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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 October 2005, 08:44 GMT 09:44 UK
Blogging and the BBC
By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent

With a blog created every second and the so-called "blogosphere" doubling every five months, journalists remain divided over the weblog phenomenon.

Torin Douglas
Torin Douglas: BBC cannot ignore blogging phenomenon

To believers, the blog is democratising the media world, empowering a new breed of citizen journalist to file instantly from the world's trouble spots or expose the truth about big corporations, government and media organisations.

It claimed the scalps of CNN news boss Eason Jordan and CBS anchor Dan Rather after news errors exposed by bloggers.

Through cutting-edge technology, it lets journalists interact with their readers across the globe and brings a new, more conversational dimension to their reporting.

To sceptics, the blog is simply vanity publishing on a vast scale, allowing the world and his wife to witter on about their mundane lives without the benefit of a good editor.

The BBC is now having to decide how its employees should behave if they create their own blogs
Torin Douglas

More dangerously, with none of the traditional journalistic checks, it spawns errors, hoaxes and downright lies which can be right round the world before the truth has its boots on.

Either way, the phenomenon can no longer be ignored, and certainly not in a global news organisation like the BBC.

'Embracing blogs'

Already it has many bloggers of its own, whether writing for internal consumption or for the outside world, as Newsnight's Paul Mason did from the G8 summit at Gleneagles.

The BBC is now having to decide how its employees should behave if they create their own blogs, and how it will - and will not - use blogs in its daily journalism.

BBC guidelines for employees' personal blogs are being drawn up by Editorial Policy, and a guide to blogs and blogging for journalists is being compiled by Kevin Anderson, of BBC News Interactive.

He believes the BBC should embrace blogs.

Person using computer
The blogosphere is expanding rapidly

"Blogs can sharpen our journalism, introduce us to new sources, widen our agenda and maintain our position as a trusted source," he writes, in a discussion paper called BBC Blogs: News as conversation.

"The blog format will allow us to develop a conversation with our audiences, increasing transparency, trust and responsiveness," Mr Anderson says.

"We can learn lessons from bloggers in the use of rapidly developing technologies to bring a new immediacy to our reporting from the field."

But let's cut to the chase. Exactly what is a blog?

Even the experts find it hard to define and Mr Anderson believes there is general confusion.

Interactivity crucial

He quotes one broad definition: "Weblogs are a kind of website. They represent an easy and versatile way to publish all kinds of content - news and journalism, education and analysis, humour, personal observation and opinion, and more."

The BBC Webwise site puts it differently: "Blogging is a way of collecting links to pages you visit often and making comments about them that other people can see."

I know how irritating e-mails from the boss landing in the inbox can be, so I thought I'd try a blog as an experiment
Richard Sambrook,
BBC director of global news
Paul Mason says it's the wrong question: "It's like asking 'what is a modem?'.

"The modem allows the internet: the network is the phenomenon, not the node. The real point is what a blog allows: which is personal internet diaries optimised to create and utilise the network effect."

Crucially, blogs must be interactive. It's not only another way to publish news and comment, it's also a way to listen and have a conversation with our audience.

"'Interactivity is a key test - asking questions and responding to comments engages the audience and differentiates the blog from our traditional content."

Most blogs carry lots of links to other blogs or content. Many feature RSS feeds - standing for Really Simple Syndication - to pull together web pages the reader might be interested in.

BBC workers on strike
Richard Sambrook's blog was in the spotlight during the BBC strike

Blogs should also be written in a conversational, informal tone.

Richard Sambrook hit on the strengths of the format when he became the BBC's director of global news.

He wanted to communicate with staff to highlight the global issues facing the BBC but found there were several newsletters already.

"I know how irritating e-mails from the boss landing in the inbox can be, so I thought I'd try a blog as an experiment," he says.

"I was delighted a couple of months after starting it to be told that some 8,000 unique users from across the BBC were accessing it - and I still find most days that two or three people mention it to me as I walk around the place."

