Tag: Soapbox

Thoughts on BBC News – Big Buzzfeed Clone (Occasionally)

Thoughts on BBC News – Big Buzzfeed Clone (Occasionally)

A little while ago I posted a slightly despairing Tweet about BBC News, in particular the state of its ‘Most Popular’ tab and the nature of the articles. About half of the time this section is ‘ok’ in terms of quality and actual relevance of news, restoring a bit of faith in the corporation and – indeed – its audience. The other half of the time it’s full of buzz-worthy nonsense, with articles about selfie addicts, photogenic couples getting engaged (I’m not even referring to the ‘Royal Wedding’!) and collections of old toys getting more hits than, well, actual news.

A few people seemed to agree with my sentiment, but one reply did stick with me as an odd defence – “they don’t control what gets read the most”. Well, that’s the thing, they do. They control what they publish, therefore they have complete control over whether they’re a news business or a hits business.

I’ve complained about the state of current media privately and a bit in public (occasionally on this blog), but I’ve often added the proviso that we get the media we deserve. Very few of us pay for media any more, and I’m in that number. I pay for a Kindle New York Times subscription (that counts as five points on my Hipster card, ten during double points promotions) but browse The Guardian for free. I let The Guardian get a tiny amount of money from me by serving ads (I never ad-block, as ads paid my bills for four years), partly because I think it’s getting worse with each passing year. That’s a vicious cycle, but I feel the Grauniad will keep getting more clickbaity regardless of how many pay to ‘support’ it, because it’ll want to keep the ad money high while cashing in real money contributions. So I accept it’ll make me roll my eyes on a daily basis, but it’s better than most of its rivals.

So that’s two of my news sources, and lower down the list is the BBC. What should make BBC News different is that, actually, it shouldn’t – theoretically – be trying to stay financially viable. Until recently I worked in video games media, and when I wrote about that recently I suggested “I was increasingly feeling like a relic”, as the kind of content I wanted to do didn’t always make the most sense for a business. I would bang on about ‘tone’, and quietly seethe when it dipped under my watch. I think most of the time our balance was fine, but as the months drifted by I felt like I was becoming bad for business, not willing to change fast enough to drive the traffic that keeps the lights on. Traffic was always good, but was I holding it back because I wouldn’t modernise fast enough? Potentially.

But that was a business, as are The Guardian and The New York Times; the latter maintains its credibility more successfully in my eyes, so I pay for it. The BBC, though, is funded by the TV License and is a public body. It shouldn’t have to chase the hits and ratings; in theory it should just try to do its job well.

There are reasons for BBC News going a bit Buzzfeed, online and in terms of some of its TV and radio output. One of these is undoubtedly political pressure. It seems over the past decade in particular, since the Tories came into government, that any renewal of TV License terms has come fraught with coded threats to the BBC about its performance and its content. Because the BBC is effectively reliant on a mix of public money and extras made through the ‘Worldwide’ service and sales of content, it’s caught between behaving as a public broadcaster and commercial enterprise.

So it pays big for some stars (infamously, especially male stars), while having to slash budgets elsewhere due to pressure and restrictions with the license fee. When you watch BBC News or view the website now and compare it to five years ago I think there must have been a real talent drain, especially in day-to-day journalism. I think there are still a few big journalistic beasts that produce fantastic work occasionally, and we still have the likes of Newsnight and Andrew Marr, but the broader levels and standards have (in my opinion) dropped.

As the BBC tries to justify its public funding it seems to fall into the same trap as commercial rivals – grab cheap hits to hold up the real content that performs more modestly. So we see buzz-worthy nonsense blending with real news, and BBC News does far less detailed and investigative work than in the past; after all, longform content costs time and money, two things given no quarter on the internet. Quantity and speed matter more than quality and care when it comes to online reporting. The BBC, sadly, is trying to operate within the echo chamber of the internet, rather than stand apart in an effort to inform, educate and inspire.

It’s not all bad, the BBC as a whole still does many good things and undoubtedly has some great people working hard. I’ll always be a strong defender of the need to have the BBC too, as British culture would suffer major damage if it was lost. I still marvel at all the BBC does for good drama on TV, the music events it organises, the incredible fundraising through its support for Comic Relief, Sport Relief, Children in Need etc. We need the British Broadcast Corporation.

I just wish its News department could back itself to get back to its first duty – to report the news to the highest possible standards. Don’t chase hits, don’t play the online journalism game. Just say “we are the BBC, we work differently”.

