On 25th April 2022, I flew to London with Claire De Battista, the other winner of the GenZ Competition, and Dr Alex Grech from the 3CL Foundation for a week’s internship with media outlets. The programme, organised by Janette Ballard, Molly McMunn and the 3CL looked gruelling: three days with various teams at the BBC interspersed with a spate of meetings and workshops across London – at The Economist, VICE News, The Guardian Foundation, On Our Radar and Tortoise.
We didn’t get off to a great start: Alex broke his metatarsal before we even got to the hotel. Yet nothing changed in the programme. We just had to navigate London a bit slower, via an unscheduled visit to St Thomas’s Hospital. Taxis rather than the Tube; takeaways as opposed to some sight-seeing; and helping with crutches when needed.
I’ve now had some time to absorb what I learned from the journalists and media professionals I met in a whirlwind week.
1. Tools for the media toolbox.
It is possible for young people to think critically about media.
The Guardian Foundation runs media literacy programs in UK schools. Their immersive learning programs for primary school kids and teenagers foster engagement in current events and equip participants with digital literacy skills. That means learning how to review news content online, ask critical questions, and navigate the online space confidently. Young people consume media content on a huge scale, and the majority of that is less and less monitorable by their guardians. Through NewsWise and Behind the Headlines, the programmes led by Elli Narewska and Margaret Holborn are published as toolkits to facilitate the work of educators and help young children and teenagers secure the skills needed to consume and produce media confidently and critically. In Malta, we’re still equating digital literacy to ‘being safe online’ – at least until we get to University. By which time, it’s too late. That’s why the GenZ programme is important – if you’re interested in media freedoms, you have to start to understand the difference between facts, speculations, rumours and opinions. There’s too much confusion out there – and it’s in the interest of some power brokers to keep things that way.
2. A market for your strengths.
Independent media agencies need to be innovative to survive in the new media landscape.
Smaller organisations need sustainable business models if they are to operate as activist and investigative journalism outlets. In the UK, many are dependent on grants, important founder networks and subscription models. Journalists have had to adapt to the gig economy in an increasingly competitive landscape where content is often the wrapping around an advert. On Our Radar, now in its tenth year, was set up by an interdisciplinary team focused on training a new generation of citizen journalists. That revenue stream is supplemented by consultancy and co-production services. Radar remains activist in its approach. In contrast, Tortoise Media, as its name suggests, is a ‘slow burn’ media outlet, focusing on feature content and signature ‘slow news’ as a service to other businesses. The methods employed include regular weekly brainstorming meetings to identify news stories that will resonate with partners as much as target audiences. Tessa Murray, Tortoise’s CEO, says that her team’s transdisciplinary skills sets are important in an emerging media ecosystem where new services may sometimes co-exist with and complement core journalistic outputs. “Journalists adapt to changing times. They learn new skills – including convening different parties. Our news is always totally editorially independent and separate to any of our commercial work. But we like to convene groups (our members, commercial partners, experts etc) around topics of importance (Responsible AI, Responsible Business, The Future of Food, Accelerating Net Zero) to work together to push for change and share ideas. But this convening process is entirely separate to our news output. News is the prerogative of the Editor”.
3. A cultural virtual magnifying glass.
The social internet is a loudspeaker for real life events when our attention is limited.
They don’t call it the Attention Economy for nothing. The BBC is acutely aware of the need to respond to all things social if it is to remain relevant for young people in particular. There’s a team at the BBC that packages news in one-minute sound bites – and they’re doing that 24×7. BBC Minute is a news bulletin which is broadcast every half hour through BBC radio stations worldwide. Nicky Schiller, a BBC Minute veteran, thrives on the intensity of sharing news as it happens. The social internet serves to amplify real life events, making it an invaluable tool as a search engine for the instantaneous news cycle the bulletin follows. I got to experience what it takes to do one of these bulletins – first hand!
4. Content updated and repackaged.
News and entertainment on the same platform drives news engagement.
