Richard Sambrook at the Media Re:public Forum

I’m at Berkman’s Media Re:public Forum and Richard Sambrook, director of Global News at the BBC is giving the first talk. He is something of a technological visionary and his primary concern is with how technology is affecting the ability of, not only traditional media but anyone, to set the international news agenda.

The model that news stories may break on the blogs and travel to main stream media seems incomplete to Sambrook and he hopes to use the news audience to develop the agenda in an interactive way through network journalism. An example he gives is how the BBC puts their NewsNight show’s agenda online in the morning and invites people to comment on the choice of stories and angles they are taking on them. But this seems quite small, and as Ethan Zuckerman points out in a question, not much of a change in paradigm: Zuckerman laments that main stream media is trying to involve the public on their terms and in their way, through site-hosted comments and being quite closed about sharing their content. Sambrook explains this as slowness of cultural change at organizations like the BBC and is changing. For example, BBC video can now be hosted on any site. Sambrook is also worried that they just can’t seem to find the audience – the right people to engage with in various areas. He notes that the top ten sites (Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia Fox News etc) control 1 billion eyeballs. He doesn’t think current business models are sustainable and perhaps energy should be directed into a different metric than eyeballs to more accurately measure engagement and be able to monetize it.

Sambrook notes that across main stream media it is well understood that the future of news is online but there are cultural legacies within main stream media and even where there aren’t solutions to new problems aren’t obvious. Sambrook gives the example of the BBC’s river boat trip through Bangladesh. They experimented with several ways of reaching potentially interested audiences: twitter, google maps to track the boat, images on Flickr, radio and traditional news. They had 26 followers on twitter and 50k on Flicker but millions on the radio. This highlights the difficulty news outlets are having reaching their audience – the methods chosen are key, and how to do this is not obvious.

Sambrook says that he sees an upcoming tipping point for the data-driven web, or semantic web, in news applications. For Sambrook, this manifests as an improvement in the personalization of news. He mentions the BBC’s dashboard tool – a way to pull content from all over the BBC’s website to suit your interests and tastes. He is also concerned about the tension with agenda setting: “who is the curator of the kind of news you are interested in?” This also brings to mind Cass Sunstein’s polarization critique of the internet, especially for news delivered online – that we will only seek out news that fundamentally agrees with our own opinions and create echo chambers in which we never hear opposing thinking and thus open discourse and debate becomes stultified. He seems to see the future as communication within communities and he frames the problem as finding the right community and getting them involved in an effective way.

Crossposted at I&D Blog

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