BBC & The New York Times — where the R&Ds meet the news

For most publishers around, there is a constant need to reinvent the ways to present news, fight digital challenges, and satisfy an audience. In a media landscape where twists and turns are common, the Research & Development teams don’t only have to help in the now, but also predict the future. So where do they get their ideas from, how do they interact and implement their solutions, and in what direction do they see news and technology to be headed next?

Global Editors Network
Jan 31 · 12 min read

In this article, we look into the daily lives of Tristan Ferne, BBC Research & Development, and Kourtney Bitterly, The New York Times Research & Development, hear more about their upcoming work, and in what direction they see the future of news heading.

As can be seen as almost mythical to some newsrooms, the Research & Development teams from various publishers have had plenty to contribute in the ways audiences are met, and where news and technology have merged. Some things obvious to newsrooms today, were most probably thought of by a Research & Development team before becoming norm. Though some R&D teams have been around for years, others are just now starting to develop interesting projects. Whether focusing on AI and machine learning, blockchain, or smart speakers and voice devices, the R&Ds are aiming to help advise newsrooms on what’s next; identifying where technology and news, unitedly, can fuel what will drive the media industry forward.


GEN: Can you describe a typical day at the BBC R&D?

Tristan Ferne, Executive Producer, The BBC Research & Development: I’m a project lead and team lead, here’s a typical Thursday for me…

First thing I’ll meet up with one of my team for a catch-up in a nearby cafe — we’ll talk about our respective projects, any new things that are coming up, things that are inspiring us and any problems we might be having.

Then we’ll head back to the office for our team meeting. Every week a different project team will host this and update us on their project, talk us through their work or demo something. And most weeks we’ll have a guest speaker too. Which could be anything from self-driving cars to natural language processing to font design.

Then it’s my producer team meeting when we’ll usually discuss team-wide issues like upcoming projects, or someone will have a question they want everyone’s opinion on.

The afternoon varies more. Sometimes it’ll be a project-related meeting — sprint planning or catching up on progress or user testing sessions or some such. Or I might head over to our office in central London, where the news teams are based, for meetings or chats with collaborators and stakeholders.

Some days are quieter, with less talking to people and more emails, writing and research. Others are more intensely project-focused. It very much depends on my projects and on what stage they’re at. And that’s just my job, others in BBC R&D will have very different days.

Please tell us a bit about your team? How many people work with the BBC R&D, how are the roles distributed, what is the workflow, how has your work evolved since the start, etc?

BBC Research & Development is comprised of around 200 research engineers, developers, designers, producers and more. Formed in 1930, we’re predominantly, and historically, an engineering organisation. R&D is enshrined in the BBC’s Royal Charter to provide “a centre of excellence” for research and development in broadcasting and the “electronic distribution of audio, visual and audiovisual material.” We do industrial R&D and innovation across the BBC and its services — not just news but also sport, children’s, drama, weather etc on TV, radio and the internet. We are based in two labs in the UK — one in London and one in Salford. Both labs are co-located with other departments of the BBC.

I work for one of the teams in the R&D South Lab called Internet Research and Future Services (or IRFS), so I’ll talk about that in more detail. Very broadly, we make new things for media on the internet; from interactive dramas for voice devices to improving speech-to-text technologies to weird radio sets to a TV programme compiled by machine-learning. We’re organised into multi-disciplinary project teams — typically some research engineers and developers, a UX designer and a producer/project lead. Currently we’re at about 8 developers, 6 research engineers, 4 UX designers, 5 producers plus a small management team.

Some of our projects come from challenges identified by the rest of the business, some come from our R&D strategy and some come from teams or individuals. And the projects can vary from 6-months to 3 years long so we have a spectrum of stages — from nascent explorations to prototyping and development to mature projects that are wrapping up and writing up. I guess the broad workflow is from 1) scoping and exploring a project idea to 2) forming a team and developing ideas to 3) building prototypes or developing technology to 4) testing and evaluating what you’ve made to 5) documenting or handing over the results. But it’s probably not normally as linear as that and will often loop around.

Is it possible to mention any specific projects you’re working on right now?

