Gorging on the digital news buffet

How to find immersive, interactive and innovative ways of reaching new audiences

Alastair Leithead
Nov 26 · 4 min read
Photo by Tim Cooper on Unsplash

In the all-you-can-eat buffet of digital news I have a little jar of something special you’re really going to want to try.

But the table is heaving, and the choice is overwhelming.

Not only does my offering need to be a careful blend of the finest ingredients — and perfectly balanced — but I need to get it in front of you and persuade you to try it.

Broadcasters like the BBC have been producing a set menu of well-curated TV and radio bulletins for decades, and audiences have come to the table knowing they’ll leave satisfied.

But as their choices have grown exponentially, getting what we do…to you…has become one of the biggest challenges.

It’s a thought that changed my approach to the way I work and led me on this yearlong trip to Stanford as a John S. Knight (JSK) Journalism Fellow to explore it.

I’ve been a BBC foreign correspondent for 18 years in Africa, Asia and the Americas, covering everything from wars to natural disasters, reporting politics and a whole range of human-interest stories.

We foreign correspondents are outsiders everywhere we go.

Our job is to report what you need to know from lesser-known places to help you empathize, understand and see a bigger picture.

The demand for foreign news — and the money media organisations are willing to spend — changes over time.

With the current dominance of domestic politics, what’s on your doorstep seems more important than what’s happening on the other side of the world.

But with the global rise of populist leaders and the assault on news (and democracy), I’d argue there’s more reason than ever to hear what’s happening elsewhere.

I want to give you the news, but I also want to give you the background…

During my recent four year posting as BBC Africa Correspondent I decided to pursue bigger themes and to put sterotyped places into context.

This took our Africa team:

  • To the Sahara Desert to investigate the rise of Islamist groups and the impact on migration.
  • To four different countries to explore what the doubling of Africa’s population by 2050 might look like.
  • And it took us up two great rivers.
Photo: Philip Davies

On the Blue Nile we explored Ethiopia’s new dam and its impact on Egypt and Sudan; and over six weeks on the Congo we tried to paint a picture of the Democratic Republic of the Congo that is very different from the Joseph Conrad stereotype, or the country’s reputation for war and disease.

The aim was to deliver these stories to as many people as possible.

For Congo, as well as a traditional TV and radio news series in the U.K. and around the world we did a TV doc that we posted on YouTube, a digital long read with embedded video, a binaural audio doc (try it; it’s cool with ordinary headphones).

Both our river expeditions became virtual reality documentaries (click here to watch on a cardboard viewer and here for more info about BBC VR).

We tried branching narrative for a YouTube series and recut for Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

[You can see all the content here. What do you think? Please leave comments below or email me: leithead@stanford.edu]

A lot more people saw our TV doc than donned a VR headset, but those who had the more immersive experience not only saw another place, some even felt like they’d been there.

By taking Congo VR to public libraries around Britain we discovered a new and underserved audience.

So how do we stand out at the buffet?

This is where you come in…

My yearlong expedition at Stanford is to find immersive, interactive, and innovative ways of reaching new audiences.

This can mean tech, but it could mean something else altogether… and that’s what I’m here to explore.

I’m trying to find people out there with expertise or advice, or who are trying something new and would like to talk about it.

These are some of the areas where I’ve started looking:

  • Storytelling tools and technology of augmented or mixed reality to bring immersive models and video out of our phones while we prepare for the future.
  • Through live events, e.g. taking the news out into the community like Pop-Up Magazine here in the U.S.
  • Finding the new software or hardware to make multiplatform storytelling so much easier. Like Shorthand, Holoscribe and MediaStorm.
  • Asking how long will it be before virtual reality is good enough, and headsets common enough to bring a media revolution?
  • Are algorithm-driven bots and audio assistants reliable curators of the future?
  • How can machine learning help us find what’s most relevant, but not corral us into an echo chamber?
  • How can news practitioners best mesh with (or untether from) the big technology empires to provide the most appropriate content to the biggest audiences?
  • Do our consumers even want new technology to tell them the news? Do we have to go even further to reach them?
  • And finally — and perhaps most importantly — how do we challenge the assault on truth through misinformation and disinformation? How do we get social media scrollers to ask “what’s the source” before they hit “share.”

If you’ve made it this far I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a note at leithead@stanford.edu

JSK Class of 2020

Alastair Leithead

Written by

BBC foreign correspondent & JSK (Knight) Fellow 2019–20

JSK Class of 2020

Insights and experiences from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships Class of 2020

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