Ros Atkins of the “future of news.”

Last week, I gave a speech at the Society of Editors. There’s been some interest in it so, if you’ll indulge me, I thought I’d post it here. I was asked to talk on ‘future of news’. Once I’d cleared up that I definitely don’t know that, I launched in.

I don’t know what’s next but I have spent long enough trying to guess where we’re heading to have some rules of thumb – some guidelines that help me to work out how to give new types of journalism the best chance. And my speech was based on those – this is what I said. 

The work of innovation and modernisation can sometimes feel like an extra. The form our journalism takes – the way we structure staffing, the way we structure daily output, developing products – can feel secondary to the stories. 

And I get that – we all became journalists because of a desire to hold to account, to uncover stories – to tell stories. None of that has gone anywhere. 

But for me the moment we’ve reached is asking fundamental questions about where journalism fits into our world. News is not a given in people’s lives. It can’t be assumed people will seek to learn about our world via journalism. 

It can’t be assumed people understand and value the way that journalism work or why we think that gives the information we produce has value. It can’t be assumed that the way we tell stories is the way people want to hear them. Our place in people’s lives is not a guarantee. 

And so when I look at the need to innovate, to reimagine, to restructure what we do – it’s not because change is fun and creative and exciting – though it can be all of those things. For me this is a necessity. 

If you believe in the importance of journalism to our society – and to the world – then actively engaging in what we need to become isn’t optional. This isn’t some distant moment. 

When we talk about the future of news – what we really mean is what do we need to do now. Because we can see how radically people’s media consumption habits are shifting. There is though a catch here. 

We can observe those shifts in habits – from linear TV to streaming, from print to digital, from branded digital destinations to social. But it very hard to know what to do about it. My career is littered with evidence of this. 

In 2015, I was in Athens for the Greek debt crisis – and amongst other things was recording six second summaries of the story on Vine. That soon passed. 

Or in 2017, I was doing livestreams on facebook from the BBC newsroom. They felt like the future. I’ve not done one for several years. 

Or in 2018, I tried to persuade the BBC to develop an app based around the touchscreen I used to use on Outside Source. The BBC declined – rightly arguing that we didn’t need another digital destination. Those are three examples. Believe me, I could go on. 

But these false starts weren’t necessarily a problem, though maybe I didn’t feel that way at the time. For me they are inevitable. 

Because the degree of disruption that the internet has brought to our information ecosystem is so total, so huge, so unknown in many ways – we can’t expect anything other than a constant need to change. 

And if there’s a constant need – certain things follow. One is that we expect from ourselves – that this becomes a non-negotiable – just as coming being factually accurate, fairness, nigh production standards already are. 

What also follows if the need is constant – our innovation should be constant. We should keep doing it. Again and again. Not everything is going to work of course – but there are things we can to do give ourselves the best chance. 

I’ve been lucky enough to see some of my ideas blossom – from Outside Source to the 50:50 Project to our explainers to my podcast with Keith Olbermann. And I think I can see some patterns. In what I’ve done – in what the BBC has done. 

And I now have a list of things – 7 for me, 4 broader ones – that I ask myself if I’m working on a one-off idea – or a new product. Some of this may seem obvious – but it’s helpful to me. 

1. What problem are we helping with? Are we clear on the need we’re meeting? On one level, journalism is a service. It’s offering help. So what help is our idea offering? 

2. What is different with this idea? An old editor of mine used to say – ‘we’re making news for people who know the news’. Beyond the basic facts of a story that may well be known – what is different here? What are we adding? Bluntly, why are we doing this? 

3. Show them the journalism. Don’t assume people understand why we believe the information we have is of value. Show people the evidence – don’t just assert things. Make the case for journalism. Earn people’s trust. Our processes, our journalism is our greatest asset. 

4. The idea needs a digital and social dimension. Money spent on journalism without a digital element is not making the most of your investment. 

