Part 4.1: The power of mobile

How does the 18 to 24-year-old age group respond to interactive visual data journalism produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) for BBC News online?

The first chapter of this section of the paper presents one clear message, that 18–24-year-olds consume news, including BBC news on their mobile. It may sound like an obvious statement but it is fundamental to the theory and research that we have discovered in the course of this research paper. You only have to look at Charlotte’s statement of how she consumes news, “Usually apps on my phone, or Twitter… All my news is digital now.” (Charlotte, 2016) To understand how the modern viewing habits of young news views in 2016 have switched from print to new media platforms, such as data visualisation.

In this chapter of my paper, I’ll be looking at the era of the mobile device and broadly speaking, how this presents issues to the BBC and how they produce their content and more so how they contend with competition.

Amanda Farnsworth, the head of the BBC’s visual journalism unit talks about the advantages of consuming not just the content of her department, but any content of the BBC’s on a mobile device. She talks about the advantages of mobile journalism. Saying, “They can snap on it on their mobiles as much or as little as they like though the BBC news app… before they wouldn’t necessarily sit down and view television news bulletin or sit down and go to the BBC news website.” (Farnsworth, 2015)

It is this theory presented by Amanda that brings me to the concept of giving the audience what they want. The idea of customisability of content relates back to Mutter, who writes, “The proportion of mobile visits at digital newspaper sites has doubled in the last two years.” (Mutter, 2014: N.P) Whilst he’s looking at a US audience, not a UK one, his text does draw several themes about how US journalism is an echo of what’s happening in broader western journalism in the 21st century.

This is something echoed by Holly in my focus group, who has a technological knowledge to consume news how, when and where she wants. In the focus group, she says, “I for one will only ever watch the news now when I’m eating dinner and it’s on in the background. But, nowadays, I’ll more than likely just turn over onto something else.” (Holly, 2016) The power of the mobile has offered her this opportunity. My focus group agrees with pre-set theory, by Oscar Westland who suggests that “The use of Internet news and free dailies has increased.” (Westlund, 2008: N.P) While his work looks at a non-age specific US audience, the idea remains the same, that being that traditional news is declining and new media based news is increasing.

The BBC as an object of study is in a great position it has all it’s news outlets on mobile devices via the BBC News applications. The overarching point remains when someone in the United Kingdom wants to view any form of journalism though they can do it through a plethora of platforms it’s mostly mobile, which presents a number of issues.

One issue I’ve noticed is that from a publisher’s perspective, publishing an in-depth article, specifically an interactive visual data one while the content is still relevant is becoming difficult for publishers such as the BBC. Yes, mobile has made consumption easier, but what Amanda says begins to unwrap the almost perfect image mobile based journalism has and begins to highlight issues.

Amanda says, in relation to the time it takes to create content that if, “If the interactive is in a format that we have done before, in a reusable format, then it can be quite quick, a day or two. If it’s something that we are doing for the first time, from scratch which involves new code being written and a new concept being designed, and depending on the complexity of the data we are using to make that interactive it can take you know six weeks.” (Farnsworth, 2015) But this directly conflicts with, in theory, The Online Journalism Handbook which says, “Interactive features means instant feedback and conversation with the reader.” (Bradshaw and Rohumaa, 2011) I raise the point that Bradshaw and Rohumaa may not have explored this issue in depth, remember their work is five years old and I believe the market has changed in that period, because while feedback to an extent may still be noticeable, conversation in an interactive feature will have all but disappeared if the topic is no long of interest to the reader, something that could easily happen if interactive articles are taking upwards of a month and a half to create and publish. This is not an 18–24-year-old problem, but instead one that faces the industry as a whole. This is echoed in my focus group by Peter, who says that “One thing I’ve noticed is that we’ve got a really short attention span, but with interactive articles you’re constantly engaging with the article so you don’t lose interest if the subject is interesting to you of course.” (Peter, 2016) This is where we begin to see a bigger problem, one that even only this paper briefly touches upon. The problem is by the time a story has enough content and data and it has been created, is the attention span of the audience still active enough to want to consume that story?

