Is the BBC really a useful benchmark for online journalism?

his semester my Monday mornings are spend in the company of our Foundation Degree students and this morning I was talking about Online writing.

I spent a bit of time talking about headlines and how important they are in the digital world. They’re not just the start to a good article. Headlines are your online envoys; little text-tugboats content sailing around the web, pulling people back to your site.

I mentioned Jakbob Nielson’s often cited post on the BBC and their headlines – World’s Best Headlines: BBC News.  At which one of the students seemed to crack: ‘It’s always the BBC. Whenever tutors give us a good example, it’s always the BBC!’

After a few moments of reflection, I kind of had to agree.  (although I also assured him that I was pretty convinced that it wasn’t because we were being paid by the BBC!)

But, I asked him and the class, was it a problem? In general they didn’t thinks so but it’s given me pause for thought.

Best practice, common practice or best principles

One of the best things about the BBC’s  online presence is that they are consistent. If I want to talk about writing tight headlines, I can reliably point to the BBC as a benchmark. Just as (often in the same lecture) I can point to the Daily Mail as a benchmark for engineering headlines for platforms, Buzzfeed for their social and video strategy; or ammp3d for their use of visualization etc.

In a world full of Buzzfeed and Upworthy headlines – fighting for social media eyeballs – I can see how the BBC might feel a little tame. In fact, compared to a lot of sites and the bright shiny toys of digital journalism , I suppose the BBC can seem pretty dull.  But, for me, that consistency is a really valuable. It’s about first principles.

Doing journalism in a digital world is tricky.  There is so much churn that I think finding some good, basic solid ground is quite a valuable thing. But what I would hate is that people learning it feel trapped by the a ‘learning the rules so you can break them’ approach.  But I would also hate that people felt trapped by constantly having to do the next big thing.

Saying forget the basics exemplified by the likes of the  BBC and load up on the cutting-edge responsive, mobile, data skills (or vice versa) is a mistake. Of course it’s also a false dichotomy. I’m pretty confident that across the board students get a chance to do both and getting students to reflect on and practice both is really valuable.

Reflecting on how I present that is just as valuable.

Am I holding them back? Is there a better way to sell the basics?

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