What's Missing From the BBC's 'Future of News' Report?

The BBC is a globally important news organization and looked to all over the world for inspiration by other media, whether public service, private or non-profit.

That makes the new "Future of News" report by director of news and current affairs, James Harding, a particularly important publication well beyond the UK -- BBC World News say they reach a quarter of a billion households globally, and boasts over 50 million Facebook likes and over 8 million Twitter followers. Google, Facebook and Twitter may well be the only media companies with a wider global reach, even though China, Russia and Qatar are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in building their international state-owned media operations.

The report sets out an analysis of where news is heading over the next 10 years, identifies central strategic challenges, and lays out the case for the continued relevance of BBC-style public service media, funded not on a market basis (as with private media), or by donations (non-profits), but by a license fee levied on most of the population.

It is a very useful report, both for a good overall analysis of some of the main changes underway in the media and beyond changing what news is and where it should go. But it also leaves a number of key issues largely untouched -- most notably the role of digital intermediaries like Google and Facebook, the growing role of PR and strategic communication, as well as the global battle for press freedom -- which it is important to highlight.

In summary (see also here), Harding's focus is on what content the BBC (and others like it), but also on the technologies used to disseminate news and engage with users, and on the people that journalists ultimately need to reach and enrich.

On the content side, Harding argues that the BBC needs to emphasize "underreported stories", especially as private sector investment in news coverage continues to shrink in much of the world, including more focus on opaque power structures (especially cross-border ones), on international and local news (as opposed to national), and on making sure that the BBC delivers news for everyone, across age, class, race, etc. differences, especially given the huge information inequalities that characterize what he rightly calls our "uneven world".

On the technology side, he underlines the need to continue to operate with a mix of distribution platforms and technologies, including "legacy" ones like traditional TV and radio, but also on more emphasis on more distinctly digital and mobile formats and platforms, as well as the need for more data journalism, more personalized news services ("If you like this, you might also like..."), and more engagement with users, all facilitated by digital technologies.

While recognizing many of the challenges ahead, Harding's overall stance is up-beat. In his view, news is changing "for the better, overwhelmingly." A colleague from a private news organization would probably be the first to say that is probably more true when one is funded by a license fee than if one is struggling to break even on a market basis.

What's missing from this, then, beyond the limited attention paid to the challenges commercial players face? I would highlight three important things that are underplayed in the report.

First, the increasingly important role of digital intermediaries like search engines and social media. In six of the 10 countries we surveyed for the 2014 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, search engines are a more widely used way of finding news online than the websites of news organizations like the BBC. Digital intermediaries often offer amazing and highly valuable services to their users, but it is also important to keep an eye on their increasingly central place in the overall media environment as the sites via which we find news, where we consume it, where we engage with it. As Emily Bell has rightly argued, this puts the biggest of these companies in very powerful positions and raise questions of accountability and conflict of interest. It also leaves news media that increasingly depend on these for distribution exposed to what investors often call "platform risk", the risk that Google, Facebook, or some similar player will change their mode of operation (technically, commercially, etc) in ways that complicate news media's ability to reach people effectively.

Second, the rise of PR and strategic communication by many, many different kinds of players. The BBC used to compete mainly with other media companies (and with non-media pursuits) for people's attention. Now, the old saying that "every organization is a media organization" is increasingly true as both private companies, interest groups, political parties, governments, social movements, even terrorist organizations like Islamic State, operate their own media and often work to circumvent news media like the BBC. This is in part clear with the dissemination of various forms of radical propaganda in offline and online social networks, but perhaps especially so with the increased investments in PR and strategic communication by large, powerful, and well-resources organizations like governments and big corporations, as argued by John Lloyd and Laura Toogood. Even as many media companies slash their newsrooms, the number of PR people is on the rise, to the point where there in some countries are now more than four PR professionals for every professional journalist.

Third, there is the global battle for press freedom and freedom of expression. It's striking to read a whole report on the future of news with little discussion of censorship, surveillance or intimidation. The situation in many parts of the world, including parts where the BBC is very active and very important, is clearly extremely difficult. With conflict raging in many parts of the world, year after year, journalists are being killed and imprisoned in record numbers. States like China and Russia continue to develop new and ever more sophisticated forms of censorship and media monitoring. And in many established democracies, we see a pattern of intensified surveillance of both the population at large and specifically of journalists, as well as more concerted and intense efforts to prevent whistle-blowers from speaking with the press.

These three points does not mean the BBC's "Future of News" report is not good or not worth reading. It is good and it is worth reading for everyone interested in the future of news. I'd just suggest reading it with these issues in mind.