George Entwistle, the new director general of the BBC, should recall the recent past as he refashions the corporation for what he calls “the digital revolution.”
In his quest for an organisation that can create “genuinely new forms of digital content”, he would do well to look back at the pioneering work of the BBC News website. It has been creating these new forms of digital content since its launch in 1997 to national and international acclaim.
In his first speech to staff, Entwistle laid out an ambitious vision to restructure the BBC. The new DG talked about moving away from a BBC organised around media formats and delivery mechanisms, such as Vision and Audio and Music. In his speech, he spelt out the rationale behind his thinking:
I believe an organisation run, for decades now, around the existing platforms and the content they define for themselves – radio and TV – is going to find it hard to get ready for that. A television or radio organisation can always be forgiven for obsessing only about the creation of television or radio.
Entwistle wants to integrate disciplines and have a BBC organised around a “genre-based approach.” As the new DG acknowledged, the corporation has successfully adopted digital as a new delivery platform to distribute existing content produced for radio and TV, through highly popular products such as the iPlayer. He told staff:
I would say that we’ve taken – joyously – our capacity to present and distribute existing forms of content to their natural limits rather than innovate to discover genuinely new forms of content.
Yet it’s the quest for this – genuinely new forms of digital content – that represents the next profound moment of change we need to prepare for if we’re to deserve a new charter.
He later added:
We need to be ready to produce and create genuinely digital content for the first time.
This is a laudatory aim, but Entwistle appears to have overlooked that the BBC was one of the pioneers of creating genuinely digital content. As a founding member of the BBC News website, I was part of a team who sought to take the best of BBC journalism to the web when the site was launched in 1997.
In his speech, Entwistle did speak of ”the progress News and Sport have made in testing the boundaries of our existing content forms.”
But the journalists at the BBC News website (and in Sport) did more than test boundaries, The team was at the forefront of developing new approaches to breaking news, the use of blogging in news, participatory journalism and in-depth tri-media projects that created new experiences for audiences.
The BBC News website has been producing and creating “genuinely new forms of digital content” since 1997, a fact Entwistle would do well to remember. For an idea of the amount of digital news content, look back at the archives of in-depth specials for 2001 or 2002.
I hope the new director general does not ignore the recent history of the corporation and builds on what was achieved in the early years of the BBC News website.