In an interview with The Guardian, Highfield says that the BBC has the potential to challenge Google.
We have got the best content in the world and a more flexible rights framework than anyone. We have the best brand, I would argue, online in the world in terms of trust and impartiality. We’ve also got access to some of the best technology in the world. If you glue all of that together we should be in a prime position to create the best next-generation search navigation tool in the world. We haven’t yet found out across all genres what new media can do. Where we have, like in education, the digital curriculum has become a great example of a product that owes very little to radio or television and is very much of the medium.
In response to the BBC governors’ response to Philip Graf’s review of BBC Online he has been required to cut funding by 10%, axing sites deemed not to pass the corporation’s new “public value” guidelines.
In order to free up the required funding we must start to behave more like television and radio, decommissioning sites or cutting back on funding, or even archiving them as circumstances change.
In a speech to the Royal Television Society, Highfield clarifies the role of the BBC in the commercial Internet landscape. In the previous week, a group of companies, including Associated Newspapers, the Commercial Radio Companies Association, the Newspaper Society, News International and the Telegraph Group, called for greater restrictions on the BBC asking for limits to be imposed on its digital remit.
[The Corporation] absolutely doesn’t want to be a MySpace or a Flickr or a Friends Reunited. [We want our digital presence] to shift from being a gateway to being a conduit, a channel for conveying content and frequently neither the start nor the end of the journey…I believe our audiences value bbc.co.uk as a portal, as a safe haven for many, which offers a starting point and a trusted guide. But we also believe our audience want much more as well. To find our content where they want it, whether within their favourite portal like MSN, their community like YouTube, or their environment like the Second Life virtual world website. They want to contribute their content – this we know – but not necessarily always on our site.
The Independent interviews Highfield, in his new position as head of Future Media and Technology at the BBC. He says he plans to use the department’s £250m to £400m budget and and 1500 staff to put Britain at the forefront of internet-based technology by opening the BBC’s video archive of the BBC, some 1.2 million hours of film, for free.
I think we are about to go from the predominantly text-based, predominantly static world into the video-rich, dynamic, two-way engaging environment. That for me is when it starts to get really interesting. It’s more than putting a newspaper online it’s where you can really start to empower people and give them total control over their media consumption…What we [The British] have is an opportunity now in Web 2.0 to actually get ahead of the game, because we do have one of the most advanced creative industries, our television industry is world renowned…[The BBC] has one of the world’s largest archives, if not the largest archive. And yet, because we’ve got so few channels – routes to our audience – inevitably 99.9 per cent of that content stays on the shelves. We ought to liberate it and make it available, how, when and where our audience would like to consume it.
On the UK approach to education and technology:
The streaming of people in England into arts and science means that people who can explain technology are few and far between. It’s so rare in the creative industries to find creatives who are interested in technology, because a lot of them look down on it. It wouldn’t happen in America or Germany. It’s very rare as well to find technologists who have been taught how to sell their ideas. It’s one of the reasons why the entrepreneurial culture here hasn’t made many dotcom successes.
Responding to Greg Dyke’s comments that the iPlayer is losing ground, Highfield defends innovation at the BBC.
No one in the UK content market could innovate faster. The only thing that might stifle innovation would be the process of approving new services because that can take a long time. With BBC Trust approval framework for new services, we won’t always be able to be number one to market, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t or couldn’t be innovators.
He says the Company can help the transition to mobile:
The BBC can play this role of trusted guide, taking audiences through new mobile experiences and helping to build the market.
Highfield gives a media masterclass at Bournemouth University’s media school.
The Internet market is now worth £4 billion, in just ten years. Half of that is access, so the ISPs have £2 billion. To put that in context, the whole television market in 50 years is only £8 billion. The whole radio market is half a billion It wasn’t wrong, the dotcom bubble, it was just vastly inflated, and the expectations were too soon. To give you the BBC statistics: A couple of years ago, during the height of the dotcom boom in 2000 we had an audience of about three million to our website. Our audience in February was 8.5 million in the UK. Our audience has best part of trebled in just two years. That to me is the dotcom revolution.
Highfield is asked four questions by Sky News Tech Talk. Why did Microsoft create MSN? How successful is MSN today? How will the online media landscape and MSN evolve going forward? and If you had to leave your job today, what three businesses would you start? On the latter:
The first trend is obviously mobile. We [Microsoft] have seen the explosion of mobile consumption of all our services. So something around the mobile, particularly in location services…like the next generation of Foursquare. On the web, highly-visual search…we are just at the beginning of a new journey, a different way of navigating and searching. And the trend that we are seeing with the launch of xBox Kinect, where we see a user interface that requires no remote control…That’s the beginning of a journey where natural language, voice commands and motion commands are going to be huge.
Highfield talks to Future Medialab about the future of news, responding to the question: In five years’ time, how do you expect news to have changed?
In some way, news will be the same, people will still want to know what’s going on around them, particularly local and regional news news. The want to know things that matter in their community. What will change profoundly is the medium through they get their news. Increasingly on mobile people want utility information: traffic, travel, weather, breaking headlines, sports results. And in the newspaper they want more in-depth, investigative journalism. Things they can pore over for longer.
Highfield is interviewed by Douglas at Media Playground 2014 conference. They talk about the death of print, going mobile-first, the long-running spat between the regional press and the BBC and the future of local journalism.
You need to get digital growing pretty rapidly to make up for print decline. We are getting to that digital tipping point.
