Ros Atkins interviewing

Ros Atkins and Wold Have Your Say on the road

It was the year Twitter launched, and two years after Mark Zuckerberg brought "the facebook" to the world for the first time. Meanwhile at the BBC World Service, greater involvement of the global audience was also at the centre of specific new developments there.

A brief was given for the creation of a news programme that would prompt greater contributions from the audience, and make more of what was already on offer from its engaged listeners and viewers.

The result was BBC World Have Your Say, which six years later has just moved into its smart new home at the broadcaster's new Broadcasting House in W1.

Many of the desks are yet to be taken as the transfer of staff continues to the new offices, but as I arrive ahead of the programme's 6pm show there is plenty of buzz in the studio as the team prepare for going live.

Once the programme is over I speak more to presenter Ros Atkins about the main drivers of the programme content, and how it operates across new media channels to ensure the discussion on air reflects the conversations taking place across the world.

How it all began and the three key ideas

Back in 2006 "there was an appetite to contribute to our news coverage, but there were no systems in place to do anything with it, and we weren't really inviting it in a particularly focused way either", Atkins explains.

And so the programme was launched in October that year, centred on three key ideas.

The first is to provide a radio discussion or programme that can run "in parallel" with an online news operation.

"The two can influence each other", Atkins tells me, and the result is a consistent editorial approach to the news which means viewers can choose one or both channels, and the experience will be complementary to the other.

Secondly, the show would need to use online communications to inform the topics to be focused on and ensure an understanding of what is fuelling online conversations.

We've always been very strict that nothing will get on World Have Your Say just because we have a hunch it's interesting to our listeners ... in every editorial meeting, you have to offer proof that people are already engaging with itRos Atkins
"We've always been very strict that nothing will get on World Have Your Say just because we have a hunch it's interesting to our listeners. In every editorial meeting you have to offer proof that people are already engaging with it."

And the third key idea is that the show reflects the level of control audiences exert over news online in terms of what they discuss, and how they do so.

"We wanted to try and take that and put it in a radio programme and so we'll regularly say to guests, 'I'll just sit out of this and you can talk about it amongst yourselves', and we've done whole programmes where I've said a couple of sentences in total.

"It's not because we're anti-presenters as such, it's more just that we think that if you let people who have a common interest in one subject talk directly to each other they'll often ask questions of each other a presenter might not ask, or they'll speak in a way that they might not speak if they were speaking to a BBC journalist and so you get different things from people".

The editorial process for building the show

Each day begins with an editorial meeting in the morning, Atkins explains. In the meeting everyone on the team is asked to forward their "case" for coverage of a specific story or issue.

"There's no hard and fast rules but it would be pretty rare for us to go beyond three subjects, though we have and it's quite common for us to just do one."

Again, the criteria for what could make it into the programme is based on the audience, in this case a global group of people, and therefore it must have a worldwide appeal.

"If you take US healthcare, which is a good example, that's a big story and the BBC World Service has covered it extensively. World Have Your Say has done things about the US healthcare bill but we might not have done as much as you would think because we've got quite a lot of evidence to suggest that it's a huge issue for Americans and a really small issue for a lot of other people.

"So for that reason it doesn't make a cut quite a lot of the time. So we're always looking for evidence that a story has crossed over and is getting picked up".

Another way stories can make a global connection is through linked issues. For example, "there might be a story in Africa and a story in South America and a story in India, all of which have elements which tie in to one issue and so we might tie those together".

"We're trying to bring together people around the world to talk about an issue of common interest."

He said at times this can be achieved by seeking reaction to a topic of general interest. For example, not long before the programme I observed went on air, news broke that FIFA had approved goal line technology, which then saw a number of people discussing their views on this on the programme.

In other cases "it will take a bit more of a set up", Atkins says, such as finding new angles to ongoing stories such as Syria.

"You can't keep doing, 'what should the world do about Syria', you can't do that every day. So even though people are having that conversation every day you do sometimes have to say 'well today we're going to look at Turkish-Syria relations and we're just going to talk about that, we're not going to talk about the UN observer mission', or one day we might say, 'right well let's talk about the UN's role and we'll focus on that'.

But generally speaking the final programme will reflect the big stories and topics of conversation that day, or even at that moment. And again, the guests who take part in the discussion will reflect the opinion being shared by the community more widely online.

It's not about us going, 'who's the most controversial person we can think of?' We're not thinking about that at allRos Atkins
"We will decide the subject and then we'll talk about the kind of people who we feel accurately reflect the discussions we've already seen.

"So again it's not about us going, 'who's the most controversial person we can think of?' We're not thinking about that at all."

When looking at guests with what some may consider extreme views, it will be considered before whether or not it would be fair to have someone representing such views on the programme, based on wider conversations.

