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:  Requests for material and stories on breaking news stories will be pushed out through their 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.

The BBC launched its much-anticipated ‘Democracy Live’ online service on Friday. Offering ‘live and video on demand video coverage of the UK’s national political institutions and the European Parliament’, the site brings politics to the public. Giving people insight into government and how our elected representatives and institutions work.

It was two years ago when the corporation’s Director General Mark Thompson gave a speech at Westminster on trust, politics and broadcasting where he outlined his view on how the BBC could help make politics more relevant to every citizen in this country.

At the time Thomson said, “We want to take our coverage of Westminster, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the European Parliament, as well as local councils up and down the land and turn them into the most engaging, the most creative multimedia portal for democracy in the world, using BBC Parliament and our other television, networks, radio, the web and mobile. Since then MPs and news outlets have come under more scrutiny than ever before.

In his speech Thompson added, “Direct access to information about your MP or representative: how they vote, what they stand for, how you can contact them. Survival guides and in-depth analysis of current debates and current legislation. Easy ways, for anyone who wants to, to plug into and take part in the debate. And all of it available to every secondary school in the UK as part of a strengthened commitment by BBC Learning to supporting citizenship and modern media literacy.”

I understand that the BBC has invested between £1-£1.5 million on Democracy Live, with the most significant cost being the 11 members of staff focused on the site.

Up and until the launch accessing such information and real-time feeds were available through either the Parliament site or through paid-for services such as those offered by companies such as DeHavilland.

What will make Democracy Live work is the use of speech-to-text recognition software offered by Blinkx. It is understood that Blinkx will the use both the phonetic and text transcripts to create transcripts and meta-tags that can be added to each video.  Blinkx also has a speech to text success rate of over 80 per cent, which is expected to increase as the site and video services beds in.

I also gather that the beta’s of the site that were presented to politicians during conference season were well received.

So, politics through the BBC, scrutiny of politicians and their decision-making though the BBC.