Trust and technology spread the BBC news
With cyberspace crowded with an increasing number of bloggers and citizen journalists, Colin Lawrence is a firm believer that the credentials of the news source are still important.
The newly appointed commercial director at BBC World News is not alone in concerns that the torrent of information unleashed every day on the internet means people may lose sight of the need for old-fashioned journalism, including liberal doses of accuracy and balance.
'Not everyone can be a journalist and to me who is telling the story is important in itself,' Lawrence says during a visit to Hong Kong last month where the 46-year-old was among the media executives attending the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia Convention. According to a survey last year by the US Project for Excellence in Journalism, online news outlets are viewed with more scepticism than their print, broadcast and cable counterparts. Of seven organisations evaluated, none was viewed as highly credible by even a quarter of online users able to rate them.
Of course in Lawrence's view, the BBC with its long history and huge network of correspondents is one outlet that can be trusted. Over the past few years BBC World News has evolved into a truly global brand. The British broadcaster is now making an increasingly aggressive push into CNN-dominated television territory and cyberspace.
But the BBC's increasing reach, both on the internet and television, has its detractors. James Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp in Europe and Asia, recently launched a broadside against the BBC, accusing it of having expansion plans that were 'chilling'.
Lawrence is nonplussed by the criticism, noting that Murdoch was directing his ire against the domestic, publicly funded BBC, whereas BBC World News is privately funded by sponsors and subscribers.
'In some areas News Corp is a competitor and we take note of these comments,' Lawrence says. 'The BBC means a lot of different things to different people but overall it represents quality and trust. It is the biggest newsgathering operation in the world with over 2,000 correspondents.'
Lawrence has two decades of experience in domestic and international media, beginning at HTV in 1987. He worked on the launch of GMTV, the national franchise holder for breakfast television in Britain, and spent four years in Hong Kong helping to launch NBC and CNBC Asia, before joining Dow Jones Far Eastern Economic Review as sales director.
While a sceptic about the increasing amount of cyber junk on the Web, Lawrence is a firm believer in the emerging technology. With traditional media including newspapers, magazines and television in a state of flux, he says strong brands like the BBC have an opportunity to harness new technologies to extend their reach.
He notes that in the pre-internet age, news was doled out according to a fairly strict schedule - the newspaper was delivered in the morning and the television news aired in the evening. 'Now there is very much a 24-hour news cycle,' he said. 'With video on demand and mobile services, people will be more in control of what news they are given.'
Video on demand was originally seen as another threat to broadcasters suffering from slumping advertising revenues and falling audiences. Now it is perceived as something that may boost their bottom line. For example ITV, Britain's top free-to-air commercial broadcaster, now makes more money per viewer streaming talent show The X-Factor to computers than broadcasting it into homes.
Lawrence points to the presidential election protests in Iran earlier this year as an example of the shifting shape of news delivery. The website bbcpersian.com had been partially blocked in Iran by the authorities since January 2006. Despite the interference, it experienced a huge growth in usage during the protests over the election. The number of daily page impressions increased sevenfold to more than 3.6 million while online users streaming BBC Persian television through the website also rose.
On June 15 alone the stream was accessed nearly half a million times online - this was more video requests than for the whole of May.
The BBC Persian YouTube channel experienced a surge in usage until the Iranian authorities blocked the site to those within Iran. The huge growth in Iran's usage of the BBC's services means Iran is now second only to the United States as the country which streams the most BBC World Service coverage.
During the crisis, BBC Persian also received user-generated content such as videos and eyewitness accounts through e-mail and phone at a rate of six to eight per minute.
Lawrence said there was now an enormous amount of choice in news and 74 million people per week were watching BBC World News. For dotcom the figure is 50 million per month. 'The news space is cluttered and people are time poor but we had a big day last week when we overtook CNN in Europe,' he said. BBC.com has seven million unique users from Asia, more than double the performance for CNN.com, and considerably more than other news sites.
BBC World News has just completed its most successful year financially and was moving 'toward profitability'. Although the global financial crisis had hit advertising sales, on the positive side 'more people are staying at home and watching more television'. Some were upgrading to bigger flat-screen televisions.
'There has been very good subscriber growth but ad revenue is challenging,' Lawrence conceded.
While Lawrence said the domestic BBC service in Britain may still represent British values, BBC World News has a more international image. The BBC is now more popular than CNN in the Middle East and India. It has half a million viewers a day in Asia.
Growth in viewers has been helped by the fact that the BBC World News was seen as more impartial and less US-centric than CNN. 'There has been 75 years of World Service from Bush House [the BBC's London headquarters], 13 years of the television service and 10 years of the dotcom so we have an enormous heritage,' he said. 'We have got a phenomenal newsgathering operation and we are the only ones with a full-time bureau in Baghdad,' he notes.
The BBC is planning a move into a new newsroom in central London from cramped offices in BBC Television Centre, which was designed in the 1950s.
Lawrence said the global financial crisis, including the collapse of Lehman Brothers, had brought home to people the idea of how interconnected the world is. 'I don't think that was so obvious a few years ago,' he said.
Lawrence says China is one of the biggest stories in the world. 'The shift is in world power from a globe dominated by the West to one that is changing,' he said.
The BBC's Beijing bureau has a complement of 14, including three reporters, four producers, a bureau chief and various support staff.