BBC Pop Up: video journalism at the heart of communities

At a time when the British Broadcasting Company is under an enormous amount of pressure to justify its relevance and continued existence, one of their answers is BBC Pop Up. A vibrant, fleet-of-foot operation started in 2014, it’s run by three staff who create video journalism about local communities around the world by interacting with and living within them. The first iteration consisted of a month in six different US cities, but BBC Pop Up has now gone global and is active every other month.

It is an intriguing move by the BBC, and surely the first attempt by a global news organisation to approach local journalism in this way. There are, of course, outlets such as NowThis and AJ+ who also produce social-first and mobile-first video for their online communities, but it is not original reporting. Other attempts have been nowhere near as experimental, or video-focussed. Patch, an AOL-owned local news group between 2009 and 2014, which at its peak employed over a thousand staff working over 906 websites serving local communities, lost around $300 million, according to The New York Times. In this sense, BBC Pop Up is a vastly different proposition — Patch’s dynamic millennial cousin has only a fraction of the resources.

BBC Pop Up is a self-described “mobile bureau” and crucially it aims to take local stories to a global audience. These stories are crowdsourced from communities through considerable social media interaction as well as physical events such as town hall meetings. The topics are incredibly diverse: glassblowing in Tacoma, black biker gangs in South Africa or separatism in Quebec, but the emphasis is always on how these issues affect local people.

The output comes in the form of short online videos on platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, longer television documentaries for BBC World and the BBC News Channel, but importantly other platforms such as Vine, Storify, Instagram, Yik Yak, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook. BBC Pop Up also used a Tumblr account to explain decisions they made and give further information, but that is now done as a form of live-blog on the BBC website.

The communities that they interact with are to an extent amorphous — BBC Pop Up has among other places set up shop in Los Angeles, Quebec City, Boulder in Colorado and Nairobi, Kenya. These communities all have their own distinct sizes, identities and levels of participation online — as such, in my analysis I will be using the micro to demonstrate the macro. But although BBC Pop Up’s online community is in a constant state of flux, it should be noted that there is continuity of audience among those that follow its social media accounts.

BBC Pop Up tends to use it social media accounts in four ways: requests for contribution, praising good behaviour, promotion of content and behind-the-scenes transparency. For each location, BBC Pop Up’s activities begin with an open call for suggestions, through their website or Twitter or other platforms. In essence, it is an exercise in audience engagement. “We wanted to crowdsource our ideas, and base our stories on people’s suggestions from within the communities we’re visiting,” says Matt Danzico, founding BBC Pop Up journalist and head of the BBC Video Innovation Lab. “Instead of assuming that I know what’s best for a community when I go in, we’re asking people what they want to tell the world about.”

This means that there is a very unique connection between the content that is produced and the communities that consume it. The reporters, such as Danzico, are constantly in dialogue with the community, looking for ideas and feedback and they make it clear they’ve been listening both through responses on social media and through the videos that they produce — they are ideas by the community. This evidence of listening by journalists is very important to encourage reader input, according to Jan Schaffer, director at American University’s School of Communication.

But for BBC Pop Up, there is no on-platform means of dialogue, such as a comments section. It is either done through in-person meetings, the result of which will later be seen online, or through social media (which may allow better conversations) — predominantly Twitter, though with experimentation elsewhere. As David Higgerson, Trinity Mirror’s digital publishing director suggests: newsrooms need to be prepared to go where the audience is. Or as Katherine Viner, before she took up the editorship of The Guardian, put it: “You need to submit to the web’s architecture, psychology, mores, rather than imposing a newspaper’s structure over the top.”

Since BBC Pop Up opened its Twitter account it has tweeted 2,939 times, on average over five times per day. This is obviously higher when BBC Pop Up is active — over a period of a working month in Canada they tweeted 404 times (roughly 13 per day, some receiving up to 150 retweets) — with something of The Guardian’s TwiTrips to them. A significant proportion of this activity is through retweets and discussions, to an extent counteracting the asymmetric nature of Twitter, as their follow/followers ratio is 1:5 (3,272 to 16,361). It has “liked” tweets even more often — 3,376 times, on average almost six times per day. They will often thank users for their suggestions, tags users in tweets, use GIFs, hashtags (even their car has #BBCPopUp on it), emoji and video, and provide updates on behind the scenes happenings.

In its use of Facebook, BBC Pop Up post far less frequently — a few times a week, when active (during the same month in Canada, they posted eight times). It fits well with a Socialbakers study that found posting once per week on was so low as to lose connection with your audience and posting more than twice per day was too much. Using video live-streams, pre-recorded content, hashtags and location setting, and regular responses to comments, BBC Pop Up are able to receive very large amounts of engagement. But only a tiny minority of this is negative. “I think because we try to be so open, transparent and willing to discuss, we’ve need had to reprimand anyone,” says Danzico. “We create what people want.”

YouTube is not at all moderated by the BBC Pop Up team, as their videos are published directly on the BBC News account. They do, however, use shorter Facebook videos and Instagram videos to drive traffic to these main longer videos. Perhaps as a consequence of this lack of engagement, the YouTube videos have decent but not impressive viewings figures (their 43 videos on the playlist range from 189 views to 93k views). Similarly, with Instagram, less time is devoted to it (only 275 posts and no commenting), and so interaction is not enormous, but still decent — this is achieved through a much more symmetric level of following (they follow 1,698, followed by 1,447) and extensive use of hashtags.

The use of other social media platforms is very experimental. BBC Pop Up’s Vine account ratcheted up an impressive 157k loops in just five Vines. They follow 773 and are followed by just 187, but they do encourage the use of the #bbcpopup hashtag. BBC Pop Up’s Storify account proved very unsuccessful, with just tens of views. BBC Pop Up’s use of Yik Yak, whose audience is 98% millennial, during the Canadian election however, proved very effective (Appendix A.26). “We want to create content from within these digital communities in the same way that we create stories from physical locations,” concludes Danzico, who surely learnt from his colleague, Trushar Barot’s Tow Center research into messaging apps.

By its very nomadic nature, BBC Pop Up has little capacity for super-users or influencers, nor indeed for languages, cultures, rules and practices to emerge. There is not a commercial side to BBC Pop Up, but what the BBC learns through it is fed through to other parts of the company, and there is also the aspect of expanding the BBC’s global reach — particularly in the US. But what BBC Pop Up offers most strikingly is “social capital”. Danzico estimates that they speak to 50 people in person each day, who in turn spread the word to their online networks. More so, when people have invested in a story or project, it helps build “sweat equity”. BBC Pop Up creates, in a way, journalism made by the community and for the community.

The strengths of BBC Pop Up are clear: given the input, high amounts of engagement were achieved. Their community showed very few signs of bad behaviour — down to original and ethical reporting. As Danzico reflects: “For me the most intriguing characteristic of the project was the question of whether we as journalists are pushing our own agendas through the stories we choose.” For every city they have visited, Danzico estimates that they received around 30 story ideas. This is an involved, friendly and trusting community. It must be noted that the Pop Up is certainly jet-propelled by the BBC brand, and may not have been as successful otherwise.

Questions do, however, remain. Were truly global audiences reached? The majority of the engagement was with local communities and their online activity — and even if these communities were engaged, the ephemerality of BBC Pop Up means that these connections may well be lost. The lack of resources also means that much of the great experimentation with Yik Yak, for example, has not yet been explored robustly. But BBC Pop Up has shone a light into the future; it gives a new meaning to User Generated Content, in which communities play a key role in the generation of journalism.

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