iPlayer is today available on the iPhone and iPad, with Thompson confirming that people even watch BBC content on their mobiles in bed.

Thompson understands simplicity and highlighted that the iPlayer works because it is straightforward.  In January of this year 162 million downloads were made through the iPlayer, this in a country of 25 million households.

Thompson confirmed that 2011 is the year of convergence, stating that strength is with those that have a strong presence online and understand the value of simplicity.

One of the areas that the BBC Director General is looking at is the power and influence of social recommendations and how this will shape how we all watch television.  Indeed Thompson confirmed that the BBC and Facebook are having conversations.

Speaking at the conference Facebook’s EMEA Managing Director Joanna Shield confirmed that the company now has 30 million active users in the UK, accounting for 1 in 2 of the population.  Talking about how it ‘supports‘ UK media Shields highlighted that 10% of the Daily Mail’s web traffic now comes from Facebook and that the sites plugins have helped The Independent gain up to a 700% increase in traffic.

Talking of Facebook, Sales and Marketing Director for mobile provider 3 Marc Allera in a separate session said that a staggering 75% of their data traffic is directed to Facebook – an incredible statistic.  Allera also said that 90% of 3’s sales are Smartphone’s.

Facebook is the platform of choice for the consumer.  For business it is the ‘frenemy’, a business that delivers eyeballs to those with an online presence, but a business that can quickly cannibalise those that work with it.  Take Groupon and Livingsocial for example.  Both living in the hype, but both under the knife of Facebook, who a few days ago announced ‘a new service that will sell discounts deals to consumers.’ Sound familiar?

So, Facebook is becoming an entity in itself.  The stats show it, but for the time being, it is a fact that business needs to learn to live with it.  Equally, it needs to retain control of the data that makes it’s business a business.

I was going to ask, remember when clients used to ask about needing a Facebook Strategy?  Something that made PRs and Strategists cringe?  Well, there is a need to have a Facebook Strategy, but a strategy to manage them and avoid each business being cannibalised by this growing entity.  The data that companies share with the social giant make the same businesses vulnerable.

Convergence and Facebook, and of course all the other offerings.  The tables have turned and consumers are showing businesses how and where they want their content.

BBC Television Centre Newsroom
BBC Television Centre Newsroom

The BBC’s User-Generated-Content (UGC) unit will be celebrating its fifth birthday this summer.  Since it was set up in 2005, the unit has quietly been transforming how the BBC gathers and reports news.  The unit is now a hub of 23 journalists that sift through stories, pictures and videos sent in by people who either have a story to tell or find themselves at the centre of a newsworthy event.

Today the hub supports the corporation’s newsgathering process.  It links BBC News with its audience or rather the audience with the newsroom through the corporations own website, as well as through email, text and social media platforms such as Facebook and TwitterOn an average week the hub processes 50,000 email comments and contributions, 1,000 images and 100 video clips.

It works because people make it work and the BBC and its senior management understand the concept of citizen journalism.  They see their audience as an asset that can add value to the corporations newsgathering.  For the BBC journalism is now a two-way relationship where they engage with their audience and listen to what they are interested in.  The BBC brings them into the editorial process, allowing them to have a conversation of equals.  This allows ordinary citizens to drive content to experienced and trained journalists who cannot access countries and restricted stories, but can piece together information driven to them by people on the ground.

But how does the UGC hub work, what does it do and how does it corroborate fact from fiction from its contributors?

Thanks to the hub’s editor Matthew Eltringham I spent a day at the BBC in December learning how they work and support the corporation’s news outlets, leading them to win the ‘2009 News Award For Outstanding Contribution To BBC News.’

Located at the heart of the BBC Newsroom, the hub is like any other section, with desks, phones, Dell computers and monitors.  What makes the hub unique is that they are the first contact point for contributors and citizen journalists from around the world.  They allow people to engage and support the newsgathering process.  Once material is verified they’ll make it available internally to television and radio news programmes.

