Webinar: News as conversation

It was live from North London as I did a ‘webinar’ Tuesday night on the nitty gritty of how we do a global interactive radio programme five nights a week on the BBC World Service. Francois Nel from University of Central Lancashire invited me to take part in their Journalism Leaders Forum. You can watch the whole thing here.

First off, we try to eavesdrop on conversations around the world, virtually get a sense of what people are talking about in cafes and around water coolers the world over. What are the most viewed, most e-mailed stories on major news sites? What are bloggers talking about? We check Global Voices, the global blog network based out of Harvard. What are the stories coming picked up by BBC Monitoring, our global media monitoring department? We do a roundup on our blog and ask the audience what is important to them.

With the help of our audience, we settle on topics to discuss that day. We often post debates on the Have Your Say section of the BBC News Website. We use a discussion system based on Jive Software. People can not only comment, but also leave an e-mail address and phone number. Personal information apart from name and place don’t appear on the public site, but we can log in and see those contact details to invite people to join our on air discussion.

Our blog is beginning to gain some momentum. We’ve got on average four comments per post, and I’m really pleased on how the blog allows the conversations to continue long after our on air discussions finish. This is what I meant by saying that blogs can overcome the limits of linear media. We’ve only got one hour on air, but our audience can explore other threads of discussion online for weeks to come.

We’ve had some amazing conversations grow out of it. I remember recently when we had a south Asian sailor calling on a sat phone from a ship in the Molucca Straits talking to another Asian Muslim living in Stockholm being asked questions by a caller from Austin Texas in the United States about recent violent clashes between Hamas and Fatah factions in the West Bank and Gaza.

We’ve still got more to do. As I said on the webinar, we’re still building community around the programme. People often say that the BBC has a huge audience. Recent figures show the BBC World Service has 163 million listeners. But a sense of community is different from a large audience. Community is a sense of ownership, belonging and participation. The greater the community we build around the programme, the more the audience will feel a sense that this is their programme. As I’ve said before, building community around a global discussion programme is difficult. Community develops around several shared things, place or a shared passions or interests.

Another question asked was how to make money with blogs. Suw often says that she doesn’t make money with her blog but because of her blog. There is a lot of truth even for us in traditional media. I remember in the late 90s people in traditional media said that the web was great but there was no way to make money with it. Now, many media websites turn a profit, a profit not necessarily that is replacing revenue lost from their traditional business, but a profit. And I believe that blogs can renew our relationship with our audiences.

It’s not simply a commercial relationship. A lot of my colleagues ask me why I blog. I found that when I wrote the blog during the US elections in 2004 that it reminded me a lot of the relationship I had with my readers when I first started out in journalism as a local newspaper reporter. I was part of the communities that I wrote about in western Kansas. That was one of the things that made journalism a fulfilling job for me.

Even though in 2004, I was writing the blog for people all over the world, I felt I was writing for a community again, not just readers. I got more response from the blog I wrote than almost anything I have done for the BBC. I think there are a lot of opportunities for news organisations to embrace blogging to renew our relationship with our audiences. While I won’t outline a business model with facts and figures about a return on investment, I know that blogs can help us create compelling content. And that is the start for any media business model.