The BBC’s announcement today of its streamlining and focusing of its web strategy, 25 per cent budget cuts, the loss of 360 jobs, cannot have been a surprise to anyone, least of all its most ardent competitors. The out of control growth of the BBC’s websites has often been posited as a commercial ‘market impact’ problem for commercial rivals, but it is more of an editorial challenge than a regulatory one. After all, it is not clear exactly what the ‘market’ is for it to ‘impact’. Delivering a constantly evolving web strategy is not something Mark Thompson is alone in having to deliver. He’s just unique that he’s compelled to do it in public.
The BBC’s web services are increasingly how it reaches the world and therefore its standards and core purpose need to be shot through every bit and byte it publishes. I am a huge fan of the BBC’s online development and the staff who powered it – without the more innovative thinkers and developers and the focus on editorial standards and their digital expression I know that not just the BBC but all of the UK’s online media would be poorer. But in the rapid growth of any such being you are bound to get fringe stupidities and anomalies. Taking a look at the list of web ‘closures’ some seem to be not much more than keyword pages being given an early retirement; Lily Allen, and Michael Palin, are no longer, if they ever were, suitable for top level domain treatment. Many of the listed objects have already gone. Another 200 top level domains in addition to these will disappear.
Even if the BBC had all the riches in the world, it would not make a difference to the fact that it needed more focus and point to its activities. At its worst, the BBC’s online presence was a reflection of its confused core. All things to everyone all the time. Nobody seemed to understand the concept of ‘no white space on the web’, well plenty did, but not those handing our editorial permissions to start sites as it was ‘only the web’. If you could have actually seen the output of this labour, if it were made physical, the corridors of White City would be impassable with irrelevant content clutter. Instead it ran out of headspace, and into angry competition issues.
The mainstream media is slowly catching up with the idea, that if you are to have a sustained existence in an ever-changing world, you need to know your single point of focus rather than be carried away on a tide of ball-licking possibilites. Doing it because you can, is still, and has always been, a terrible editorial idea. Doing it because you must is a much better manifesto.
I feel very sorry for the people who will lose their jobs, as it was not their failure, but a wider strategic issue which sees them out of work, and one hopes in the mass movement of the BBC it does not break or lose its core pool of talent. The planing down of costs will be in vain unless there is clarity at the heart of the digital editorial strategy. One of the most appealing things about the BBC news website was, as one of its founding lights once explained to me, that its day one strategy was ‘to tell you what’s going on in the world right now’. A dazzlingly simple and unadorned mission, completely right for the organisation.
Now Roly Keating who takes charge of editorial direction has an opportunity to nail down what the direction and the content should be. If the Corporation can achieve that, the latest cuts, however painful they appear, will make the organisation a stronger digital player than it already is. And that’s food for thought. The scale of the BBC’s operations is immense. It’s size, an enormous sprawl over many territories, was a hindrance. More focus is not necessarily a bad thing for the BBC, and it might not benefit its competitors either.