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Social media cannot replace traditional journalism, it complements it: James Montgomery

Interview with Controller (digital & technology), BBC Global News Ltd

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar 

James Montgomery
James Montgomery

James Montgomery, controller of digital and technology for BBC Global News, speaks to Vanita Kohli-Khandekar on how the BBC looks at the online space. Edited excerpts:

What's your view of the India market for, especially its plans and the lack of language content online?

We are the number one English-language international news website in India, with 3.6 million unique visitors and 19.9 million page views across desktop and mobile devices each month. The India news index on alone has seen its unique visitors increase 66 per cent compared to a year ago. Currently, about four per cent of visitors to are from India, which makes it fourth in terms of countries accessing our website.

In the third quarter of 2014, Hindi online generated an average of 4.1 million unique views, compared with 1.7 million in the third quarter of 2013. We chose the Indian market to pilot our use of instant messaging apps. During the elections, we used the account 'BBC News India' on WhatsApp and WeChat to hear directly from voters and to share our content.

With mobile now accounting for the majority of our digital traffic, we think there is great potential to distribute BBC News through these apps to reach and engage audiences that want to stay connected, as well as to share news stories, pictures and videos in the most seamless way possible.

What proportion of your content production from the integrated newsroom depends on digital (for information, pictures, verification, etc) and traditional reporting?

The BBC decided to embrace digital in its reporting very early. The most obvious example of this commitment is our new home in central London, a melting pot of multiplatform journalism. New Broadcasting House includes the entire spectrum of domestic and international news services across TV, radio and online, including World News, World Service, and the BBC's domestic newsgathering operations. We describe it as the world's newsroom - no other news organisation can boast of 27 language services that sit with BBC News' services in English. And, this feeds out to our correspondents in the field, too. For example, when Lyse Doucet is on a story, she will be filing TV and radio packages, writing an online piece, updating her blog as chief international correspondent, tweeting and taking pictures for the World News Facebook page.

How we gather news has altered immeasurably in the past few years. But still, there are places we can't be in when a story breaks. This is where social media fills a gap. However, I don't believe it can replace traditional journalism; it merely complements it. There is great value in the expertise of experienced journalists. We also have a team that verifies content and ensures it is accurate. This is vital if the BBC is to maintain its position as the most trusted news organisation in the world.

Outside Source, which was launched in February, illustrates how we are bringing these two together. It is a weekday news programme broadcast on World Service English and BBC World News; we take the breaking story of the day and follow developments as they come in on Twitter, WhatsApp and similar platforms.

BBC Hindi produces content using social media trends on a daily basis, right from breaking news through verified Twitter handles to collating material on hot topics.

There is a lot of talk of digital being a medium for the young. Yet, people seek credibility from their news source. Where does, as a brand, lie in the middle of these two ideas --- being a credible but not young brand? Do you think older media brands are losing the online battle because the whole definition of news is changing every day?

It is clear that the role of news and how people consume it is changing and we, like every traditional news organisation, need to adapt. A 24-hour news cycle means stories are developing faster than ever and the first person on the scene of a breaking news story is increasingly likely to be someone with a smartphone who tweets it or posts a picture on Facebook. However, traditional newsgathering still has a vital role. Research shows we are the leaders in global breaking news, with journalists in more places than any other international broadcaster. So, the years of experience and expertise our reporters and presenters offer cannot be replaced. Yes, the number of new entrants into the market continues to increase but our research suggests people turn to a trusted, proven brand, across platforms, when they want verification of a story.

Though we are an established brand, we are also the world's most shared news brand on Twitter. BBC News has more than 40 million Facebook page 'likes' worldwide.

Nowhere is this as important as in India, where users are young, with more than 70 per cent under the age of 35; we are the number one international news provider among young Indians (source: Adobe Omniture and comScore Media Metrix, India). This might be because of the unique circumstances here - young English-speaking people interested in global affairs and digitally engaged.

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First Published: Thu, October 23 2014. 22:05 IST