Newstracker presentation at Bush House
On Friday I went to an internal presentation from two great colleagues at BBC News, David Thorpe and Daniel Mermelstein, about the Newstracker feature on BBC News Online. This is the box you sometimes find on the right-hand side of BBC News Online stories which gives links through to how other online news sources are reporting the same story.
The first thing that surprised me was that there had been some negative reaction from our audience. I've always tended to assume that the failure to provide adequete external links may vex the industry and the Governemnt, but that the actual provision of additional external links was unlikely to vex anyone, let alone the public. After all, if you want to stay on bbc.co.uk you just ignore them, right?
Well not so for parts of our audience, who have written to complain that it is akin to newsreaders suggesting viewers change channels to get a different perspective on the news during bulletins. Or to suggest that we make them open in new windows so they don't have to leave bbc.co.uk (something we don't as a rule do because of the accessibility issues that surround it). Or that it is just "wrong".
As the Governors Reponse to the DCMS Review of bbc.co.uk made clear, we are in the middle of re-evaluating the way we link from the BBC to external sites, but Newstracker came out of thinking that pre-dated it. There is an acceptance that the internet is a very different medium from TV or Radio - the barrier to "switching channels" to another site on the net is considerably less. For BBC News, it seemed the options were either to swim against that tide and try to keep everyone within a BBC walled garden, or to facilitate the journey across channels, and thus make BBC News a great starting point as well as a great online news resource. It is also pretty clear that this starting point approach came of age when the Google News service started winning awards for being a 'news site' rather than a 'news aggregator'.
The presentation showed up some pretty interesting ways that you can use the stylistic nuance of journalistic writing to help technology understand the semantics of a story. As Daniel put it: "As a journalist, if your story isn't contained within the first 150 words you are sacked". Even if an article is 800 to 1,000 words long, Newstracker can get a pretty accurate match if it is looking at the short-form version of a story - and BBC News stories online stories are generally written in long-form for the web, and in short-form for Ceefax and BBCi.
One concern the BBC has to face is the legal implications of such a system - by law repeating a libel also constitutes a libel. At this point I was grateful to my colleague Daniel from news, who scanned the room looking for a familiar face whilst he groped for an example, and came up with the theoretical headline "Named Member of Royal Family has an Affair with Martin". Here the BBC has decided that it needs clear guidance to journalists not to use the system where there is a risk of problems. This is a less than ideal approach, but I assume that, like most things, once people get more used to the technology, and less terrified by potential edge-case scenarios, this attitude will be relaxed.