How BBC Global News has adapted to remote reporting

BBC Global News, the BBC’s commercially funded international news platform, is not alone in experiencing record global traffic online and on TV during March. But the scale of its operation — 4,000 global journalists with 60 international bureaux in 77 cities, 24-hour news channels and various online platforms — has meant more considerable shifts towards remote working while increasing the content output.

In March it had 1.5 billion monthly page views, 61 million monthly video views and 179 million monthly unique browsers, according to web analytics firm AT Internet, via BBC Global News. Successive months have been lower as fatigue sets in but still above the previous norms.

Most publishers have been touting giant pageviews, mostly vanity metrics as the traffic is often poorly monetized, but the BBC regularly scores high on the scale of trusted news sources even across political party lines. Here’s what the global news entity has learned from the last few months of remote working.

People don’t need to fly to enjoy travel content

The BBC Travel vertical has generated record figures. In April, it grew unique visitors 34% month-over-month compared with March. Time spent on page was also up 9% month-on-month. The month’s most popular story had over a million pageviews.

Internal data show audiences come into news via search before reading more non-coronavirus content across its five other non-news verticals. Even during the height of audience demand for pandemic news in March 2020, non-news content accounted for two-thirds of all page views. 

“We’ve had a light hand on the tiller,” said Mary Wilkinson, head of editorial content at BBC Global News. “We concentrated on what makes places distinct and interesting, people’s interest doesn’t change even if you can’t fly there. It’s not about visiting this hotel but about stories, history, people and the culture of places. People have more time on their hands and are housebound so want to be taken somewhere else.”

Popular articles include ancient underwater civilizations and success stories of cities that have turned their fortunes around. Advertisers class these non-news verticals safer for their branding messages to appear next to, which helps when overall, ad revenue does not match up to the heights of web traffic. Although, countries in Asia are seeing businesses return and reignite marketing. Airlines and tourism firms are talking to BBC Global News, according to CEO Jim Egan, to hit the ground running when lockdown restrictions ease. 

Contingency plans are only a starting point

It’s a simple process to shift online journalism to remote working environments. Keeping TV news channels rolling is tougher.

“For TV, it was a difficult, sobering moment,” said Wilkinson. “We had contingency plans about how to manage if X percent of staff were ill, now that feels naive. People aren’t ill but they don’t want to be going in. The newsroom is densely packed so we had to do swift work to reduce a staffing rota, working out who could make TV from home while keeping the live output going. All the time there’s a story that is constantly evolving and so much journalism that needs doing.”

The TV schedule had to be drastically simplified, relying on Zoom interviews and presenters with only a couple of socially-distanced panelists. But the urgency of the situation meant viewers overlooked the cracks in quality. And pulling in high-profile speakers, like world and business leaders, has been easier.   

BBC Global News is launching new shows: In mid-May, it released “Coronavirus: Your Stories,” a series where broadcaster Philippa Thomas hears from people around the world about how coronavirus has changed their lives.

Post-production editing is the time drain

Elements of remote working, for instance within teams, take longer. For the BBC, it’s editing and post-production that eats up time as it mitigates against lower quality recordings. The editing process is also more iterative when it’s bouncing between many stakeholders. 

“The next step is getting it to the playout suit [to be broadcast],” said Wilkinson. “We’ve never been able to do that when we’ve not been in the building. It now takes longer and is a bit of a technical fandango.”

The challenge is when to ease off

Already, internationally the most-read story for the month of May on the news site was the reappearance of North Korean leader, Kim Jung-Un, published May 2, (in the U.K. coronavirus stories are still top of the list). 

“Right now, the story is of huge interest to huge amounts of people,” she said. “The challenge is going to be to make sure we don’t miss the moment where people have had enough.”

There will, of course, be the story of the unraveling global economy and how it shakes different societies. “It doesn’t feel like it will be an optimistic story, but it is an important one. If lockdown persists, that’s also something that worries me, nothing beats face-to-face journalism.”

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