Morwen Williams, BBC News UK Director of Operations

Story versioning, remote collaboration, using web-based tools in the cloud, sustainability, story-centric ways of working, delivering for diverse audiences, developing new services with innovative technologies—these are just some of the challenges facing the UK’s largest news provider, the BBC.

In this episode we explore these subjects in-depth.

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Listen to Hear:

  • How the pandemic is shaping future workflows
  • The importance of the cloud and web-based tools to enable collaboration
  • The key role which story versioning has to play in delivering to diverse audiences

Our Guest This Episode

Morwen Williams

Morwen Williams is director of UK operations for BBC News, leading the technical and studio teams of BBC News. She is responsible for creative technical news gathering, as well as all news studios in London and Salford at MediaCityUK and editing in London—a team of more than 750 people. She is the bridge between the BBC’s journalism and technology, using technology to its fullest to tell stories better for audiences.

Previously she was BBC News’ deputy UK editor and led on major special (particularly royal) events in the UK, and has worked as a program output editor and producer in the BBC Regions. She is chair of the WBU (World Broadcasting Union) International Media Connectivity Group, working with other broadcasters to find common solutions in this area. She recently completed the Media Transformation Challenge at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, as well as visiting Stanford University to share learning there.

Anything we're looking at in future, we would hope to be cloud-based so the old anytime, anyplace, anywhere saying could be true. So that, you know, if anything like this happened again, that we’re future-proofed. More web-based tools, as well, absolutely, has got to be the way forward.” – Morwen Williams, BBC News UK Director of Operations

Mentioned in This Episode

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Episode Transcript

Craig Wilson: Hi, Craig Wilson here, your host for the Making the Media podcast. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us.

Our guest this week is Morwen Williams, who is the director of UK operations for BBC News.

She leads a 750-strong team responsible for creative technical news gathering as well as all news studios in London and Salford at MediaCityUK. The team is also responsible for editing in London as well.

A former journalist herself, she was previously the BBC News’ deputy UK editor. She is the bridge between the BBC’s journalism and technology, so she has a lot on her plate and can provide an informed take on the challenges facing the news industry today.

There is a lot to discuss on that front, for sure, so let’s get to it. I began by asking Morwen to outline why she made the move from the editorial to the more technical side of the business.

Morwen Williams: A few years ago I used to be head of newsgathering operations. That's the team that just go out and gather the news in the field—so not the studio team. And a few years ago, I made that move into our operations role because I was really sort of fascinated by, you know, how we did that. I’d always been a bit techy, but no, I am a journalist by training.

I've been deputy editor on regional programs. I was deputy UK editor for BBC News. I was in charge of a lot of special events, major special events like NATO summits, I did Prince William's wedding, also Prince Harry's wedding. Those sorts of major royal special events have been a forte of mine. So there's a lot of need-to-know for the technology for that. And, you know, I just got a bit frustrated with, you know, how things came to be, and the understanding of journalism by our technical teams. It seemed a little bit siloed, and I wanted to bring that together, and I very much see my role as like a translator between what journalism needs from the technology, and what great technology ideas are there for the journalists to exploit. And that's the bit—that's that sweet spot in the middle that I really get excited about, about how I can make a difference. Because that's what I want to do. I just come to work to make a difference, to make it better for our audiences, and that's where I believe, you know, that the role I do does make a difference.

CW: Yeah, I think it's really interesting how you link that there to not just what the teams internally do, but actually what the audience gets at the end. Because I guess it's a bit of marrying up and understanding better what it is you actually want to achieve, as opposed to necessarily knowing which technology you need to achieve it.

MW: Absolutely, it's about the end product and lots of our teams say “Don't tell me what kit you want to send on a job. Tell me what you want to do, and I'll sort the result out for you. I'll sort out how we do that.”

And I used to be guilty of it on the planning desk, myself. “Oh, can we send this truck to so-and-so? What do you want to do?” And you know, It’d just be because I knew a truck number I would be solution-izing. We’ve very much realized that actually, tell us what you want to achieve, what's the best result for the audience, and we’ll work out how to deliver it.

CW: So when you look at things at the moment, and though we've obviously been through a fairly extraordinary last couple of years because of COVID. And maybe talk a little bit about that just now, because as I understand it, a lot of your team were actually still coming into the building through the course of all of this, but a lot of people working remotely. Maybe just talk us through how things went through that period back in, you know, February, March 2020, to where we are now.

MW: Yeah, well, it all changed. I mean, the majority of my team have to come into the buildings to do their job. I mean, all the studio teams, the editors… I mean, some jobs could be done from home, and where we could, we did. And we supported that. And actually we supported some studio people. You know, some of the Today presenters work from home. But actually our studio team still had to come in to allow other people to work from home.

So, I mean, that was—and it has been full-on and relentless for my team. And, you know, that's been recognized with the RTS, Royal Television Society, gave award to the joint technical teams for all they managed to pull off during the pandemic.

