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Questions with Dr. Annika Sehl

Spotlight on Research

How Can Public Broadcasters

Become More Digitally Savvy?

Questions with Dr. Annika Sehl

One of a regular series of articles that highlights research in the academy and the profession on the emerging threat of news deserts or changes in media ownership.

Public broadcasters such as the BBC have historically played an essential role in informing citizens, but many have struggled to adapt digitally. Most recent studies focus on the external challenges confronting public broadcasters, such as funding, but fail to consider how internal factors can stymie or accelerate digital innovation. Dr. Annika Sehl, a trained newsbroadcaster and co-author of a book on digital journalism in Germany, tackles these questions as part of the “Digital News Project,” housed at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

For a recent report, Sehl and her colleagues conducted 36 interviews across six European countries to probe for challenges and solutions facing organizations historically known as public service broadcasters, such as the BBC in the UK or ZDF in Germany. They highlight differences across the European countries. The BBC reaches 68 percent of 18-24 year olds with news across online and offline platforms, compared to a paltry 24 percent of Germany’s ZDF.

Drawing on the interviews, Sehl, Cornia and Nielsen identified four factors necessary for successful development of new forms of digital news creation and delivery. Public broadcasting organizations must have strong support from senior leadership, buy-in from the wider newsroom, cross-functional, autonomous teams and an audience-centric approach. Sehl and her colleagues argued that all four factors are crucial, not substitutable. An organization must have all of them to implement transformative change.

Beyond these factors, they found that these organizations can bolster their chances of success by having a development department specifically for news, bringing in new talent and working with external partners. In the below interview, Sehl discusses how she grew interested in this topic, its implications and what’s next on her research agenda.

This report is the second in its series: Sehl in 2016 assessed the challenges and opportunities of public broadcasters. , including how they have restructured their organizations and newsrooms and have developed approaches to mobile news and news delivery on social media platforms. The same team under the led of Alessio Cornia, recently published a report applying the same framework to private sector news organizations.

1). How did you become interested in this topic and this research?

Public service broadcasters have enjoyed a strong position in European countries for decades but they are struggling in many cases to be online news providers. They face many external challenges including discussions around the funding, remit, and role of public service media, pressures from private sector media competitors, the rise of platform companies, and continued changes in media use. I work with Alessio Cornia and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen to address and analyse challenges and solutions public media organizations approach in six European countries: Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Poland.
2). What is some of the major research that preceded and contributed to your study?

Our research builds on previous studies from the early 2000s on how both private sector and public service media organizations are adapting to digital media. Studies analyzing private sector media are largely focused on the interplay between internal organizational factors and external structural factors but studies on public service media tend to focus only on external changes in funding and governance, largely ignoring internal factors.

With our research, we aim to contribute to the field by examining both internal organizational and external institutional factors and their interplay for adapting to an increasingly digital media environment from a comparative perspective. We realize that public service media have similarities and differences from private sector media, which is why we have divided our studies into two separate reports.

3). What did you learn?

We learned that there are four external conditions and two internal conditions that relatively high performing organizations in our sample have in common. The four external conditions are: (1) they operate in technologically advanced media markets; (2) they are well-funded compared to many other public service media organizations; (3) they are integrated and centrally organized and work across all platforms; (4) they have a degree of insulation from direct political influence. The two internal conditions are a pro-digital culture where new media are seen as opportunities rather than threats and senior editorial leaders who have clearly and publicly underscored the need to continually change the organization.

In terms of specific news products, we learned that there are foundational and facilitating factors to develop new products. These are: (1) strong and public support from senior leadership; (2) buy-in from the wider newsroom; (3) the creation of cross-functional teams with the autonomy, skills, and resources to lead and deliver on projects; and (4) an audience-centric approach. We also found three facilitating factors: (1) having a development department specifically for news; (2) bringing in new talent; and (3) working with external partners. While the first four foundational factors cannot be substituted, the last three factors represent specific solutions.

4). What are some of the major implications of your research? What are you focusing on next?

Our research shows that public service media, despite being dependent on external factors like funding, have a responsibility and opportunity to change their internal conditions to adapt to an increasingly digital media environment. To stay relevant, they have to change and to develop their digital offerings. They need to try new things, take risks and have the freedom to fail. Development is a process, not an end result.

Recently, in September 2017 we also published a report on private sector media, led by my colleague Alessio Cornia. At the end of our project we will be able to present a comprehensive cross-national and cross-organizational comparative analysis of news organizations' digital strategies, examining public service and private sector media across six European countries.

Questions with Seth Lewis

Spotlight on Research

A Broader Framework

for the News Industry

Questions with Seth Lewis

One of a regular series of articles that highlights research in the academy and the profession on the emerging threat of news deserts or changes in media ownership.

Who and what shapes the news stories that are ultimately published or broadcast?  Seth Lewis and Oscar Westlund explore this question and to try to capture the full range of forces shaping the media industry in their article: “Actors, Actants, Audiences and Activities in Cross-Media News Work.”

Rather than focusing primarily on the decisions made during the editing process in news organizations, Lewis and Westlund use the “4 A’s” framework to study how human and non-human actors explain recent shifts in the gathering, marketing and dissemination of news and information. Their framework gives equal weight to a variety of factors, including financial and technological ones.

In addition to his “4 A’s” research, Lewis, the Shirley Papé Chair in Emerging Media in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, has published articles on journalism in the era of big data. He is currently studying how artificial intelligence will shape the future of journalism. He holds a PhD from the University of Texas at Austin.

The full text of the article can be found here.

 1). How did you become interested in your “4 A’s” research?

Over the last five years, I’ve conducted research on how forms of journalism have changed in relation to emerging technologies. In journalism research, there has been a lot of emphasis on how journalists have adapted their routines or incorporated new devices and approaches. However, we haven’t seen a more holistic perspective on the interplay among journalists and other key stakeholders in news organizations. The “4 A’s” is a way to study the different social actors and update our perceptions of the news production process. This helps us uncover some blind spots, so that we are not focusing exclusively on journalists, media marketers or computer programmers. Each of these constituents may have very different understandings of what the audience can and should do, which shapes how media is produced.

2). Within your framework, do you see a hierarchy among the stakeholders?

Traditionally, the editorial side has been dominant. However, I think we are entering a moment where news companies see themselves as media and technology companies, not just news organizations. I see this as a growing recognition that successful enterprises will be blended. The media industry has had longstanding concerns about mixing the editorial and business sides, which may have actually deterred useful conversations. I think this is starting to change. Journalists are recognizing that they need to be aware of the business side of the enterprise. In turn, I think technologists are emerging out of their more service-oriented role and playing a greater part in improving user experience.

3). What are some of the implications of your work for community journalism?

The New York Times and other leading organizations have built large teams of developers with programming skills. This is obviously much harder for smaller news organizations. They recognize technology is a key aspect of their present and their future. However, technology is not paying the bills.  Smaller newspapers don’t have the scale to carry out a digital revolution, nor do they always have the need to establish a strict pay wall. Over time they will need to transition to developing a pay-model online. However, the bigger challenge - for news organizations large and small - is the extent to which social media is the entry point for news. Google and Facebook have not only taken away the advertising revenue, they have also taken away the audience attention share.

4). What is next on your research agenda?

The next big thing I want to understand is how artificial intelligence fits into the future of journalism. I want to look at the broad array of machines intended to act “smart.” This will help answer how artificial intelligence can free up journalists’ time in ways we haven’t yet considered. There is an opportunity to consider what machines can do for journalism. This is really exciting but also daunting and potentially compromising because it raises a range of ethical questions.