Each news outlet will have their presence online through either a page or blog on the BBC News site.  Some may also have a Twitter feed that they’ll use to reach out to their individual audience through which they can promote their work and content.  Individual journalists might also use and promote their work through their own Twitter feed.

But it was never as easy as it is today.  A number of years back I was told by a now senior BBC News executive of how respected television news personalities were opposed to writing a blog on the BBC’s own website that added insight and detail to 1 minute 30-second TV packages they put together.  They “felt that it devalued their experience and knowledge” and that if it wasn’t in their package it wasn’t important.  It is all very different today with Robert Peston and Nick Robinson amongst others viewing their blogs as central to their work.  In fact they see the blogs as another channel through which they promote their stories and a way of engaging with their respective audiences.

Today the hub works in three ways – it listens to chatter and gauges public reaction on the BBC’s own forums as well as social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, it sends out requests for content (pictures, video and personal reaction) on breaking news stories through the BBC News website and its dedicated Twitter feeds and it filters and verifies content sent in by people.

Engaging with its audience

The BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’ section on the news site is a platform through which readers and viewers can share their thoughts on relevant newsworthy events.  There are around 345,000 registered users and contributors, but only a small number of these contribute on a regular basis.

With so many online registration systems in use the BBC is currently working on unifying these so that visitors to any BBC site – News, iPlayer, etc – need only one registration.  The intention is that by March 2010, BBC iD will be the single sign in for all BBC Online services.  I understand that the aim is for BBC iD to have a social media feel to it, so that users can list amongst other things their likes, comments and contributions – let it be views of programmes on iPlayer or comments or contributions they’ve made to BBC News stories.

The hub also monitors comments on its ‘Have Your Say’ forum and searches for reaction on networking sites such as Facebook.  An example of this was the coverage the BBC gave to how over 20,000 people joined a group on Facebook in support of Massimo Tartaglia, the individual who bloodied Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi after a rally in Milan.

Requesting and searching for collateral

BBC One Ten O’Clock News

At a recent Chartered Institute of Public Relations Greater London Group event Nic Newman, the BBC’s Future Media and Technology Controller for Journalism and Digital Distribution, said that such has been the impact of social media that news outlets have reacted by abandoning attempts ‘to be first for breaking news, focusing instead on being the best at verifying and curating’ stories.

Depending on the newsworthiness of an event, the UGC hub will access a story on the BBC News website and add a form asking for pictures, video and comment from people caught up or affected by an event.  Staff on the hub will also put out requests through their central BBC newsgathering Twitter feeds.

For diarised stories such as conferences, the hub will set up a Twitter feed dedicated to that event.  For example, for the recent summit in Copenhagen Climate Change Conference they set up: twitter.com/BBC_cop15.  Requests for material and stories on breaking news stories will be pushed out through their twitter.com/BBC_HaveYourSay Twitter feed.

The level of response varies from story to story with people sending in comment, pictures and video through the BBC’s own website as well as email and sms/mms.

The BBC UGC hub is only responsible for the central newsgathering Twitter feeds.  It doesn’t manage the feeds of specific BBC News programmes, such as those for The Today Programme, Newsnight or BBC Radio 5 Live’s Drive.  Each of these outlets is responsible for managing and communicating with their audience.  The BBC News Sports team manage their own social media channels, tools and communications.

Verifying content

BBC News - Get In Touch
BBC News – Get In Touch

Reporting accurate information is at the heart of every news organisation.  But as a public broadcaster the BBC is more accountable than other news outlets.  This is why it is the hub’s policy to verify all user-generated-content that they want to use and forward to other BBC news programmes.

Where appropriate staff on the hub will verify stories and images by speaking with the contributor by phone.  They will also check EXIF details of images that they want to use.

It is the policy of the hub to not pay for any image, exclusive or otherwise that is sent in or offered.  They would rather an independent agency buy the exclusivity and pay them usage rights.

Pictures used are credited to each contributor and meta-tags are added to images used online to support the BBC’s SEO.

