Blogging was where we began, and how we built our company so we have preserved this archive to show how our thinking developed over a decade of developing the use of social technology inside organisations

Can newspaper social media sites continue to thrive alongside a strong public service broadcaster?


The Guardian’s re-launch of Comment is Free shows that mainstream newspapers can still lead the way in creating conversation spaces and public debate. Contributors on the new system will have new profiles that aggregate their writing, but commenters will also get their own pages too, which will presumably become more useful over time. Comment is Free has been a pioneer in the UK media world, but it has suffered from low quality, noisy debates that are often dominated by a hardcore of Guardianistas of various hues. Hopefully some of the features of the new Pluck platform will help here
The Guardian sensibly uses moderators to keep the debate clean and legal, which is more expensive but less risky. Over at the Daily Telegraph, where a refresh of their own blogging system is underway, the newspaper allows anybody to create blogs, and the whole system is far less moderated. At the other end of the spectrum, the BBC is the biggest buyer of online moderation services anywhere
This difference between the Guardian and Telegraph has been the subject of barbed comments between the two recently about Telegraph blogs giving a platform to fascists and Comment is Free publishing the views of Islamists. However, both sides have since found common cause in attacking the BBC for allegedly using its considerable license-funded budget to squeeze out commercial rivals
Over at the Guardian, Emily Bell kicked off this debate recently with a post an article (no comments) calling for a new conversation about the BBC, which picked up the issue of the BBC’s relationship with the commercial media sector, and its ability to compete head-on with advertising-funded services outside the UK. Nick Reynolds from the BBC chipped in with Emily Bell: What Conversation Exactly?, where ex-Beeb policy person Tom Loosemore asked some difficult questions, while others continued the debate about whether or not the BBC misuses its large budget to unfairly compete with the commercial sector
A month later, after the BBC Trust’s review of, the Guardian’s PDA blog invited the Daily Telegraph’s digital editor Edward Roussel to set out an argument for reigning in the BBC: Budget-busting threatens digital revolution, says Telegraph chief. This attracted some interesting comments and responses from both BBC supporters and critics alike
Now, Mike Butcher from TechCrunchUK has joined the debate, echoing many of Roussel’s arguments about massive overspend (‘heads would roll in the private sector’ etc.), calling on the BBC to use its budget to support innovation in what he calls the “startup sector” and arguing for the BBC to create a major open platform through which to allow third parties access to its content and services
For a fan of both the BBC (for whom we have worked), the Guardian and also the Daily Telegraph’s digital offering, this debate makes interesting reading, especially the comments attached to each of the posts quoted above. Really good, open stuff, and exactly the kind of open debate we need among social media practitioners.
I think the oft-repeated claim that the BBC has ‘overspent by 48%’ is slightly disingenuous, as this results largely from a change in accounting methods that makes the Beeb’s digital groups carry a bigger share of overall corporation overheads. As for the competition argument, is there merit to the claims that the BBC is crushing competition? Perhaps, in some areas, but the quality of BBC output and wider its social and economic benefits are sufficient to justify a strong, well-funded public service offering in both TV and digital services. It is the envy of the world, and if the BBC was broken up or turned into simply into a public funding pot for third party content, then we would lose something of immense retained value that would never be re-created. The Guardian should understand this well, since it has been free to innovate in both online and offline publishing, and to take a long-term view, precisely because the Scott Trust has given the newspaper a degree of protection from short-termism. Ultimately, I think if we compare the value derived from £500m of investment in the BBC’s growing digital services to other uses of public funds such as bureaucratising the health service, military adventures or bailing out failing banks, I personally believe the BBC stands up relatively well
Mike is right, of course, that the Beeb should be focusing on opening up and working with the rest of the digital sector, but actually it is … or at least parts of it are trying to. A good proportion of its budget goes straight back out to the industry, and the BBC has been a proving ground for many people and ideas that have gone on to succeed in both commercial and public sectors. Also, I think the BBC’s attitude to innovation has been better than most in the UK media, and in the last few years it has experimented and tried to learn about what works and what doesn’t. It is not only what Mike calls the “startup sector” that innovates: startup is simply a growth stage for all companies, good or bad. Being a web startup is a bit like waitressing in LA whilst hoping for your big acting break. Some will catch a break but most are going nowhere, especially in an advertising downturn. The fact that our major media are trying to compete through innovation is a great sign, and I think the impact of their work has the potential to bring new ideas and techniques to a much wider audience, which is in turn useful as a way of expanding the potential market for startups or other companies trying to innovate in other areas
I really hope that in the UK media scene, a strong, public service-driven BBC can continue to co-exist peacefully with a strong commercial sector, because I think this has the biggest benefit for consumers. The Guardian and Telegraph’s continuing commitment to social media are a good sign that they are not in danger of being crowded out by the BBC, but if advertising continues to dip then rather than argue that the BBC’s international advertising-funded services represents unfair competition, they should perhaps try to innovate around business models and revenue streams with the same energy they have put into developing successful online services.

One Response to Can newspaper social media sites continue to thrive alongside a strong public service broadcaster?

  1. By Tele2002 on October 28, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    Great post, I beleive that using social collaboration is a very useful tool to gauge the opinion of the public and that sometimes moderation is required, but for me moderation is about filtering the noise, not the opinion.
    I use Yahoo Buzz a lot fr both adding my opinion and reading others, I also frequently look at the comments on services such as Youtube, both of these example are moderated by the readers who can report abuse, so why can the same notbe employed by the Telegraphy, Guardian & BBC?
    I’m also not sure I fully understand the legal implications of not moderating user comments since we have freedom of speech, does that freedom not extend to us writing our opinion in a public forum?
    Both news aggregation and deliver need to be innovated, the BBC seem to be doing a good job at making it visually appealing to us users but does it’s content measure up….. I can’t think of one time where I have directly or indirectly ended up on the BBC news site, yet Sky, Telegraph, The Mail, The Independant and Guardian have all attracted my attention – is that Content? Search? or Quality?
    When the news corporations come together to deliver and configure the news delivered the way we want it and not the way they want us to consume it will mark a change for the better along with controlling the trash (sorry advertising) that the place in our line of sight