BEST RADIO NEWSROOM IN THE WORLD"
A party was held in Bush House recently to unveil the BBC External
Services "Newsroom for the Nineties". The editorial reorganisation
of the newsroom, the first for 15 years, was the result
of a massive survey carried out by managing editor Jim Laurie.
Every member of the newsroom staff, "customers" and related
departments were consulted and a comprehensive report put together.
The process was "a nightmare", says Jim Laurie, but he
is proud of the result, a news nerve centre leaner and fitter than
Jim describes the newsroom as the launch-pad for External Services;
his concern in carrying out the reorganisation was to ensure that
no cracks appeared in that launchpad. Success carries with it the
danger of creeping complacency, especially hazardous in a radio
news world in which competitors are catching on fast in terms of
journalism and technology. "It's the best radio newsroom in
the world, there's no doubt about it, but it could be a lot better,"
he reflected as the streamlining operation neared completion. "We've
been sitting on our laurels."
One problem, oddly enough, was an excess of versatility. Every
one of the 110 journalists was previously expected to be able to
do every job on whichever of the five levels he or she was graded.
"They would bounce around," says Jim. "One day they
would be a Radio Newsreel producer, the next they would be making
up Bengali bulletins, the next writing central stories.'
The most fundamental change under the new system is posting the
journalists in those areas of the newsroom to which they are best
suited, initially at least for around three months at a time.
Writers are now better rewarded so that the best and fastest are
less inclined to move on to more lucrative positions. Copytasting,
the initial sifting of incoming material, is now undertaken by more
senior journalists than was the case, in line with newspaper practice.
Where print journalists would once pick up radio production techniques
as they went along they now receive formal production training.
And newsroom staff are being encouraged to get "out of the
The redesigned newsroom, with its horseshoe desk layout, was carefully
planned to reflect the new structure. As before there are four basic
divisions, the difference being that each one is more self-contained,
with its own head (or heads in the case of Central Output), targets
and a team of journalists chosen for their specialist abilities:
· NEWS INTAKE buys in the raw materials -- in this
case the best news available from the sources outlined on the accompanying
panel. Peter Brooks is news intake editor.
· CENTRAL OUTPUT writes the news on which the English
and Regional desks base their work. It is run by five assistant
editors on a rotating basis and staffed by senior duty editors and
· ENGLISH OUTPUT is concerned with updating World
Service news and news production programmes. It is run by the English
output editor -- a new position filled by Jim Edwards. He
is assisted by news producers and production secretaries.
· REGIONAL OUTPUT looks after the needs of the vernacular
services. It is headed by the regional output editor, another new
position, with Susannah Ross leading a team of bulletin editors.
man responsible for all the newsroom's output is recently appointed
editor David Spaull. It is his job to provide direction and
to do that he keeps his finger firmly on the newsroom's pulse.
"There is already an indication of an improvement in the quality
of the written output which you can hear on World Service,"
he says. "We have for the first time selected people purely
for expertise in writing and excluded others from that central writing
pool. The change is enabling us to employ people's skills more effectively.
"A newsroom faced with a constantly changing series of demands
evolves over a period of years, and every so often you have to say:
'Let's take a fresh look at how things are done.' It's difficult
to know exactly when to make a change like this, but there is a
good deal of upheaval involved. The refurbishment of the newsroom,
which took place over a period of about three months, is fairly
disruptive when the core activity of producing the bulletins has
got to go on, so we don't want to do it too often!"
"The newsroom has always worked well but you have to look at
new ways of doing things to ensure that you're not bypassed,"
says English output editor Jim Edwards, who welcomes the "atmosphere
for change". He points to immediate fruits of the reorganisation:
the ability to provide extra "illustration" in the 1200
edition of Radio Newsreel, longer analysis sequences by correspondents
in the Newsdesk at 1800 and so on. And he draws attention
to moves for closer ties between the newsroom and the current affairs
department, which is responsible for The World Today, Commentary,
Outlook and many other programmes.
By 1992 a much-enhanced version of the Electronic Distribution
System, the computer which provides the newsroom with back ground
detail on stories, will be installed. Talks have begun with the
unions concerned about the introduction by that time of "direct
input", which means journalists keying their stories directly
into the computer rather than dictating to typists.
This is happening in newspaper offices the world over, but the
radio newsroom is different because of the continuous updating process.
"We want to remain journalists rather than computer operators,
so there is a balance to be kept," says David Spaull. "The
system must be our servant, not our master."
new computer system will be almost infinite in its capacity to provide
us with information," says news intake co-ordinator Ian
Richardson. His specialty is broadcasting and recording equipment
and voice quality. "Enormous advances have been made in this
area over the past five years," he says: correspondents in
the field, for instance, now have mini-computers which can be plugged
into the telephone system to relay text back to London. We'll be
looking at such techniques in a future issue.
Amid all this change, will the World Service listener be able to
detect any differences? "It's important that the listener isn't
shocked by anything that happens," says Jim Laurie. "There
will be a slow but steady improvement in our contribution to World
Service." He expects a higher quality of writing as a result
of specialisation and keeping the best writers, and because the
higher-graded writers are faster expects the speed of the operation
to improve, too.
You might notice a gradual increase in "human interest"
items, as well. Don't be alarmed: "We're not talking about
chucking out all the heavy diplomatic and political stories to put
in stuff about dogs being lost," says Jim Laurie. But he feels
there is a danger of adhering rigidly to the safe, "worthy"
stories at the expense of those which chime in with people's basic
"There was an enormous debate in the newsroom some years ago
when Elvis Presley died - should it be a story? Of course - it was
a major story! He was probably the biggest name in pop music in
the world. There was still a terrible hangover from the war years
then . . . should we call him Mr Presley?
"Those days are over . . . it has changed, it has improved,
our writing standards are much higher and we do use human interest
stories. But we must never stop looking for further improvements."
-- Steve Weinman