"The motor of it is us going online and seeing what people are saying and taking an interest in".

Then the team hunt out those people who are "already engaging with the subject" and reflect those views. Therefore the key skill for the producers of the show is finding those people, not just waiting for them to come to the show.

"Actually going and finding where the discussion is and where the people are and just approaching them and saying 'do you want to be part of this?' is actually a crucial element."

The guest list for the programme I saw being put to air included more than 50 per cent of guests who Atkins told me had not previously been on any broadcast media.

"The big criticism some people might have is broadcast media generally tends to call back the same people on the same subjects."

In his view, Twitter "and way our producers have learnt to use it" means the show is "bringing an enormous amount of people onto the World Service who otherwise wouldn't make it".

It's the extra stuff I think which I hope can sometimes give World Have Your Say an edge, in that we've got producers who are not just good at sharing what we're looking for, but they're also good at just going and finding itRos Atkins
He added that the "skill of tracking it down is possibly even more important than advertising well what you're doing".

"We have an email I send out everyday and on Facebook we're updating it all the time and we tweet ... all the things you expect us to do we do and that has a value, otherwise we wouldn't do it. But actually it's the extra stuff I think which I hope can sometimes give World Have Your Say an edge, in that we've got producers who are not just good at sharing what we're looking for, but they're also good at just going and finding it."

Use of Google+ Hangouts and lessons in open journalism


And the team's work to interact with and encourage audience participation in different stages of the editorial process also moves beyond the social media staples of Twitter and Facebook.

Like a number of news outlets the programme has been using Google+ Hangouts to help find the best guests in the lead-up to the programme.

"We're trying to do a Google Hangout every day to say 'we're here, if you want to come and talk to us about the subjects we're doing you can, if you want to tell us what you think, you can, we'll make a plan for you to come on later or if you just want to find out about who we're setting up that's fine'. Basically, 'we're open for business'."

He acknowledges that while people have been getting involved, this is not been in huge numbers. Experience has shown that asking the audience general questions about running orders or guests does not usually drum up interest in large numbers.

"Google+ works for the particularly committed type of World Have Your Say follower who wants to turn up, is interested to meet and talk to some of the team, has some questions for us and so on ... but at the moment we're just saying 'we're open for business'.

"Maybe if we said 'we're talking about this now on Google+', and we actually made it a pure discussion rather than a discussion about a discussion ... perhaps it would be more successful. I doubt it would be that much more successful to be honest."

Successes with open journalism work

When the programme first launched in 2006 it started doing open editorial meetings, but learnt along the way that while "the effort was a lot", the results in terms of the number of people keen to take part "was quite limited".

"We've played around with a few different things, I don't think we've really cracked it, I wouldn't really claim we've cracked this one."

But there is one open editorial meeting format which has worked, and that has been successful when the programme goes on the road.

Ros meeting with children

"We quite regularly invite members of the audience, like 10, to meet us six hours before the show and we'll have a whole editorial meeting with them and that works a lot better in our experience than just opening the door online and seeing who turns up."

Meetings have taken place "from a shack in Soweto, to a school in Tanzania, to a fishing boat in Cornwall", he added.

And since its launch the programme has seen some trends in countries that tend to have audiences which respond the most, namely Nigeria and America.

Ask the question: 'Is it actually changing what you do?'

His overall message for news outlets looking to experiment with open journalism techniques and tools is not to get swept away by what looks "cool" and focus instead on what will change what you do.

"Everyone needs to be a bit careful of stuff which sounds really cool on paper, rather than stuff that's actually working or actually having a genuine impact.

"It's a matter of is it actually changing what you do and some of the things we've tried haven't, and some of the things we've tried really do."

It's like looking for oil, you don't know quite where it is, but when you strike it it's like 'wow, there's a whole rich area here that we never knew was there'Ros Atkins
And the key skill goes back to the journalist's trusty nose for news and sense for a story.

"One of the most successful things we do, and we still do this, is we will sift through an enormous amount of comment that's come in and look for things that are maybe giving us clues to opinions that may well be widely held, but don't make their way into the mainstream media because they're not seen as being palatable, or interesting.

He adds: "If you want to talk about how to let the editorial process be influenced, I think the art of spotting those clues and being able to think about where big bodies of opinion might lie ... it's like looking for oil, you don't know quite where it is, but when you strike it it's like 'wow, there's a whole rich area here that we never knew was there'."
  • BBC World Have Your Say airs at 11am and 5pm GMT Monday to Friday on BBC World Service radio and 3pm and 7.30pm on Friday's on BBC World News television

Free daily newsletter

If you like our news and feature articles, you can sign up to receive our free daily (Mon-Fri) email newsletter (mobile friendly).

blog comments powered by Disqus