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If the first MIPCOM session of the day was a BuzzFeed article, it might be ’37 ways news channels should respond to digital disruption’. BuzzFeed president and COO Jon Steinberg was one of the speakers tackling the issue in the Esterel’s early-morning slot.

He was joined by Peter Bale, VP and general manager, digital, for CNN International; Andrew Mitchell, director of partnerships at Facebook; Moeed Ahmad, new media department manager at Al Jazeera Media Network; and Gry Winther from Winther Productions, creator and producer of Dining with the Enemy.

The moderator was Simon Spanswick, chief executive of the Association for International Broadcasting, tasked with driving a debate on how news channels can respond to growing competition from digital players by innovating both on TV and online.

Spanswick kicked things off by noting that while TV remains an important source of news, the market is heating up. “Almost a third of all UK adults use the internet for news, and similar statistics are coming out from other territories,” he said.

The conversation started with Facebook’s Mitchell, who talked about opportunities for broadcasters to engage audiences before, during and after broadcasts. One example: a CNN morning show that publishes Instagram photos from its green room. Others are pulling in content from Facebook to use in their broadcasts.

“We’re building a thing with Instagram that will expose the work of our correspondents, the snaps they’re taking,” chimed in Bale, who noted that CNN journalists have been filming 15-second mini-interviews with politicians in Germany.

Over to BuzzFeed’s Steinberg, who gave some details about his website’s growth. “About 40% of our traffic now comes from Facebook, and 70% of our traffic comes from social sources, broadly defined,” he said. “And it’s lots of little sharing from individuals.” He also noted that the site is moving from its roots in “kittens and meme content” into the world of hard news.

“We have 100 full-time writers working at BuzzFeed, probably 120 now,” he said. “We are not an aggregator: everything we do is original content.” And it’s working with CNN, which is providing video footage to BuzzFeed to be remixed and recut in a shorter, shareable format for YouTube and a younger audience.

“There’s very little cannibalisation,” he said. “CNN was very forward-thinking to recognise that, and a lot of television networks are wrongly scared of cannibalising themselves, but there is almost no overlap between television news viewers and online news viewers.”

Mitchell said that Facebook is working on research to show how social news sharing is not just about those kittens. “There’s actually more hard news shared, and more referrals sent from hard news, than there is from soft news. We tend to remember the funny stuff, but it’s the more meaningful stuff that sticks with you.”

Steinberg chipped back in with a statement that may ruffle some feathers in the broadcasting world: “We’re bringing more hard news on a relative basis than a lot of the traditional television networks do now,” added Steinberg.

Bale talked about the importance of social to “give real-time signals back into the television business” on which stories are resonating with audiences: a new way to measure that beyond ratings.

At this point, Al Jazeera’s Ahmad entered the conversation, saying that hard news is just as shareable on social networks as softer stories. “The lack of sharing for particular verticals is not because of that vertical, it’s because of poor journalism“.

He talked about an initiative involving a Creative Commons licence, releasing footage for viewers to become creators with. He pitched it as a logical and necessary evolution for citizen journalism. “The way of doing this is take take take, bring it to me so I can use it in my storytelling, which is fine because you’re giving value to the community. But at the end of the day, you have to give something back,” he said. “It was used for music videos, video games, documentaries…”

Bale talked about CNN’s iReport, which helps people submit videos, photos and stories. “Giving video under a Creative Commons licence? I love the idea,” he said, while warning that CNN faces a lot of rights issues if it wants to follow Al Jazeera’s lead.

Ahmad talked about Al Jazeera’s new initiative to launch an online news channel, AJ+, trying to reach people whose first instinct when news is breaking is to go online, not to switch on the TV. “News on YouTube and other platforms is still very limited compared to entertainment,” he said. “This is a big opportunity… Our idea is to respect that audience, and make content that is native for them, made in a way they are wanting to consume.”

The new channel will aim to provide “clarity through context”, providing the background for breaking news rather than simply trying to break it. “Our aim with that is not to replace breaking news services, that you’re going to get on Facebook and Twitter. What we’re going to do is add the context,” said Ahmad.

Over to Gry Winther, who explained what she did with Dining with the Enemy, an award-winning show that brings together people from opposing sides in conflicts to eat, and talk – overseen by a war correspondent and top chefs.

She said there were three goals: one, to explain the conflict to viewers. Second, to challenge people’s prejudices about these countries, and third, the opportunity to hear from both sides in the conflict. “I thought I’d give you three good reasons to tune in: whether you like food programmes, travel programmes, or you want to know more about these conflicts!” she said.

The format is now being sold around the world, with the idea that each partner broadcaster will find their own war correspondent and local chefs. Did the show encourage people to tune in and find out more? “I wanted it to feel like you’re on a journey, on a trip behind the news in these places, and it’s exciting and you’re experiencing a lot of different things,” she said.

The conversation moved on to the way news spreads around the world, fuelled by social networks. “Social platforms make it much easier now to be an international news organisation,” said Steinberg, citing the Sochi Winter Olympics as a good example. “It’s a global issue, but those stories are spreading particularly fast and powerfully on social networks between Russians in the US and back in Russia,” he said.

Mitchell talked about how Facebook is working to make its news feed algorithms smarter, so if people click lots on stories about a particular issue, like Sochi, they’ll see more of those stories appearing in their feed. And if they often click on links shared by a particular person, they’ll be similarly likely to see more of that person’s links as time goes on.

Meanwhile, Bale said that news organisations have to work hard to “take you out of the studio and into the street much more, because it’s where humans are, and it’s where those human stories are”.

Steinberg said that news organisations should be thinking about social throughout the news production process. “More so than the technology, you have to write and produce news for the social web: it has to be novel, important and have this social imperative behind it,” he said, before delivering a critique of the last decade of online news, where Google’s search engine was the main discovery channel, encouraging a proliferation of stories written mainly to harvest search traffic.

“That allowed people to write very boring news that was aggregated and unoriginal. And that doesn’t work well on social,” he said. “You have to write a scoop: what happened today, what happened in this market, what is new going on that you might want to share out to your friends?.. The most important thing you can do is to think to yourself ‘why would somebody share this content?’ And that’s very high-quality content.”

He added that this definitely doesn’t mean prurient and scandalous content: wardrobe malfunctions and the like. “They’re going to share something that’s heartwarming, means something to them, or something that they think their friends should know about… And it’s equally important the headline not be linkbait, when someone clicks through to that story… if the headline is deceptive, and just gets somebody to click, you’ll get one click, but not the 5-7 clicks you’ll get if they share it.”

Mitchell chimed in, saying that Facebook is crunching its data to spot linkbait stories and ensure they don’t appear as much in people’s news feeds – by tracking how quickly people return to Facebook after clicking on a news link. “We are trying to cut down on linkbait and cut down on spammers,” he said.

Steinberg finished off with a rousing call for broadcasters to treat younger viewers with more respect, with the implication that their businesses will suffer in the long term if they don’t.

We feel strongly that traditional media have given up on young people, and have not made a commitment to tell stories that are interesting for people under 40 or 50 years old,” he said.


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Stuart Dredge

Stuart Dredge is a freelance journalist, and a regular contributor to Music Ally, the Observer, The Week Junior, and more... including MIPBlog :)

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