We spent some quality time speaking to Ros Atkins on his set. Ros is a BBC superstar, the presenter of Outside Source on the BBC News Channel and known globally for his viral “explainer” videos, broadcast on BBC Breakfast and posted online. Our discussion with Ros focused on ‘engaging news’ that is easily comprehensible on social platforms, and therefore more likely to be shared and reach audiences that would not usually tune into a BBC broadcast. Ros explained that news media must co-exist with entertainment content – but this makes the task of producing news stories in a format relevant for consumption on mobile devices more challenging. The BBC’s world-class approach to news-making has secured a loyal audience with those aged over 40. Rather than dumbing down its news content, the BBC is exploring new approaches to the production of news that may resonate more with Generation Z.
The slogan at BBC Minute is a reminder: ‘Cover the most shareable news stories in a minute’. Team members have to split their air time between searching for global popular trends that could merit attention as the biggest news headlines of the day; and developing one-minute bulletins that can be finely balanced between tradtional news and ‘pop culture’; often broadcast to an international audience between radio hits. BBC Minute is one of several projects that we discussed in relation to the BBC’s strategy to become more relevant to younger people. We had a fascinating workshop with Jonny McGuigan, who is coordinating the development of BBC News content’s presentation on iPlayer. BBC iPlayer is not just a repository for BBC quality content, but also an opportunity for news content to be repurposed and rescaled for different audiences to those who traditionally access news in real time through the BBC’s various channels. News on the iPlayer needs to be presented in a direct and digestible way if it is to co-exist with entertainment content on the streaming platform. What took us by surprise was the openness in our discussions with Jonny and his team: at one stage, Claire and I were involved in a workshop on a very early stage pilot of ‘good news’ stories for possible deployment on the iPlayer. It’s not every day that young people are asked for their opinion on what works and what doesn’t work online by experts in their field. The picture below says it all!
5. Breaking the mould.
Once one branch gains a reputation, the rest of the tree earns legitimacy.
VICE is synonymous with ‘cool news’ for our times. As Vice Media’s current affairs channel, VICE News produces daily documentary essays and video through its website and YouTube channel. It promotes itself on its coverage of “under-reported stories” – exploring the dynamic between lifestyle content and cutting edge news production. We met Sean Stephens, the London Bureau Chief, who had just returned from covering the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine. The legitimacy of its lifestyle content now rests on its reputation in investigative journalistic media. Since 2014, VICE has been experimenting with immersionist online documentaries; its nightly news broadcast streams have engaged younger audiences in an interactive way, as opposed to token summary news. It’s a strategy that has paid off in terms of viewer figures. Sean’s advice to those who want to work for new media organisations like VICE was very grounded: “There is no linear pathway to working for an organisation like VICE. I stared out as a researcher in Ireland, where I was raised. In the early days, I took any type of assignment where I thought I could learn something, no matter how mundane. I’ve worked as a researcher, a content writer, a producer… eventually moving to London to work for ITN and Al Jazeera. I worked as a field producer during the 2014 uprising and war in Ukraine. I was travelling constantly, learning how to coordinate content, output, and manage interdisciplinary field teams. There are no short cuts in life – but you need to be aware of opportunities and go for them when they arise!” The VICE offices reflect something of this work ethos: functional, not flash. Although the collection of photographs on the wall was eclectic, to say the least!
6. The messenger is the message.
Media agencies and publications carry a narrative, and an agenda.
It was our privilege to spend the best part of a morning with Kenn Cukier, the Technology Editor at The Economist. Reputations matter a lot in mainstream media: in the case of The Economist, trust in its coverage of current affairs, international business, politics, technology and culture news stories is based on a reputation built over nearly 180 years of publication. Kenn has a deep interest in technology and culture, and our conversation often referenced the historic, global importance of The Economist as a reporter of matters that have to do with those who exert power, and those who seek to secure power. Curiously, The Economist decided to do away with by-lines, publishing its stories as the viewpoint of the publication itself. Readers rely on the paper’s tradition of accurate reporting rather than the personal social capital or reputation of its reporters. This is in contrast to other bastions of media such as the BBC, where content in its many forms (TV, articles, radio etc) is readily associated with personalities. Yet one common element is the attention to journalism as a public service and the corporate values of impartiality and rigour as the fourth estate. The BBC and The Economist have systemic checks and balances in place from story inception to publishing, with fact-checking for accuracy and correctness before content is published.
Kenn shared a historical artefact, the prospectus for the newspaper from 5 August 1843 which enumerated thirteen areas of coverage that its editors wanted the publication to focus on. The video clip below won’t win prizes for production – but it’s always worth listening to Kenn talk about media, old and new – and why quality content still matters.