Highfield is interviewed by MediaBriefing’s Thackray about how Johnston Press has been addressing the structural challenges facing the business, how it is adapting to digital, and how it plans to tackle mobile. Highfield:
People do not buy a local paper to turn to the small ads and sell a push bike. With that having migrated… you can argue it was a major missed opportunity for the regional press not to make more of those verticals like motoring or property… but that’s the past, and now we have a much more stable environment, and our audience numbers… have never been bigger.
Highfield responds to the BBC’s suggestion that it would fund 100 local reporters to provide public service material for regional papers.
[It’s not an olive branch], More like an olive leaf. It looked to us like BBC imperialism through the back door. The whole idea was flawed. Essentially, by hiring more journalists, it meant the BBC putting another workforce into the regions who could well end up competing with us. We are worried about the BBC’s plans to get more local, as per their charter announcements, and worried also about their false belief that there is a market failure [by us] which gives them the right to fill the vacuum.
Rejecting the 100 reporters idea, the publishers prefer a quota system in which 25% of the BBC budget spent on regional news would be made available for publishers to fund their own journalists to provide content for newspapers and the BBC.
There are issues around impartiality, but our guys can write impartial copy. It is solvable. And it would be an attractive proposition for our staff to have the chance to appear on camera. It will make working for the local media more attractive. I believe we can find a symbiotic win-win relationship. The BBC can take our content and pay for it. And we can take BBC content and extend our audiences. What’s not to like?
He also addresses the conflict addresses the conflicts arising from his role as a member of the advisory panel created by the government to review the BBC.
I’ve been absolutely transparent about it. John [Whittingdale] knows I have views on how the BBC should work with regional publishers. But that is being dealt with through a clear and separate channel, so no one can be in any doubt about the situation. I’m extremely proud of having worked there…I’m a big fan of the BBC. It’s simply about finding the right ecosystem.
Speaking to the House of Commons culture select committee, Highfield says the number of local newspapers closed over the last decade has been “blown out of all proportion”, with most of the 300 being shut not “papers of record” that are vital to most UK communities.
This is something that is often blown out of all proportion. The papers that have been closed were often the freesheets that were opened in the 1990s to mop up low-yielding advertising revenues when the times were good… I think you’ll find the numbers of papers of record that have closed over the last decade is incredibly low. That is something that needs to be understood.
Highfield says of the £24.4m acquisition of the i newspaper from Evgeny Lebedev. He intends to build the brand’s digital presence, increase the distribution of the print edition, targeting small- and medium-sized retailers like post offices and newsagents, and expand to all areas of the UK, including Northern Ireland, where the paper is not currently sold. He will improve editorial by taking 17 existing members of staff and hiring others to form a team of 50. The paper will also draw content from Lebedev’s The Independent’s website and the Evening Standard for £850,000 a year, as well as from Johnston Group’s regional papers. Highfield says that the purchase is about building scale for Johnston Press and attracting bigger advertising. He says scaling by acquiring small regional media groups would have taken a long time and been very expensive.
We are in one quarter of the country and we want to be in all of it, not least because this is a scale game and we wanted to go after more national advertising revenue and have a bigger train set across which to offer our digital services. I’ve always had a fundamental belief that video didn’t kill the radio star. New technology comes along, but it rarely wipes out what came before it. I think people will still want print for many years to come.
Highfield talks about his plans to to take the regional newspaper group upmarket. The company will increase the number of ABC1 readers from 2.5 million to nearly 3 million with his acquisition of i. He says he won’t increase to cover price (the paper cost 40p and sells 270,000 copies/day).
Two numbers keep sticking in my head. We have got 9 per cent of daily newspaper circulation and 3 per cent share of national advertising revenues in print. I think the pendulum will swing back to quality. Advertisers want quality audiences in print and online, and that is what we can deliver. Our strategy of moving ever-more upmarket has got to be the right one.
Highfield also dismisses the suggestion that quality is suffering because of cuts to Johnston Press journalists.
If you ask them ‘Do they produce better content than they’ve ever done?’, I’d hope they’d say yes. [Social media, reader-generated content and real-time analytics mean the editorial product has] probably never been of a higher quality. [But] the economics do not allow you to employ the same number of people as 20 or 30 years ago.
Highfield says that he hopes i readers don’t notice the difference when they pick up the paper when it publishes. He says the company isn’t even running an advertising campaign to mark the relaunch.
That’s going to be the number one objective: to a reader, all those names you know and love, and the design, and the layout — everything should be the same. If there’s anything that’s not the same, I want it to be better.
Highfield says that the inews.co.uk site will not have clickbait and will have a revenue model that will focus mostly on sponsorship and native advertising.
We will be no going after traffic for the sake of traffic. I think we will be very true to the paper and therefore create a clear proposition that we think does not exist in the UK: there is not a politically independent, concise, quality read online and I think that will find a market. We’re not trying to be The Guardian, or BBC Online, or be an Independent.co.uk — I think that would be foolish. What we are going to try to do is stick very closely to the brand values of the i: a quality, concise daily digest, updated continually but at any one moment, when you go to the site, the idea is the matrix will give you everything you need to know to be informed on the day. I think that possibly flows better to the zeitgeist than the acres of never-ending content.
We have 900 journalists [across the Johnston Press group] who in turn have a network of thousands of bloggers and contributors… in terms of our reach, we already have a network of thousands of people who write for us in a professional capacity, and that’s bloody hard to undermine.