Absolutely, we’re very open about our projects (see our weeknotes blog series

My current project, it’s just wrapping up now, is called “reinventing the news article” and has been about developing new story formats for news online. Most online news is still published as the 800-word article or the 3-minute online video, or crammed into the latest social media format. We wanted to explore beyond that, to try to make something better. We spent a year developing and testing over 30 new story formats with a design-focused, user-centred approach. We’re now taking the best of these and running some pilots with BBC News to see how they perform live and at scale, and to see what stories they work best for and what it’s like to write for them.

What inspires your team? Where do you get your ideas? And how do you decide what to focus on? (from market studies, user behaviour, or maybe pure dreams?)

That’s a big question! There are loads of sources. I asked my team and this is what we came up with. Some very broad, some very specific…

  • We’ve got design exercises we use, like Crazy 8s
  • Or ideas often bubble up over time as you work in an area
  • We follow university research
  • We watch what is happening elsewhere in our industry and others
  • We do user research and analysis
  • We look at socio-economic trends
  • We push at the limits of technology and its uses and see what comes out
  • We deliberately try to combine different ideas and concepts and see what comes out
  • We’re always iterating and developing previous ideas
  • We form connections between things
  • We talk to people and look for all of the above
  • We read widely
  • Art!

Ideally we’re aiming for projects that use technology to meet some intersection of user needs, business needs and what’s new (/innovative/other people aren’t working on). My colleague, Libby, has an interesting process for evaluating ideas which we’ve adopted in the team. Called “Catwigs”, it’s a set of cards to help you think about your project from different viewpoints. Is this new thing as useful as antibiotics or as useful as a wig for your cat? Is it as easy to use as a door handle, or as hard to use as Unix?

Do you measure user behaviour? If so, what is the most striking things you’ve come across?

Yes we do. Often through qualitative research, interviewing users or testing prototypes with them, which might be informally in a cafe, or more formally in lab situations. And sometimes it’s more qualitatively through online user studies, trials or pilots. Our team is trying to get more user-centred and less technology-centred, but it’s a balance.

One of the surprises from the news project I mentioned above was that young audiences seemed to prefer text to video for their online news — it’s quicker and easier to skim and there’s no worrying about using up your mobile data plan.

Seeing as the BBC is public service, does this impact the work strategy of your R&D? (Limitations, audience expectation, etc?)

Definitely. We aim to serve the whole of the UK (and indeed the world for some of our services) so we have a very broad audience that we ultimately cater to. BBC R&D was set up to benefit the UK and the broadcasting industry so we collaborate a lot with partners in universities, businesses and other broadcasters; sharing knowledge and developing technology standards.

We also have some work that address public service quite directly . So R&D is looking at responsible machine learning for the public interest and investigating what a public service for the internet might be.

Where does your focus lie when developing new ideas? In the now, or on what is expected in the future?

Definitely the future. Our horizon is designed to be 5–10 years, though in my team I think it’s sometimes a bit closer than that due to the speed of change on the internet. It’s a balance between having the space and time to come up with truly radical ideas and making things that are more immediately useful to the business and resonate with our audience.

How do you interact, and implement, with other BBC departments?

One danger of a standalone R&D department is that we sit here inventing things that nobody hears about or nobody needs, so it’s super important to maintain good connections with other BBC departments. One of our principle challenges is “technology transfer” — taking what we’ve developed in R&D and making it useful to the core business of the BBC. We might have developed something really novel but how does it fit in with the business as it is now, who might want it, does it work with existing systems and how much work is to integrate? So we’ll develop good relationships with stakeholders for our projects and we’ll keep them informed about progress. We’ll talk with them before starting out on projects and we might get them along to workshops and brainstorms.

Organisationally we also have a “News Labs” team that sits between the R&D teams and the news product and editorial teams — providing a bridge between the two.

How do you think people will consume news in the coming years?

I think they’ll increasingly use a diverse set of sources for their news. From working with young audiences on my recent project it became apparent that they are very digital-savvy and aware of the pitfalls of online news. They have grown up on the internet, using it in many different ways, and so have developed their own strategies for coping with fake news or for seeking out diverse opinions.

I suspect news on voice devices will be more prevalent, and it’s an interesting challenge to create effective and scalable solutions that are more than just using this technology as replacement radio sets.

