Media: The global correspondent

BBC News Online helps people in a disaster to trace their relatives. And file their own stories. Is this the future?
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The Independent Culture
Before the journalists arrived, before the television cameras were at the scene, eyewitness reports from last week's Turkish earthquake were appearing on BBC News Online. "I jumped out of my bed and stood up for a split second before running into the next room where my ten-month- old baby boy was sleeping," said Zeynep Uygun in an e-mail from Istanbul. "Our flat on the seventh floor of an apartment building was shaking wildly, but I could not exactly see or hear what the quake was doing from the throbbing in my head and chest."

At 5.15 am News Online had posted a message asking if anyone had experienced the quake, and would like to send an e-mail. Four arrived within ten minutes, and hundreds more followed in the next 24 hours.

At the same time, says Jo Ross, the producer who manages News Online's e-mails, requests came in from people asking for help finding lost relatives. Before long, the BBC was operating a sort of off-the-cuff helpline. One man in Cyprus offered to make 100 phone calls to people in Turkey, and was able to contact 97 survivors, as well as establishing that two people were injured and one had died.

Interactivity is a core part of BBC News Online, and gives the news an immediacy which traditional media would find hard to match: 14,000 e-mails were received on the death of Jill Dando, and 28,000 on the war in Kosovo. The site co-hosted a radio programme with the world service, on which Nato spokesman Jamie Shea was a guest, and has also hosted Internet discussions which, says Ross, have allowed residents of Kosovo and Belgrade to talk to each other about the war.

The industry is talking about BBC News Online as a working example of the journalism of the future. Visitors to the site behave in a different way from the reader of a newspaper or a television viewer, being able to access any of 300,000 stories, listen to audio reports, or watch video coverage on screen.

Journalists too, are breaking new ground. Alf Hermida, a former BBC foreign correspondent in the Middle East, is now output editor for the site. He explains that one of the most exciting aspects of his job is being able to see how many people are looking at each story and when - a luxury not granted to the editors of newspapers.

Being the BBC, the News Online journalists are equipped with sophisticated desktop equipment that allows them to monitor a host of feeds from BBC correspondents and radio stations. They identify a story, write it into an established template, and write their own headlines.

Unlike a newspaper reporter, the Online journalist then selects his own still photograph, crops it onscreen and adds it into the story. The self- editing process continues into audio and video material. Both can be selected and edited at the desk - the individual journalist becomes a writer, editor, picture editor, radio producer and video producer - his final product is checked by one of nine desk editors before going live on the site.

"In my experience it's more exciting than other sorts of journalism. In radio you might be restricted to sending a three-minute package - here you cover every aspect of a story, take a story and it explore it from a number of angles - and the deadline is always now," says Hermida.

So far, the public response has been impressive. BBC Online, as a whole, is Europe's most popular site, and BBC News Online is growing fast within it. Since the beginning of the year traffic has grown by 125 per cent to 54 million page-views each month. Growth seems to be generated by big news stories, when usage jumps significantly. But then it does not drop back to the level it started from. On an average day more than 40,000 different stories are accessed.

The busiest time, so far, was the eclipse when half a million people logged in to the BBC's corner of cyberspace to watch the movement of the the sun and moon. The number would have been higher, but the site became clogged by the sudden surge in traffic.

BBC Online has, from its inception, been controversial. Within the BBC, programme makers complain that the pounds 20m a year that is spent on it could have made dozens of good documentaries, or several dramas.

They moan that licence fee money is being used on a service which is accessed by as many foreigners as licence payers, and tend to lump it with the BBC's development of digital television channels as unreasonable expansion into non- core areas.

News Online, says project director Bob Eggington, had first year costs of pounds 3.5m in 1997-98, and will now have running costs of around pounds 8m a year, with 10 per cent of that coming from World Service grant-in-aid. About half the traffic comes from overseas, with America by far the biggest international user.

But the Internet service is gaining friends in powerful places. Gerald Kaufman, the chairman of the Culture Select Committee, for instance, argues that the BBC has its priorities wrong in "squandering a fortune" on digital television channels such as News 24 - when it should be increasing its investment in BBC Online well beyond the current pounds 20m budget.

Kaufman and others also point to the value of the Internet sites to the BBC. "It's been suggested that before long Online will be worth as much as the rest of the BBC put together," says a BBC insider. "However, that is a comment on the frenetic state of Internet equity markets as much as anything else."

The point is good. The BBC could easily sell off Beeb.com, its commercial Internet site, raising hundreds of millions of pounds with little controversy. BBC News Online, at the moment, is conceived rigidly as a public service offering - but some radicals are already arguing that it, too, could become a commercial proposition.

"In any case," says a city analyst, "the BBC is doing no harm in spending essentially small amounts on an asset that could be worth many tens of millions of pounds."

Bob Eggington is aware of the value of his project. "The only real competitors," he says, "would be CNN or Murdoch. We have some fundamental qualities that others cannot match - the BBC brand, multi-media assets and a round- the-clock news operation."

BBC News Online: news.BBC.co.uk

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