And success connects to sharing. My drum and bass mix on 6 Music is one of their most downloaded programmes of the year. Evidently, it’s not news – but there’s still a lesson there. 

First, I had to try and do a good mix – if the product isn’t there the rest won’t follow. But then I spent the day before it was released writing a twitter thread about DJing in my 20s and connecting it to this mix. 

It was designed to go viral and promote the mix and, happily in this case, it did. Without that too the mix wouldn’t be one of the most downloaded programmes. |

5. Assemble a multi-disciplinary team. In 2016, I visited Stanford University. I spent a very high impact hour with an academic called Justin Ferrell. He talked about small multi-disciplinary teams are incredibly powerful – even in big organisations. He’s right. 

Build one – however informal – around your idea as soon as possible. When we began the relaunch of Outside Source in 2020 – we immediately involved designers, producers, editors, directors, marketing, engineers, digital. You maximise the chance of the idea developing well. 

6. What’s your definition of success? Be clear on what you’re hoping to achieve – and if it’s not happening, stop or change how you’re doing it. Being able to stop is an important as being able to start.

I see so many digital examples of news organisations doing things because they feel they should – but no-one is consuming what they’re doing. And they carry on. That it’s not working isn’t a problem. Not stopping is. You damage your brand and waste resources. 

There’s one more on my list – arguably the most important one. How do you want to tell the story? This might seem obvious – we ask ourselves this every day. But our answers are often the same ones we’ve been giving for a while. And there’s a risk here. 

Digital isn’t only a distribution revolution – it’s a story-telling revolution too. Look around at how people are sharing their stories – it often doesn’t look anything like news. From TikTok to gaming livestreams to comedy on YouTube to threads on twitter to podcasts. 

We are in an era of extreme creativity – we need to match that in news. We need to look far and wide for our inspiration. Otherwise the news risks feeling tired and constrained to our audiences compared to everything else they can consume. 

That’s my 7 points. But if individuals or teams are doing all of this – you’ll need an organisation that is doing certain things too. I’ve four things on this list – again they may seem obvious but I keep an eye out for them. 

1. Build product and story innovation into your processes. If you make it part of your systems and routines – you have a far greater chance of it becoming habit. It also communicates that this is something the organisation expects. 

Second, think about how you process and assess ideas. If you’re asking for them, you may a lot of ideas coming your way. But commitment to innovation, doesn’t mean doing all of it. Saying no is important. So you need to clear on your criteria. 

Third – don’t assume your brand will be enough. Brands can help a lot (I, of course, am completely reliant on the BBC’s journalism and reputation) – but brands count for little if the content isn’t right. 

Be humble when taking this on – you’re going to have to fight for this however big you are. I start from the point of view that a new idea is not going to work (even if it’s a good one!) – and try and address all the reasons it could get stuck. 

And fourth – you need flexibility in your newsroom. The rhythm of news has changed – daily papers and shows are being replaced by whatever we like – new products and new stories can take many different forms. 

That will require flexibility in how we manage staffing and budgets. It will require flexibility in your output structures – in other words we tend to make journalism in fixed forms and then distribute in fixed ways. New ideas may not fit into this. 

Without that flexibility, your best ideas will struggle. Don’t underestimate the number of blocks that exist to the idea being made and being distributed well. 

All of these things helps me work out how to have the best chance of creating journalism that works for our audiences. I should add that what works now, won’t necessarily work next year so this remains a work in progress. That’s exciting as well as challenging. 

But let us also be honest – as we survey British journalism, the form it takes in many cases is much like the news I consumed in the 90s – the news that inspired me – that made me want to be a journalist. But that was some while ago. 

The future of news is here – it’s all around us in how people consume media content in a multitude of different ways – the test for all of us is whether we’re willing to take part. 

…so that is the speech. If you got this far, I’m flattered and impressed! I’m sure there are many journalists and consumers who have many better thoughts on what we can do. I’m all ears. As ever, I’m feeling my way.