The BBC has been setting the standards in newsgathering for many years.  It was one of the first news outlets to set up a website and was one of the first to recognise citizen journalism and use user-generated-content in its newsgathering. More recently they were the first mainstream media organisations to set up a dedicated team to manage user-generated-content.

In the next number of months the corporation will release it’s much anticipated iPhone app, which has been held up by legal wrangles with Apple.  The app though could well prove to be another tool in the corporation’s newsgathering armoury.

For far too long people have criticised the BBC for being too big and not delivering content.  Yet they are the first to reach out, engage with them and listen and use content they supply.

It is going to be an interesting year for media and news organisations and you can be sure that what the BBC have been pioneering will be replicated in other newsrooms around the world.

A lot of rumours are floating around at the moment about how publishing companies are developing digital platforms for the print offerings.

Condé Nast recently showed off a concept video of Wired’s supposed iTablet application at Wired’s New York store.  The video shows Wired magazine as an interactive title that’s updated with not just print but video content.  Techcruch meanwhile have seen a demo of Sports Illustrated’s concept for tablet computers (above).  The Wonder Factory have worked with Sports Illustrated’s publisher Time Inc to create a video that like Wired’s concept shows how Sports Illustrated would work (below).

These are interesting times for the news and publishing industries I said some time ago that Apple could come into the market with a tablet based device that would aggregate your favourite titles on an iTablet.  Such system would use iTunes to work and manage your subscriptions.  The Sydney Morning Herald ran a story at the end of October claiming that Apple had in fact ‘sent specifications of the device to Australian media companies in an effort to sound out whether they would be interested in delivering their content to the tablet.’  None would go on the record though.

And Rupert Murdoch is very much considering putting up a paywall in front of his titles while taking these off Google.  This could well help the news industry bring in much needed subscription income.

The fact is that news and print as we know will have to evolve and provide more that just words and pictures if people are to subscribe.  The evidence though is pointing to the fact that media companies are redesigning their business and their offerings.

Apple's iPhone 3GS. New customers have better deals than O2's loyal customers. This is wrong.

Britain is a country with little focus on customer care.  In fact for many UK businesses rewarding customers for their spend and loyalty appears to be an after thought.  Rarely do companies invest in their customers so to get them to do the ‘word-of-mouth’ sale on their behalf, which as we know is the best endorsement and way to get new customers in.

Just look at UK mobile phone operator O2, which yesterday released details of it’s pricing policy for the Apple’s much anticipated iPhone 3GS, over which it has exclusive UK rights.  The sting wasn’t the 18-month fee of between £96 and £274 depending on your tariff, but the cost for current customers who signed up for the minimum term this time last year.  Existing customers were told that they would have to pay for the remaining terms of their existing iPhone 3G contracts, which could be anything over £150.  All very different to when O2 offered a free upgrade from the first iPhone to the current hand-set.

You would have thought that pricing policy for such a desirable product would have been developed whereby existing customers aren’t made to feel hostage.  In fact, the sweets have been offered to new customers while existing ones are being ignored.  A big mistake given that many O2 iPhone users have turned against the company, complaining not just about its pricing policy but it’s lamentable 3G nationwide coverage, to name but a few points.

You wonder why the company didn’t think of empowering its customers with new models so to reward them and encourage them to further promote the company and brand to others.  Blogs though are being written picking on all of O2s issues, working to dissuade customers from switching to a company that cares little for their users.

The #O2fail hashtag and Twitition on Twitter have over 2100 people signed-up.  And the blogosphere is certainly working hard to knock O2 where it hurts.  The media is also running stories, with The Daily Telegraph and Sky News highlighting the concerns from loyal customers.

As it stands and having set a populist precedent with the free upgrade between the first and second generation iPhone O2 have a lot to do to stop the steady stream of complains.  It takes a lot to build a reputation and it looks like they’ve forgotten the golden rule of ‘looking after our customers’ first.