Nobbled?

He's also discovered the dangers. During the BBC's dispute with the unions earlier this year, he used the word "negotiations" in his blog.

At the time, the BBC management seemed resolutely to be avoiding the term and the unions leapt on it.

Shortly afterwards, his blog was altered. Had he been nobbled?

Absolutely not, he says. "I was told the NUJ were using the blog entry to suggest that senior management had broken ranks. So I changed the entry - with a comment added to it to explain why."

He told his readers: "When the above entry was written, ten days ago, the differences between 'talks', 'discussions', 'consultation' and 'negotiation' - as they apply to the different positions in the BBC dispute - had not taken on the significance they've acquired in the last few days.

"So the astute among you may notice I have removed the word 'negotiations' in order to be clear about which side of the line I'm standing on...."

Blogging guidelines

Mr Sambrook says such openness is crucial. "The incident shows you have to be careful, but even more importantly you have to be completely transparent about what you're doing," he says.

This incident - in an internal blog - also shows the risk for BBC employees who write "personal" blogs for public consumption.

Staff in other companies have been fired for criticising their employer in a blog, but personal blogs are permitted under the draft BBC guidelines for BBC employees' weblogs and websites.

Mr Sambrook thinks the guidelines are sensible, but "it's only a matter of time until a lobby group or political party accuses a BBC person of bias based on their personal blog. I think it's inevitable".

So what about professional BBC blogs, such as the one created by Paul Mason for the G8 summit, complete with pictures and links to other sites?

In it, he describes how it came about.

Protestors clashing with police at the G8 summit
Paul Mason says his G8 summit blog raised Newsnight's profile

"A blog is born: We did not so much break the BBC rules when setting up the blog but shimmied through them like Tana Umaga.

"Having been assigned to cover the protests around Gleneagles I decided to do a 'proof of concept' blog and show it to Newsnight's editor. He liked it, our web editor got it signed off and that was it.

"Apparently the BBC bosses had just had a big away day where they decided to stop being clipboard merchants and prioritise innovation, so no one felt like nixing it. And yet there was nothing that said it should be allowed.

"As one person put it: 'this is outside the BBC universe' - and I thought: that puts it rather well..."

Sparking conversation

"I thought Paul's was very good," says Mr Sambrook.

"It was editorially sound but provided another dimension and (this is the secret of blogs) an 'authenticity' which conventional reports don't.

"It's about tone of voice - for some reason you can't get away with faking it in a blog! It gets spotted in an nanosecond.'"

One group of protesters told me that... they got a call from the New York Times within two hours of my posting about them
Paul Mason,
Newsnight

So should the BBC do more? "I think we could do with more reporters' blogs but they would have to be as careful in writing them as they are in a piece to camera," Mr Sambrook says.

"What the BBC should do in the face of blogging is concentrate even harder on what news organisations can do that blogs can't - a broad, well-resourced range of eyewitness reporting and in-depth analysis."

Mr Mason has closed his blog now, but in his final entry he discusses what it achieved and where the BBC might go in future.

"I think the blog raised Newsnight's profile where it needed to raise it - among the NGOs, protesters and the media pack covering them, in order to get a conversation going instead of that one-way discourse called broadcasting.

"One group of protesters told me that, having been ignored for days, they got a call from The New York Times within two hours of my posting about them.

"When I turned up to the media tent of the Stirling Eco-space the press officer said to me: 'Oh, we've seen your blog. We were looking at it the other day. It's good because it's accurate and describes the different groups correctly, and it's fair to us.'

"They could almost have been reading out of the BBC manual on what our ordinary journalism is designed to achieve. I'm still pondering on why it took a blog to elicit that response, and not a broadcast report."




SEE ALSO
Blogs vie with news for eyeballs
11 Oct 05 |  Technology
Blog censorship handbook released
22 Sep 05 |  Technology
One blog created 'every second'
02 Aug 05 |  Technology

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