My interview with Amanda also highlighted that the 18–24-year-old market can be very hard to cater to because they use such a varied range of devices, which in its turn creates problems for the BBC. As she said, “There’s obviously a challenge of the small screen size, but it really means that you can’t do anything these days that does not involve, that does not work on mobile. I mean we just would not do anything that would not work on mobile.” (Farnsworth, 2015) This presents its own issues for Amanda and her team, namely, how do you make something suitable for everyone in terms of view-ability? Amanda has to make sure that the experience works for everyone, including those on a desktop, where the issue is less of an issue, but mainly for mobile users, making sure that interactive articles work across a range of devices with different limits and hardware specifications without technical issues.

Amanda also mentions other factors, such as: “News on mobile and the functionality of the practicality of Wi-Fi availability and battery life, all those sorts of things play a role.” (Farnsworth, 2015) It’s a valid point, how many people have access to data on a mobile platform constantly every day or never are constrained by battery life?

Despite the BBC having a large following on mobiles users, something that we’ll explore with Amanda later on, there seems to be what I would argue, an inadequate amount of effort put into comments. But why are comments important? They’re something neither my focus group or Amanda brought up, but a number of key theorists argue their importance in audience engagement, so it’s key to understand if the comments section is a key factor in how the 18–24-year-old audience decide to respond to interactive visual data journalism by the BBC. It is important to note that while academics focus on it, my research did not as I felt that to diverge and focus on the comments within my focus group and interview was too far from my original object of study.

As Bradshaw and Rohumaa say, “The editorial reason (To include comments) includes engagement with an audience.” (Bradshaw and Rohumaa, 2011) But it seems, this is something that the BBC is failing to do. Yes, they do have a comments section, but it’s locked behind a BBC account. It seems that the current BBC system, won’t work because people need, to comment, a separate account which many don’t have. Ultimately, though the impacts of not having an engaged community can be summed up by Minto who says, “Not following up a few comments is like starting a debate at a dinner party, and then leaving the room.” (Minto, n.d.)

Looking back at interactive BBC articles, I found no interaction between the comments made. Take for instance this screenshot (Appendix G) which shows the non-existent nature of comments on the BBC Rise of ISIS compared to the comment section on a similar article from Buzzfeed. (Appendix H)

It harks back to the idea of the social elements of digital news. This is an important element because with tight integration of social apps, such as Facebook or Twitter, users are able to share content on mobile devices, something not possible with traditional journalism. It seems that Buzzfeed has the social element that the BBC does not. Is this why Buzzfeed received a more positive reception by my focus group, something that we discuss in later chapters?

As such, does Buzzfeed, as a heavily mobile and social focused website, appeal to younger audiences because as Chan-Olmsted, Rim and Zerba say, “Young adults are the most active group in mobile media consumption.” (Chan-Olmsted, Rim and Zerba, 2013: Pg.132) Something which Spyridou and Veglis back up, saying that, if we consider mobile technology as new, “Analyst’s report that people aged 18–34 are indeed the most avid users of the new technology.” (Spyridou and Veglis, 2008: Pg.35)

There’s also a consensus about social media. Amanda talks about it, saying: “If you’re coming through social media where the BBC might be posting some content, you know you will snack on news in a way you might not have accessed it on before.” (Farnsworth, 2015)

When talking about coming through social media, it was something that that two of my focus group expressly agreed with, while the others nodded in agreement. Olivia said, “I’ve also used Twitter to connect with a lot of news sites, such as the BBC.” (Olivia, 2016) and “Yer, Twitter urm depends on what kind of news, BBC News online.” (Peter, 2016) This was not a focus of my study, but it’s interesting to see that without prompt, my focus group mentioned Twitter.