What is your most exciting focus/project/prediction for the future of news?

For a number of years I’ve been really interested in structured and modular news/stories, which our aforementioned News Labs team (and others) are working on. The principle is that if you can create the appropriate structure and data around stories (and bits of stories) then you can end up with modular resources that can be re-used across articles or efficiently repurposed into different story formats. That should ultimately save the time and effort of journalists who can then spend more time on investigating and discovering those stories and on writing and explaining them better.

Register for the GEN Summit 2019!


GEN: What does a typical day for you look like?

Kourtney Bitterly, Lead, The New York Times Research & Development: My days differ depending on what kind of project I’m focused on at the moment. It could involve doing in-field research. It could involve creating prototypes of potential tools or experiences. It could involve meeting with different people within in the newsroom to share research or talk about upcoming projects. I try to get outside the building as much as possible to get inspired and learn, whether that’s doing research with users, talking to startups, or talking to potential technology partners.

Where do you get inspired for new ideas?

I think the greatest ideas come from talking to the people we’re serving directly. By understanding their needs and behaviors, we can develop a point of view about how to best leverage emerging technology engage them and deepen that relationship.

Do you focus on the now, where we’ll be in five years, or later?

Our goal is to help the organisation understand and feel prepared for how emerging technology might impact the way media is consumed or created. We tend to focus 18–24 months out. A lot can change in five to ten years. We want to make sure our explorations into emerging technology are applicable to the organisation, and that we’re surfacing opportunities we can be poised to take advantage of in the not too distant future.

Kourtney Bitterly at the GEN Summit 2018 — Talking with machines: How to adopt and monetise voice AI

What are the specific projects you’re working on as a team right now?

We’re currently exploring how voice assistant platforms like Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri might provide opportunities to engage audiences. We’re also researching ways AI, blockchain, and 5G might impact the media landscape.

How many people are on your team? How are the roles distributed? What’s the workflow?

Our core team is five people. It’s relatively small, but as we determine the projects we take on, we rally additional resources as needed.

How do you interact with other departments?

It’s critical that we’re cross functional. We physically sit in the newsroom. Beyond the newsroom, we regularly collaborate with people from our product, strategy, and partnerships teams. We might be sharing some of our findings from a research project with various stakeholders. We might be helping people from the newsroom or product teams think through how we might apply a certain technology. It’s a core principle of our team that we’re as transparent as possible with what we’re working on, and making sure we’re sharing what we’re learning.

A few of the projects built by the NYT R&D group

Do all ideas stem from market studies and consumer behaviour, or does dreaming still have a place in developing new ideas?

I think it’s important to source inspiration from a number of places. We should be having direct research conversations with our audience to understand their behaviors. We should also be talking to startups and universities, people who researching and building these new technologies that might impact the way we work or how we deliver the news. We should be looking outside of our industry to organisations that are building things that might push consumer behaviors or expectations in interesting directions. We should be looking across a number of contexts. Inspiration for ideas can come from a variety of places. It’s our job to look outside of the walls of our office to get that fuel that will drive our creativity and thinking.

Interview with Kourtney Bitterly made by Freia Nahser. Interview with Tristan Ferne made by Jenni Karlsson.

Tristan Ferne is an Executive Producer at BBC Research & Development where he works on the futures of media and the internet. Originally a research engineer and now a producer and product manager, he has helped develop many influential prototypes and concepts for the BBC; working with television, radio and news.

Kourtney Bitterly is a lead in The New York Times Research & Development group. Her role is to understand how emerging technology and consumer behavior will impact the way media is consumed and created, and articulate future-focused strategies in response. She came to The Times from Matter, a venture capital firm focused on investing in media startups. Prior to that, she directed Kickstarter’s effort to reshape the way it partners with creators, headed up strategic partnerships at theSkimm, and led business development at IDEO New York.

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide association of editors-in-chief founded in 2011. It ceased its activities in November 2019 due to lack of sustainable finances.

Global Editors Network

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The Global Editors Network is the worldwide association of editors-in-chief and media executives. We foster media innovation and sustainable journalism.

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) was the worldwide association of editors-in-chief founded in 2011. It ceased its activities in November 2019 due to lack of sustainable finances.