Media: E-mail me, be on TV

The huge growth in Internet use is showing broadcasters revolutionary ways of gathering news. And it is the user who is calling the shots, says Tony Hall
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The Independent Culture
DURING THE recent coup in Pakistan, Ghulam Dastgir Khan, an MP who was under house arrest, e-mailed BBC News Online, his only source of news. He wrote: "My wife, son, widowed sister-in-law and her daughter, two nephews and eight members of the staff have been under armed house arrest since daybreak yesterday. Approximately 40 armed troops have been deployed outside and inside my house."

This was the only way he could communicate with the outside world and the only way journalists could find out what was happening to him. It's also the kind of first-hand reporting we've not known before. The astonishing rate of growth in Internet usage gives us a new window on the events that shape our world. But its power can also dazzle and blind us. We may not be seeing clearly the editorial changes that this new world presages. And the proliferation of new providers of news is unnerving the bigger players. The new wisdom, we've heard, is that it's the big news organisations that will struggle to survive: they're too slow, too big, can't keep up and deliver. Perhaps unfashionably, I'm not so sure.

What the Internet does is put the user in charge which poses two clear challenges for news providers - to have the broadest range of stories and a trusted brand. News organisations which invest in their news-gathering and editorial infrastructure have everything to gain from this new age - provided they forge a new relationship with the audience.

The last decade has seen a huge expansion in the range of news available to consumers. But it's been a world where the producers of news have remained in control. We decide the agenda, we decide what we'll cover and in how much depth. But changes to be wrought in the new on-demand world of the Internet and interactive TV will be more fundamental and there will be casualties.

First the online world will be the place for breaking news. It's up to the minute. It can be personalised. At the BBC we're finding that on those days when really big stories break more and more people are turning to our online site either as the first source of news or to get more up-to- date information.

For day one of Kosovo last March we had 2.3 million page impressions. For the Paddington rail crash, we had 3.7 million in a day - a record. We update our stories constantly because it's what users told us they wanted. In the future, this immediacy will become more and more important. You use the Web because you want to know what's happening right now. But you'll want that information from someone you trust and someone with the reach to get it. And through the next generation of mobile phones, organisers and laptops, what you get online now will be available to you wherever you are. News on the move is the next frontier.

The second characteristic is that the Web is increasingly a place where news is made. For example, after the verdict in the Louise Woodward case, the British nanny charged with murdering a baby in the United States, the policeman who arrested her e-mailed BBC News Online. It was published after his identity had been checked with the police department.

Detective Sergeant Byrne wrote: "Why is it so hard for many people to realise that this is absolute child abuse? It happens every day here in America and in England. If this girl was a big unattractive woman with no teeth and tattoos, would the public have had a different opinion as to whether or not she was guilty?"

And after the Turkish earthquake the first e-mail was received in London within 14 minutes. A flood of eyewitness accounts then came in followed by appeals for help to trace missing people. What motivates people to keep on e-mailing when all around is literally falling apart, I just don't know. But they do and it's gripping .

The third point about this new world is that news organisations will all have to supply a much wider range of news than they currently do if they are to survive. The reason is simple: the user is in charge and they want what they want, not what we tell them they want.

It strikes me therefore - and I would not have said this six months ago - that with the audience in charge you need the strength and depth to cope. If you're to deliver high quality, in this business size matters.

Lastly, we're going to have to deliver not just news - but the ability for people to interact, comment, have their say. A real public service.

People will want to have names that they can trust for independence, for in-depth analysis, for accuracy. There are those who claim public service broadcasters like the BBC will die out. They say the BBC's day is done. I say dream on. The going is tough but the BBC has some powerful levers to pull.

Tony Hall is Chief Executive of BBC News