Why closing the BBC News Magazine is the worst idea in a long list of terrible ideas
People are rightly up in arms today about the news that the BBC will be culling most of the recipes it has on its website as the result of government demands for a more distinctive (read: smaller) national broadcaster. But it’s the news that another part of the BBC website — BBC News Magazine — will be scrapped that I think may most affect licence fee payers in the long term.
This small section of the website is often the most incisive and entertaining, and is frequently the most visited of all the pages on the BBC website. Watercooler talk in offices around the country revolves around the topics it covers daily.
Indeed, the BBC News Magazine is everything that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport want the BBC to be in their ‘future of the BBC’ white paper: distinctive, and distinguished.
It’s also more important than ever in today’s pared-back British media world. Daily newspaper features desks are being cut to the bone, and increasingly produce little more than shopping guides for the best makeup, headphones or breakfast cereal. Sunday supplements increasingly buy in stories from American monthlies and republish them as new content. Having the News Magazine there, on one of the country’s most popular and well-respected websites, is vital.
The argument for the closure of the Magazine section revolves around one misconception: that it covers too much of the same content that can be viewed elsewhere. For all that its critics claim the site was derivative, muscling in on underfunded and understaffed competitors, the opposite is true. (It was enlightening to see how many news outlets suddenly reported on a ban on coffee capsules implemented by Hamburg a month before in the days after I was commissioned to write a story on it for the BBC News Magazine.)
That is soft-soap journalism in comparison to other stories the site has published. There are few other news outlets — online or offline — that have published an 11,000-word comprehensive history of Islamic State that was accessible, for free, to millions loading up the internet first thing in the morning. Longform journalism will continue under a current affairs banner, according to the BBC, but those stories were just one part of the BBC News Magazine.
There’s a core set of questions that inquisitive readers want to ask when reading the daily churn of news stories — How does this small detail that’s glossed over in the procedural story work? Why is this happening now, or what is the wider context? — that the BBC News Magazine answered. So when a police helicopter took a picture of Michael McIntyre on the streets of London in July 2015, the BBC News Magazine allowed me to delve into where, legally, the action stood.
It was a solid home for news features: not light lifestyle stories or interviews with actors promoting their latest film, but stories that aimed to use the warp and weft of daily news as a stepping-off point to explain something deeper. And so this section, more than recipes, I believe will be missed the most in the refigured online presence of our national broadcaster. One needs only look at the dearth of contextual news features elsewhere, and the prevalence of Magazine stories in the BBC website’s most read lists, to see what will be missing when most of it disappears into the ether. We’ll not just be pining for recipes for apple pie: we’ll be missing the bread and butter of most of our work days, too.
Certainly, it wasn’t perfect: there was a dalliance with numbered lists that weren’t done nearly as well as BuzzFeed, and relatively strict requirements on word length (News Magazine features rarely runs more than 1,000 words) meant that the occasional feature was more superficial than it could have been, but that section of the site served a purpose: explain the things that procedural news reports didn’t have the time or space to do, and better inform the reader as they navigated through the daily deluge of news. And most importantly, it did this for literally pennies (the entire online arm of the BBC, of which News Magazine was only a small part, costs each household 61p per month).
But it did other things, too. The News Magazine allowed writers to cover stories that others simply wouldn’t. My first story for the site was looking at the lives of competitive strongmen; one of my last was on the lives of those who skated in spite of a nationwide ban in Norway in the 1970s and 1980s. Neither of those stories are a vital public service, but they (hopefully) do what the best features can: pose interesting questions about odd corners of everyday lives, and present to readers unexpected, or new, views on our culture. The perfect example is one story I imagine will be regularly cited in the coming days: Helena Lee’s story on Finnish baby boxes.
Clearly, I’m biased. I have a horse in this race. I’m disappointed to be losing a stream of potential income, though not a large one: when I first met with its editors in New Broadcasting House, I was warned that as a public service broadcaster, accountable to the people for its spending, payment would pale in comparison with the BBC’s competitors. It did, and still does. But as well as an irregular contributor, I was — like literally millions of Britons — also a regular consumer of the BBC News Magazine.
From the outside looking in, the BBC News Magazine fulfilled the three Reithian principles that exemplify why we need a publicly-funded British state broadcaster: it informed, it educated, and it entertained.
Why it’s being shuttered when it does everything the BBC is meant to stand for is a question I’d like to have answered. Sadly, with the closure of the News Magazine, there’ll soon no longer be a place in the British media that will answer that question — the important context behind this decison — for me.