Lucio Mesquita Filho - Monitoring the News and the Challenge News Providers Face in the Digital Era

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Jul 30, 2015
by Lucio Mesquita Filho
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Lucio Mesquita Filho - Monitoring the News and the Challenge News Providers Face in the Digital Era

Director of BBC Monitoring delivers annual Ithiel de Sola Pool Lecture Lucio Mesquita Filho delivering Ithiel De Sola Pool Lecture during Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change

Every year, Salzburg Global Seminar invites an eminent speaker to deliver a lecture on the theme of the Impact of Communications Technology on Society and Politics in honor of three-time Salzburg Global faculty member Ithiel de Sola Pool.

This year's lecture was delivered by Lucio Mesquita Filho, newly appointed director of BBC Monitoring as part of the ninth annual Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change.


Monitoring the News and the Challenge News Providers Face in the Digital Era

I would like to start by explaining a bit more about BBC Monitoring, the BBC department I currently run.

We were created in 1939, initially to provide the British government with access to foreign radio broadcasts.  Since 1943 we have been based at Caversham Park, a stately home in Reading, about 30 minutes by train from central London.

The media world has changed considerably but what we do today, in essence, remains very similar to what we did in the 40s.

We monitored and continue to monitor what is now commonly called Open Source content. In other words, radio, television, newspapers, news agencies and, increasingly, digital media, including the internet and social media. 

The key point here is that what we monitor must be open to others. 

In other words, they must be available and open – we don’t go to closed sites or use other means to access websites or social media accounts.

Today we have about 400 staff not only in Reading but also in 10 locations around the world, including Delhi, Kabul, Tashkent, Baku, Moscow, Kiev, Cairo and Nairobi. We also engage some 200 freelance contributors.

As the world is a big place, back in the 40s BBC Monitoring established a partnership with what is now known as the Open Source Center  the US government department tasked with the same job as ours. By doing so, we manage to be more efficient by avoiding duplication. For instance, OSC may look after the monitoring of media sources in Latin America whilst we concentrate on the former Soviet Union.

We are funded through the licence fee British households pay to fund the BBC and our observations and analysis are used by BBC News to enhance our coverage to audiences in the UK and, through the World Service, BBC World News and bbc.com, audiences around the world.

We not only provide BBC colleagues with background information and analysis to help report major stories like the situation in the former Soviet Union or the growth of IS in Syria and Iraq but, by observing open source content, we can also break stories. 

Our content is also consumed by the British government and, increasingly, by commercial customers.

By effectively being paid to watch TV, listen to the radio, read newspapers and follow what is being discussed on the internet and social media – not a bad job, actually! – we are also well positioned to understand the revolution currently happening in the media sector around the world.

The new media landscape

If BBC Monitoring was vital at the time it was created because of the scarcity of sources of information, we are vital now because of the explosion of sources the digital era brought about.

It used to be said that freedom of the press was limited to those who owned one. Now, anyone with access to the internet and a twitter account can make the news. 

That’s what I would like to talk a bit more about: the radical changes to the media landscape at a global scale and how this in impacting on the way we produce and use news.

I will try and avoid overloading us all with big numbers and long lists but just to illustrate the media revolution we are going through, here are some interesting stats.

Naturally, you are all familiar with YouTube. 

Google, its owners, say that they have more than 1 billion users across the world, with hundreds of millions of hours of video watched every day.

They also say 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute of the day. That’s 18 thousand minutes of video content uploaded every minute. 

18 thousand minutes in one single minute. Or 300 minutes every second.

It’s hard to pin down exactly how many television stations – traditional or via the internet – exist in the world but a good estimate is that they total between 10 and 15 thousand. 

In other words, YouTube alone has more video uploaded in a minute than ALL television stations in the world, put together, are able to broadcast during that same minute.

And I am not adding here videos uploaded through other digital services, including social media sites like Facebook, which are seeing a huge growth in video content, too.

The Future of News

I think we are living through a brilliant and exciting time when it comes to media and journalism. But also full of pitfalls.

For anyone interested in reporting the world – finding, telling and sharing stories – so much is possible as the entry barriers become negligible.

A decade ago, people outnumbered connected devices by about 10 to one. Last year, mobile phones outnumbered people for the first time. And the whole thing will be completely inverted by 2020, with 10 connected devices for every person on earth.

Obviously, this isn’t an even process across the globe but these devices are less and less the preserve of the rich and are becoming a much more universal offer.

This year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report – based on a survey with users from 12 countries - indicates that two thirds of smartphone users now use  their devices for news every week.

But it also shows that there isn’t a single, uniform way markets are changing. 

At one end of the spectrum, for instance, television still comfortably rules in France or Germany as the primary source of news whilst Americans, Australians and Fins already rely on the internet and social media as their main news source, with television trailing behind.

It is also no surprise that the younger you are, the more likely you are to use digital platforms as your primary source of news.

This is relevant. I always worry when a young journalist in the newsroom say ‘everyone on twitter is saying this or that’. Definining WHO is everyone is key!

So, we know that the communications world is radically changing. But what does this all mean to us working or planning to work in the media, especially in news?

At the BBC, we set out last year to consider the Future of News over the coming decade or so. We wanted to look not just at the BBC but at the news industry as a whole.

