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5 ways Africa is leading the way in the digital transformation of BBC News

Digital innovation, falling mobile data prices and the proliferation of connected devices across the world mean that we are witnessing the most radical transformation of the way people consume news since the introduction of television. Audiences are not prepared to wait for a scheduled bulletin at a particular hour, they want the latest information wherever and whenever they have a spare moment. User data tells us that digital audiences lose patience with news providers that cannot provide relevance and authenticity. Digital news consumers want media to tell stories in accessible ways, breaking them down into digestible, easy to understand pieces. All these new behaviours, spurred by the huge leaps in technology, mean that newsrooms across the world have to adapt, and adapt fast. Go slowly and competition will overtake you, stick to your old ways and render yourself irrelevant. The myriad of news providers out there will surely offer your audience something more exciting.

The BBC has always been committed to covering Africa accurately and from the inside, and we are now repositioning ourselves, so that in a time of great change our relevance here stays strong. However, rapid growth in local, national and regional news provision, emerging plans of international competitors, huge popularity of social media and the sudden explosion of chatapps all mean that audiences now have far a richer choice. I’d like to think that the BBC’s innovative projects in Africa stand as a symbol of a revitalised and modernised BBC News throughout the world, reacting to the complex challenges facing news organisations today, in an agile and nimble way. But what are these challenges and how are the BBC and its competitors tackling them?

1. Authenticity and distinctiveness

Technologies are developing quickly. Radio and TV were in the past equally life-changing inventions, as the internet and social media have been recently. The BBC has been covering Africa since 1932 and now has more than 150 staff based in 48 African countries and language services working in Hausa, Kiswahili, Somali, Arabic, French, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi and English. In a recent survey in the magazine African Business, the BBC comes out as the 38th most admired brand and the highest media brand by far.

However, just being trustworthy and accurate doesn’t cut it in the modern, diversified world. Journalists – correspondents, reporters, presenters, producers – need to tell their stories the way that’s relevant to their audiences. Vice News, for example, gets the approach right. Its tremendous popularity on YouTube and high relevance among younger viewers is largely based on a very simple approach. Vice have excelled in unstructured reporting, where users get to see the situation on the ground through the eyes of reporters and the unpolished look of their reports genuinely reflects the story and compliments it. Such storytelling appeals to their feelings and makes the emotional connection much stronger.

Digital audiences appreciate substance over style – even if the quality of filming is not high and the frame shakes, it doesn’t really matter, as long as the content is unique and engaging. In the age of YouTube, more or less everything shakes.

2. Relevance and personalisation

Audiences also expect media companies to give them the news they like to read, about the subjects they care about. They agree that news providers need to find a better balance between news you ought to know and news you like to consume. Sometimes they overlap, more often they can be quite distinct areas. The better news companies are at curating the overall picture of the day, and the more they know about individual needs and tastes of users, the better. Take Nuzzle app for example, which curates lists of links for you based on your social media circles.

We know that Facebook is fast becoming the main place where people tend to get their news, based on recommendations from their friends and family. Sometimes such news digests are people’s only source for being up-to-date and lots are running the risk of never leaving the same silo of topics. Our task is to try and be relevant while expanding the agenda.

In the new BBC News app, released internationally in the coming months, this degree of personalisation is very high. Audiences are offered a chance to follow every topic they read about, thus creating their own personal experience, which should lead to increased engagement metrics.

To make our digital presence in Africa even more relevant, we have a team that covers African news, who write their own copy but, more importantly, curate content generated by others. We have also launched a big retraining programme across the whole African hub, explaining to all staff the new digital requirements of their work. The aim is simple – to make sure we get the best possible digital-friendly content from everyone who’s working on any editorial task – irrespective of the language and platform. In the past a French-speaking producer deployed on a task in DRC could be working on a TV package that would take several days to put together. Now we tell them; share what you gather, as you go along. We want more voices, more features, more video. We want to broaden our agenda on Africa; the traditional narrative of death, disease and destruction is changing to something much broader, reflecting Africa and its growth, Africa and its music, Africa and its business.

