Annika Sehl: How can public broadcasters become more digitally savvy?

Spotlight on Research

A Broader Framework for the News Industry

Questions with Annika Sehl

Annika Sehl, Research Fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

One of a regular series of articles that highlights research in the academy and the profession on the emerging threat of news deserts or changes in media ownership.

How Can Public Broadcasters Become More Digitally Savvy?

Public broadcasters such as the BBC have historically played an essential role in informing citizens, but many have struggled to adapt digitally. Most recent studies focus on the external challenges confronting public broadcasters, such as funding, but fail to consider how internal factors can stymie or accelerate digital innovation. Dr. Annika Sehl, a trained news broadcaster and co-author of a book on digital journalism in Germany, tackles these questions as part of the “Digital News Project,” housed at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.

For a recent report, Sehl and her colleagues conducted 36 interviews across six European countries to probe for challenges and solutions facing organizations historically known as public service broadcasters, such as the BBC in the UK or ZDF in Germany. They highlight differences across the European countries. The BBC reaches 68 percent of 18-24 year olds with news across online and offline platforms, compared to a paltry 24 percent of Germany’s ZDF.

Drawing on the interviews, Sehl, Cornia and Nielsen identified four factors necessary for successful development of new forms of digital news creation and delivery.Public broadcasting organizations must have strong support from senior leadership, buy-in from the wider newsroom, cross-functional, autonomous teams and an audience-centric approach. Sehl and her colleagues argued that all four factors are crucial, not substitutable.

An organization must have all of them to implement transformative change.

Beyond these factors, they found that these organizations can bolster their chances of success by having a development department specifically for news, bringing in new talent and working with external partners. In the interview below, Sehl discusses how she grew interested in this topic, its implications and what’s next on her research agenda.

This report is the second in the Oxford series. In 2016, Sehl assessed the challenges and opportunities of public broadcasters, including how they have restructured their organizations and newsrooms, and have developed approaches to mobile news and news delivery on social media platforms. The same team, under the lead of Alessio Cornia, recently published a report applying the same framework to private sector news organizations.

1. How did you become interested in this topic and this research?

Public service broadcasters have enjoyed a strong position in European countries for decades but they are struggling in many cases to be online news providers. They face many external challenges including discussions around the funding, remit, and role of public service media, pressures from private sector media competitors, the rise of platform companies, and continued changes in media use. I work with Alessio Cornia and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen to address and analyze challenges and solutions public media organizations approach in six European countries: Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Poland.

2. What is some of the major research that preceded and contributed to your study?

Our research builds on previous studies from the early 2000s on how both private sector and public service media organizations are adapting to digital media. Studies analyzing private sector media are largely focused on the interplay between internal organizational factors and external structural factors but studies on public service media tend to focus only on external changes in funding and governance, largely ignoring internal factors.

With our research, we aim to contribute to the field by examining both internal organizational and external institutional factors and their interplay for adapting to an increasingly digital media environment from a comparative perspective.

We realize that public service media have similarities and differences from private sector media, which is why we have divided our studies into two separate reports.

3. What did you learn?

We learned that there are four external conditions and two internal conditions that relatively high performing organizations in our sample have in common. The four external conditions are: (1) they operate in technologically advanced media markets; (2) they are well-funded compared to many other public service media organizations; (3) they are integrated and centrally organized and work across all platforms; (4) they have a degree of insulation from direct political influence. The two internal conditions are a pro-digital culture where new media are seen as opportunities rather than threats and senior editorial leaders who have clearly and publicly underscored the need to continually change the organization.

In terms of specific news products, we learned that there are foundational and facilitating factors to develop new products. These are: (1) strong and public support from senior leadership; (2) buy-in from the wider newsroom; (3) the creation of cross-functional teams with the autonomy, skills, and resources to lead and deliver on projects; and (4) an audience-centric approach. We also found three facilitating factors: (1) having a development department specifically for news; (2) bringing in new talent; and (3) working with external partners. While the first four foundational factors cannot be substituted, the last three factors represent specific solutions.

4. What are some of the major implications of your research? What are you focusing on next?

Our research shows that public service media, despite being dependent on external factors like funding, have a responsibility and opportunity to change their internal conditions to adapt to an increasingly digital media environment.

To stay relevant, they have to change and to develop their digital offerings. They need to try new things, take risks and have the freedom to fail. Development is a process, not an end result.

Recently, in September 2017 we also published a report on private sector media, led by my colleague Alessio Cornia. At the end of our project we will be able to present a comprehensive cross-national and cross-organizational comparative analysis of news organizations’ digital strategies, examining public service and private sector media across six European countries.