Here’s a taste of what we heard and discussed with established and emerging media leaders: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-31008317

As you’ve seen, one of the biggest challenges we identified is that the explosion of possibilities does not necessarily mean we are better informed as a consequence.

In the bustling digital world, in fact there less reporting and more noise.

And the internet has ripped a hole in the business model of many great news organisations. Ironically, this means vast swathes of modern life are increasingly unreported or under-represented.

Take local newspapers, for instance, especially in the rich world. In Britain alone, some 5 thousand editorial posts were lost across local and national press in a decade.

Or take international news coverage. Reporters covering foreign news for US newspapers declined by nearly a quarter over the last decade. 

And we are also seeing television news becoming a space for older audiences, as the young increasingly head to the internet to get their news.

However, as Emily Bell, from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism has pointed out, the internet is not necessarily a neutral curator of the news. 

And people in power are also finding they can speak directly to the public without having to face challenging questions from a reporter.  

Perhaps we could say that the journalist’s main competitor is no longer another journalist. Often, it’s the subject of the story.

It could be argued that this direct connection between people, corporations and political leaders is a positive move. It probably is. In part. 

The drawback is that the era of greater connectivity is not necessarily leading to more accountability.

The other contradiction is that people feel misinformed. There is more and more data, opinion and freedom of expression out there – but in turn that makes it harder to know what is really going on…

This explosion of sources can even make it easier for those who want to manipulate news and information by creating their very own narrative and repeating them often. Even if they could be debunked relatively easily elsewhere in the digital world.

I would like to illustrate this point with a couple of cases. 

First, Russia. There, most people still rely heavily on television news as their prime source of information, especially outside the major cities. This has given the Kremlin a strong incentive to virtually control the television news output. 

BBC Monitoring’s Russia media analyst, Stephen Ennis, can explain this in more detail 

At the other end of the spectrum, many Jihadi movements, and especially ISIS, have mastered the use of the internet and social media to promote their causes and recruit new members.

Mina al-Lami is one of the Jihadi media specialists at BBC Monitoring:

(VIDEO – MINA)

So what do we think all this means to established news operations like BBC News?

We believe that in the internet age, the BBC is more necessary than ever. 

The internet is not keeping everyone informed, nor will it.  There is the risk that everyone runs to the new, fashionable digital world thinking it is the solution to everything.

In fact, the internet is also magnifying problems of information inequality, misinformation, polarisation and disengagement.

The task remains unchanged: our job is to keep everyone well informed. This is what makes citizens better citizens.

But we need to look hard at how we run our news operations.

One of these big changes will be the way we serve our audiences. The first step by most media organisations was to develop their multimedia strategy.

Typically, that meant bringing together, under one site, television, radio and text content.

That was a big step but it is becoming clear that audiences want more than that.

It is clear we will need nothing short of reinvention in order to keep everyone informed.

For instance, we want to further develop our data journalism capabilities as an additional way of holding people and organisations to account. 

We also want to work on more personalised news – this is not just about a personalised index with stories you may be interested in but also a new approach to reporting and editing.

And to remain relevant to a much more engaged audience, we must turn large parts of the news into something you do, rather than something you just get.

Not everything will work and many will also evolve or morph into something else – after all, in this new media world, the life span of concepts and even platforms can be very short.

When you have a chance, have a look at BBC Trending – what we like to see as our bureau on the internet. It reports on what’s been shared around the world but, crucially, why it matters.

Or try Outside Source on BBC World News and the UK’s BBC News Channel, with real time news from the heart of the BBC newsroom, bringing together the BBC’s network of reporters and analysts with the latest news trends and feedback on twitter and facebook. My colleagues at BBC Monitoring are regulars on Outside Source.

And there’s BBC Shorts – 15 second video news reports; or Go Figure, our information graphics offer currently growing audiences on Instagram.

And here’s the challenge to us all.

The uneven level of digital take up around the world, the differences in age and preferences, the relentless addition of new technology without the removal of older ones mean will need to grasp both broadcasting to mass audiences and providing personalised services streamed to the individual if we are to maintain our goal to keep everyone informed.

We will need to have content for thinking fast and slow – the bitesize breaking news leading to the investigations, analysis and reporting essential to help us get to the bottom of each issue.

We will need to have content that appeals to the increasingly big TV screens at home as well as the small ones on smartphones.

So, in the exciting, but at times messy and noisy digital age, the need for news – accurate and fair, insightful and independent – is greater than ever.

We are lucky because we are living through another media revolution – it must be a bit like how people felt when the printing press was developed, when radio came about at the beginning of the last century, followed by the transformation caused by television when it took off in the 50s.

Our task – especially yours as you the new generation of media professionals – is to come up with the ways, concepts and devices to fulfil this need.


To read and join in with all the discussions in Salzburg, follow the hashtag #sac2015 on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

The Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change: Civic Voices: Justice, Rights, and Social Change is part of the Salzburg Global series “Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change” and is  held in partnership with American University of BeirutAmerican University of SharjahBournemouth UniversityJordan Media InstituteEmerson CollegeIberoamericana UniversityPontificia Universidad Catolica ArgentinaSt. Pölten University of Applied SciencesChinese University of Hong KongUniversity of MarylandUniversity of MiamiUniversity of Rhode IslandUniversity of St Cyril and Methodius, and University of Texas.