We know that bbc.com is the most important starting point for African audiences’ journey through our content. So we decided to make this page even more interesting and relevant by launching an Africa edition – this simply means that the page will not only have a regular mix of news, sport and other genres, but we are now offering our best coverage of Africa, and soon – links to relevant TV and radio programmes and social media.

3. Experimenting with new formats

The beauty of the internet is that you can constantly try new ideas, measure their impact, iterate, try again, stop doing one thing and continue with another. At the BBC we constantly try new formats, the latest being animation, data visualisation, cartoons and even satire.

We are certainly not alone in this area. Vox.com, for example, has been a great pioneer of explanatory journalism along with FiveThirtyEight, who interpret data using graphs and charts and dissect complex subjects into easy to understand narratives.

Video presents lots of interesting opportunities for innovation, especially, short form video – clips with subtitles, created with a social and young audience in mind. Interactive video with hyperlinks embedded into it is another area of growth.

4. Mobile and social cross roads

We have seen amazing growth on mobile platforms and roughly every tenth user visiting bbc.com comes from Africa. Tablet and mobile phone access has grown by nearly 40% year on year, and in comparison with two years ago, we have quadruped our mobile audience coming to bbc.com from this great continent. These devices now constitute over 50% of African browsers to the site.

Smartphones at less than US$50 are coming — these are devices that were US$200 two years ago. The future is coming fast so we need to be even faster to prepare for fundamental shifts in our relationship with the audience. All BBC News sites, in English and other languages, have been converted to responsive design, which adapts a site according to the device it’s being viewed on to provide the user with the best possible experience.

We have done a lot to change the way we do our journalism, from writing shorter articles to learning the craft of mobile reporting, to selecting and cropping better images and writing mobile-friendly headlines. This massive shift in news consumption requires a modernised operation — real time demand for news means that working in platform based silos (separate TV, radio and digital) is no longer an option. So a lot of effort has been put into making sure we prioritise digital output as highly as we do broadcast.

In the age of great fragmentation, journalists should be everywhere. They want to see relevant content where they spend most of their time online, on social media. Look at the popularity of the BBC Africa social media pages — 1.6 million likes on Facebook, Twitter is at almost 700 000, Google Plus is over 500 000, and we are experimenting with channels on Soundcloud, YouTube and Instagram too. On Instagram we are building engagement around short pieces of video with subtitles. On Soundcloud we publish Artbeat, a weekly arts programme, trying to grow our connection with niche audiences where it matters.

Chatapps present a very intriguing opportunity. Given the higher degree of relevance (after all, you interact with those who are close to you) and the lack of ‘noise’, so familiar to us from social media sites, chatapps could become a game changer in the way we connect with users and distribute our content. The BBC Ebola WhatsApp ‘lifeline’ service turned into a unique collaborative project involving various teams across the BBC, as well as WhatsApp and other tech partners and aid agencies. We are also experimenting with BBM, MXIT and other platforms. Our mantra stays the same – “be where the audience is”.

5. Technical innovation

Technical innovation is crucial – there’s a very good reason why so many companies, including media, come to Africa to engage with the local tech scene. Why would you try and solve audience-facing problems from London or New York, when you can produce your product strategy for African audiences, having listened and taken on board feedback from those who live and know the circumstances of the market best?

Coming up with the revitalised digital proposal for African audiences has been exciting and, probably, the most complex project I have worked on in recent years. But as is always the case with digital, once the new product or offer is live, the main work starts there. It’s been great so far.

Author | Dmitry Shishkin

Dmitry Shishkin
Dmitry is responsible for developing the BBC’s digital offer for Africa, launching the Africa edition of bbc.com and bbc.com/news, as well as working with technical start-ups on the continent to find new ways of connecting with African audiences through digital platforms. Originally from Moscow, Russia, Dmitry has worked... More

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