Then it’d be even more worthy of our appreciation.

Constant Online Outrage is a Useless Replacement for Empathy

In recent months I’ve been having a mini crisis in terms of my work. As someone who spends lengthy working days online I see a lot of the good and bad in online culture, and having been doing this ‘job’ for a good few years I’ve seen a shift in how the internet sustains itself. The economy of the web is not just in dollars and pounds, but in trends and mindshare, and I’ve seen the latter non-currency evolve in ugly and facile ways.

I’m at a good age to have a ‘history’ with the web. I remember when it was young, rough around the edges, and loading a low-resolution video would take ages before it would inevitably just buffer anyway. Usage restrictions were tight, so every page view had to be carefully considered. It was a rather humorous place, despite this dog-owner rolling his eyes at the fascination most had with cats.

That’s changed and the web has evolved, however, and I’m not convinced it’s for the better. Along with reality TV the web became a source of celebrity, and as the internet economy grew it began to monetise itself. With monetisation there was a gradual loss of free-wheeling spirit as capitalisation took hold, at least in the mainstream outlets and pages thrown at us by web browsers, and a terrible thing happened – we realised that we could effectively be anonymous or, instead, a fake version of ourselves.

Whereas in the pre-broadband and smartphone era we consumed the web as readers, now we own it, and with that has come the abundance of selfies and celebrities literally only famous for being controversial. Someone can be very rich without much discernible talent if they conquer social media, and controlling that part of the web earns coverage on the endless buzz sites. And here’s something else I’ve learnt – negativity is what many want in their web content.

I’ve seen it in the relatively genteel world of Nintendo, where an issue that’s controversial gets far more engagement than an article about something positive, and that’s a sad state of affairs. The common factor with that engagement is outrage – people like to be angry, at least artificially, and they like sharing that with everyone else. I’ve occasionally done it myself but trained myself out of it, but for some it seems to be a profession.

The trouble is that many people, based on trends and much of the nonsense perpetuated all over the web, get outraged at the wrong thing. To quote The Guardian’s Jonathan Jones – “Anger is distorting modern life”. We rage against things we can’t change or are largely unimportant, because it’s what everyone else is doing, we’re jealous of the person / thing in question, or a host of other reasons. Plenty then share that rage online, desperate to show how much they care about a particular topic, often while spectacularly missing the point.

The trouble with outrage is that it rarely brings about much change. In the real non-digital world there are countless examples where anger and rage has helped kickstart social change, but after the protests and riots there’s always a lot of real work and compromise that happens. Yet in this era of trends millions latch onto a topic, argue furiously for a few days, then forget all about it.

They’re rarely conversations that we have online, either, and with our artificial online identities we can act without reason and logic. It’s the easiest thing in the world to be outraged, to find something to blame and scream bloody murder about it, and now that’s become a popular way to pass time. As millions do this it becomes the prevalent way social media works, which then bleeds into conventional media. It’s all entirely democratic, of course, but when people complain about the media, for example, I want to say it’s exactly what we deserve.

Sadly, I can’t help but feel that more and more people are taking the selfishness and narcissism that floods the web and applying it to real life. I look at the current state of politics here in the UK, EU and US and wonder what the end game is, as a cynical public then ironically encourages increasingly cynical politicians. We have a Chancellor in the UK who often targets the weak and seems to write budgets on a napkin before casually ditching a policy (with no funding replacement) if the public turn on it, and we have the bizarre reality of someone like Donald Trump being a potential President of the United States. Discrimination and hate are becoming far too effective in politics – as I said, negativity sells.

Yet negativity is a waste. Empathy, an awareness of others that is fundamental to the best of humanity, comes from positivity. It’s easy and lazy to find something to rage about, but it takes effort to empathise and to understand. When extremists blow themselves up it’s easy to blame the religion which they claim to represent, but it’s more important to stand with those being misrepresented by monsters that want to terrorise the public.

The internet is still a platform for wonderful things – it has knowledge, entertainment and the best nature of people in abundance. Yet we need to seek these elements out and make them the leading forces in the web economy. Next time cynicism is the first instinct in response to something, we should double take and reassess. If we’re angry about a selfish rich man with an empty palace, rather than give that oxygen we should promote and support organisations that help the homeless. If an attention-seeking celebrity says something vile to get headlines, don’t give them the oxygen of a retweet.

The internet can still be an incredible force of good, but we need to care about how we use it.