7. The revolution will not be televised.
Combining marginalised stories with media production skills.
Libby Drew, the outgoing founder of On Our Radar, believes that every citizen has the right to tell his or her story – in their own way, with their own voice and from their own unique perspective and world view. Over the past ten years, Radar has been producing training material in the form of toolkits and leading workshops for aspiring citizen journalists in marginalised communities all over the world. Its manifesto belies its activist role, and belief that journalism remains a force for grassroots change in very challenging circumstances. There is a need for the marginalised to not only broadcast their voices and life stories, but for them to do so in a relatable and engaging way. The Radar process positions critical thinking as a survial skill that can be taught in its own right: citizen journalists need to identify and report on meaningful stories, curate their own writing, set up local self-sustaining networks and learn how to minimise risks, frequently to their own persons. Libby’s stories were not all about success. She told us about a four-day workshop with rape victims in India to facilitate a new network of female citizen journalists. Once the Radar team had left India, everything went back to type: the contact with the network went cold. “Never underestimate the resilience of a patriarchal culture in developing contexts,” she said. It was food for thought, as we recorded our own occupation of a boardroom at the VICE offices. What impact do stories about the marginalised have, in the corridors of power, in delivering change, in addressing injustices? In our conversations with journalists, it was difficult to ignore the tragedy in the Ukraine, now ‘televised’ in real time by people with smart phones and little else, to document personal narratives and war crimes.
8. A wider angle to stories.
The newsroom benefits from diversity.
We were invited to the official launch of 50:50 The Equality Project. The brainchild of Ros Atkins, this BBC-led initiative is committed to increase female, ethnic, and class representation in the newsroom. To the BBC, giving the full picture means having checks in place to ensure its newsroom represents the diversity of the British stories it tells. Smaller organisations like Tortoise also pay closer attention to keeping the views among the team diverse, in an attempt to decrease the risk that comes with homogenous in-groups.
9. Stories are what matter.
News is someone’s story.
Stories remain the lifeblood of the newsroom. Deciding what constitutes a news story is a common human editorial process for all media outlets, irrespective of size or availability of technology. Speaking to Paul Caruana Galizia at Tortoise, we discussed storytelling and the public’s increasing demand for quality podcasts, and particularly those involving non-fiction stories. Podcasts certainly came of age during the pandemic, and Tortoise have managed to combine investigative journalism with greater demand for more personal narratives. Paul’s podcast about the murder of his mother is one of Tortoise’s top five podcasts. It’s a story nobody would wish to document. We’ve often discussed storification and mediatisation of truths in a lecture. When you meet journalists working for mainstream or alternative media outlets, you start to understand how serious the business of news stories really is. What really hits you, as you enter the BBC, is the sheer number of people working on news stories, round the clock. Then sometimes you realise that even the mundane can become a story. In our case, one morning at the BBC we had to use a side entrance as Prince Charles was meant to be visiting the BBC World Service team, to thank them for their service to the Commonwealth. We didn’t quite expect the future Monarch to put in an appearance as we were chatting to the iPlayer team in what seemed a relatively quiet corner of the building!
10. Trust in news media to combat misinformation.
The relationship between informative media and the public is critical.
The need for digital and media literacies is now exponential. If in 2019, the clear and obvious threats were relatable to Trump’s attacks on mainstream media and the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in 2022 misinformation is available at scale on any story worthy of being called ‘news’ – from the conflict in the Ukraine to the viability of Bitcoin. Applications to the Guardian Foundation’s media literacy programmes rapidly rose with Trump’s attacks on the media, and the Foundation – like the 3CL – identifies education as the key tool for combating misinformation and promoting media freedoms. On Our Radar continues to support the work of citizen journalists through training that may contribute to meaningful mediated versions of ‘truths’. Tortoise combats the illegible noise of headlines by finding truths in slow news. The need for public engagement on what constitutes ‘trusted media’ is very relevant, in these uncertain times. The discussion that the GenZ project has started on media freedoms is important, and not just for my generation. Outside the BBC, there is a stark reminder that truth is also, often, very uncomfortable, particularly to those in power. In the same way that the former audience for journalism now has access to the equivalent of a printing press by having a smart phone in its pocket – with that power comes responsibility.