BBC Newsline: headlines and deadlines

3 Nov 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 4 Nov 2016

Damien Magee counting the seconds

Every night at the top of the Six O’Clock national news BBC NI’s Newsline has 10 seconds to sell itself. 

A newsreader speaks at a crisp three words per second and there are usually two stories to push, all with their own images or clips.

That makes a maximum of 30 words to tell two stories and project two compelling images. It is that precise because when the Belfast studio is cued in from London there is no margin for error. It has to be over to Belfast and back in that slot. No pressure at all.

And as the editor of TV news, Damien Magee explains it shouldn’t be difficult anyway, because the acid test for whether you have a decent story or not is whether you can write a headline for it – and ten words is more than enough for that.

This craft of writing compelling headlines and bringing them to life with the right images is critical to building interest in TV news, just like the more venerable skill of newspaper banner headline writing. Old fashioned journalists mastered the art of attention seeking centuries before the tweeters and Vimeors and Instagramers came along.

Timed to the second

Live TV news is timed to the second. You would imagine that bringing the whole thing together would be nerve-shattering. Behind the scenes, Stephen Nolan’s live radio show is noisy, fractious, even manic, it feels risky, it skates on the edge. Newsline is not like that at all. The control room is calm, almost silent. Magee stands at the back watching, occasionally pointing something out. Seamus Kelters, who is producing, speaks softly to the studio, his eyes breaking from the screens from time to time to monitor the news feed on his monitor to check for breaking news big enough to shoe-horn into the show.

Things can and do go wrong and flexibility is built into the system. So, for example, if a live interview is going well and producing strong material it can be allowed to run on and other items shortened or removed to accommodate it; big breaking stories can be inserted, there are spare “news belts”, short runs of stories with pictures, that can be inserted. The programme may be planned to the second, but there is always a fall-back if things go wrong on the night. 

The most intimidating and exhilarating aspect to editing a news programme is that when you arrive into work every morning you know you have a substantial live slot to fill but you don’t know what you are going to fill it with.

Magee said: “You have to construct something that engages people and tells the story of Northern Ireland on that day, warts and all, and to an audience that will end the half hour feeling they have watched a programme that fulfils their needs. “

The BBC has a forward planning desk which identifies potential stories for the coming week. These planned events, or embargoed announcements, are one potential source of news. For example, this week’s announcement of the plans for Belfast’s new transport hub. Newsline will also generate its own material - a recent case being Mark Simpson taking on the challenge of abandoning all his digital devices for a week, a running story that will generate content and discussion points.

On top of that, the BBC’s suite of specialist reporters will regularly pitch their own story ideas to Magee’s team and, over and above even that, well, things just happen every day. The average show will contain around 10 main items, far less than in a newspaper. The art of editing is just as much about what you leave out as what you put in.

No need to stand 

Editors are authoritarian by tradition. Whenever Alfred Harmsworth - Lord Northcliffe - entered his newsroom at the Daily Mail all the reporters and sub editors would stand up out of respect – and his word was law. There was no discussion or debate.

Magee repudiates that approach. “I genuinely think we can only make good news programmes if we have a good conversation within the team. This is particularly the case in Northern Ireland where there are so many nuances and sensitivities. Anyone who thinks they could pick up on all of those and understand them would be foolish.

“So you have to listen very carefully. At the end of the day an editor’s job is making a decision but you’ll find that decisions are being made because we have very good conversations about what we are doing. “

Every editor also has his or her own vision. David Gordon, until recently editor of the Nolan Show, talks of “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” (ironically a line from a novel where the barman who says this goes on to say about the press that it also “buries the dead and roasts them afterwards.”) Noel Doran, who edits the Irish News, favours “news is something which somebody wants suppressed.”

For a public service broadcaster the mission is different. Magee says: “My view is that our journalism needs to be trusted, local, useful, questioning and provoking. Provoking is part, but not all of it.

“It needs to be a news programme first and foremost and to be trusted for that.”

Against that measure the team performs well – with research suggesting very high levels of trust in BBC Northern Ireland’s news output.

Television is a very different medium from print, radio and online because of its ability to show moving pictures, whether film or graphics. Inevitably this is reflected in the content it broadcasts.

Hybrid studio

Magee said: “The driving imperative is what you deem to be the most important story for the greatest number of people in Northern Ireland but of course if you have another story which is also very strong but has all the televisual ingredients you have to take that into the mix. The point is that people can’t really turn on to material that is very dull and dry.”

Regular viewers may not be aware that BBC Northern Ireland’s studio is unique within the BBC precisely for the visual impact it can project.  It is the first “hybrid” studio. Half the set is “hard” - meaning the space occupied by the news reader and weather caster with the large screens behind them, typically showing sweeping scenes of Belfast, on the one hand, and stills photographs for the weather.

The rest of the studio from which sport broadcasts daily is “green screen”. That means that all the walls within the studio are green, allowing the production team to project whatever images they like as a backdrop: fancy graphics for election coverage; the recreation of a hospital ward for a recent health piece; anything that helps illustrate a story.

Magee said: “It is a great asset that we use every day. The green screen helps us to bring stories alive and help people understand them better, and the retention of the hard area gives us flexibility and the ability to put up three point explainers, for example, on the screens.

“This hybrid set enables us to bring increasing amounts of clarity and simplicity to the telling of the story That really helps our audience and if they come away feeling right I’ve understood that then we have been able to bring it alive.”

There is no other studio like it in the UK and there have been many visits from other TV executives across the BBC interested in replicating BBC NI’s pioneering work.

Magee may have a futuristic studio to work with, but what about the future of TV news in an era when most people tuning in will already be familiar with the stories, and when so many of us no longer watch TV and have migrated to Netflix and other online services?

The death of news?

He says: “First of all whatever it is that people see through their day there still comes a moment when people tune in at 6.30pm to have it offered to them in a way that helps them make some sense of it. People are still attuned to the concept of the built programme. “

And as people get news from less professional and reliable services via social media Magee believes that key to continued relevance is for his service to be seen as authoritative and be trusted.

“As to the future of TV news: what can you say, except for the fact that the death has been signalled for a long time, and we’re still here? I think that these 6.30 programmes for Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland post devolution are as vital as they ever were.”

Magee doesn’t have clear answers to how TV news might adapt to new and emerging news channels. But what does seem apparent is that the future may not be so much around changing the content of such shows, but more around continuing to follow the audience, becoming accessible wherever they are.

 Strong professional journalism and content management will always be in demand. New news sources trade off immediacy for inaccuracy and cheapness for amateurism and are destined to be increasingly regarded as untrustworthy, biased or both. The craft of news will remain regardless of where and when and how we consume it.


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