Asst. Prof. Alfred Hermida pioneered BBC’s online news service and is now teaching students how to thrive in the changing media landscape - photo by Martin Dee
UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 11 | Nov. 2, 2006
Podcast or Perish
By Lorraine Chan
Are journalists destined to be the Walkmans in a world of shiny new iPods?
In other words, do we still need reporters to bring us the news when we can dive daily into the tsunami of blogs, podcasts, wikis and chat rooms?
Yes, reporters are still relevant, says Asst. Prof. Alfred Hermida, who joined UBC’s School of Journalism this summer from the BBC.
“With the rise of the Internet, the monopoly on information has disappeared,” says Hermida, “but audiences still need someone to make sense of the information and to make meaning of it.
“The role of journalists has changed from that of gatekeeper to authenticator.”
In his own 16-year career with the BBC, Hermida has ridden the crest of these changes as a radio, TV and online journalist covering national and international stories. Between 1997 and 2006, he pioneered the award-winning BBCNews.com website, succeeding where its TV and radio BBC siblings failed in attracting and building the under-24-year-old audience.
“What we’re seeing is a revolutionary change, similar to when the printing press took power away from the elite and transformed European society,” says Hermida. “Today, the barriers to enter journalism are incredibly low. Anyone can participate if they have the tools.”
And those holding the TV remote or mouse wield the ultimate power, he says. “Audiences are promiscuous with zero loyalty to any one media brand. There’s a universe of infinite choice where people can consume what they want, when they want.”
In his course Multiplatform Journalism, Hermida will provide Master of Journalism students the tools to work within a media landscape that includes platforms as diverse as MP3 players, computers and mobile phones. Students will learn the basics of good reporting, while gaining skills to cross nimbly from one medium to another.
“In two years time when students graduate, employers will want journalists with online skills and technical skills,” says Hermida. “They’ll have to know how different platforms interact with each other and the different ways to adapt a story for print versus online.”
In Hermida’s view, the Internet allows for rich story telling given its interactivity and limitless space.
“It’s not like television which is passive and you’re sitting back. With the Internet, it’s interactive and visual and you’re controlling the medium.”
He describes a BBC News website series on urbanization and population growth that opened with a map of the world. “The audience could zoom in on any geographic area and get text and images on the city size, rate of growth, etc.”
Hermida says too many news organizations make the mistake of going online and simply running print stories or offering podcasts of television news. “It’s like the early days of television when they were still doing radio, but with pictures.”
Much of the BBCNews.com website success came from being able to navigate the generational divide, he says. “My reporters were all in their 20s and as news editor I was in my 30s.”
Their tactic was to leverage the BBC brand, capitalizing on the venerable institution’s core values of accuracy, fairness and balance. However, they consciously designed a news home page that avoided what Hermida calls a typical “men in suits” story line up — heavy on “war, famine, death and destruction” stories.
“We were still interested in providing a credible news service, but we wanted to see more light and shade,” says Hermida. “Along with the hard news, we wanted hard science, technology and entertainment.”
He says for him and others at BBC’s online news service it boiled down to “trying to be relevant to people’s lives.”
For those news organizations that need to reinvent themselves, he offers these basic tenets: Know who your audience is. What do they want from you? How can you serve your audience? How does it help your audience understand the news?
The days of the media business model are long gone, he says, when newspapers and television news were cash cows, enjoying profit margins that were respectively 20–25 per cent and 50–70 per cent.
Instead, news organizations that hope to survive the digital revolution need to invest money, says Hermida. “Using the medium a lot better requires investment and willingness to fail, where initially you may not make any money.”