Don't forget—when this happened, people were glued to the news and actually it had a big resurgence in television news. Linear television news. People sat ‘round the telly and returned to television news, and so we were needed more than ever. People just—our numbers went through the roof, and you know, people obviously, I would hope, turned to us as a trusted news source to cut through when they needed to know what was happening. So it was really important that our people could come in and do those roles.

And what we had to do, Craig, was really look at our programming because we didn't know where that pandemic was going. We didn't know how many of our staff would be in at those early days and so we worked together with the news board and a few of us to look at what streamlining we would put into place when those levels were hit, you know. If we had people out, what we would do. And we proactively streamlined some of the programming and so things like Newsnight went into our main news studio, so we had fewer studios on the go. We just hunkered down a little bit and the [inaudible] as it was then, which was in a big studio, that went into our main news studio.

The quality of the journalism remained, and we broadcast the quality of the journalism and got the stories out to people. But some of the programs looked a bit different. And it's similarly on our language programs, instead of being in one of the main studios, we put them into what's called a clip studio—a smaller studio where you only need two people to person that studio, rather than a full gallery team. And it just meant we’d got some resilience, and we could cruise along at a certain level without it being what I call “Handbrake, accelerator, handbrake, accelerator.” And that really did as well, and we didn't have to ever go above those levels, and it was a great piece of work that we did.

CW: I mean, it was a terrible set of circumstances, of course, that everyone has had to go through, but what do you think it actually meant for the way that people were willing to, maybe, innovate and try different things.

MW: Well, we absolutely, my team did a lot of innovation. So, when the audiences went out of programs, I mean, we do some audience programs for the wider BBC—audiences couldn't come in! So some of my guys developed, you know, a Zoom where the audience could contribute on Zoom, called Virtual Audience. Again, that's won an industry award, because of how we brought people together to still have an audience. Because some of those early programs, if you remember them, would be echoey quiet, no reaction. That's difficult for a presenter, and it actually meant you can get audiences from all over the country. People who can't normally travel to location could take part in that.

We also designed things like remote productions. How we worked a workflow out. So if you normally edit on the road, we've got things called Edit Caravels with, you know, you go into the back of a van, it's got an edit suite in the back of it, and three people would work in that—shoot, edit, camera operator person, a producer, and the reporter. And they would all work together. That couldn't happen. So you would have the editor working in the Caravel, or they went home, or they came into the office, and then on a Zoom-type workflow, the others would be sit around together.

And actually, one of the jobs we did when it was out in a particularly hostile location, they went out to work on a story in the Middle East I think, and then the people that come together came from three different continents, so they went home to three different continents to edit and edited in that workflow. So we've learned an awful lot. You don't have to be in the same place to do things. So a lot of innovation happened, and we will keep some of those practices 'cause they're really quite useful.

CW: Yeah, do you think it's also changed peoples’ attitude about what's possible to work in a remote way, as well?

MW: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, things people didn't want to try or didn't think would work, had to be tried, because it was the only way we could get things on air. And so it's really, really accelerated automation.

There were some things we had the capability in our technology to do automation, and we have people there doing things. When we have to take out the vision mixing role from our gallery to allow social distancing, I mean, we haven't then on our main bulletins or a lot of our programs, haven't had a vision mixer person doing those programs since that pandemic started. And so we have used the learnings from those sorts of things and have taken those chances and opportunities and thought “You know, we can do things differently.” But I think people probably wouldn't have put those forward as ways of working, had it not been for the pandemic.

CW: Yeah, what about things like use of the cloud, as well? You know, one of the things that we discussed in the pandemic with a number of people is about how the cloud can enable more and more collaboration, again, people working together. Is that something that you've also seen that acceleration in the use of?

MW: Yeah, because we had to, because the, you know, coming into the building with the big on-prem setups that you can only do in the BBC building… that wasn't very useful if you were all of a sudden working from home. We just moved one of our visual databases. It's  an in-house thing called Jupiter to a Jupiter Cloud version. And we really worked at that. It had literally just come in, and we worked at that to improve, and pulled its timescale forward to improve that, and that's been a big success. That's allowed a lot of it.

And our planning and deployment tool—that was already a cloud-based thing, so, you know… And anything that we had—there were still some ones for digital that you had to come in to do, but anything we're looking at in future, we would hope to be cloud-based so the old anytime, anyplace, anywhere saying could be true. That, you know, if anything like this happened again, that we’re future-proofed.

CW: And I guess as a follow-on from that, is if you're storing material and accessing through cloud-based tools, then the role of web-based tools becomes much more significant and important as well.

MW: Yeah, yeah. And actually our planning and deployment tool is web-based. So more web-based tools as well. Absolutely it has got to be the way forward.

CW: So when you look at things at the moment and looking across at the landscape, what would you see are those sort of key challenges facing the newsgathering business at the moment? What, from your perspective, if you're looking for an issue that you want to solve or make things better, what do you think the key thing is?

MW: Well, I mean, we've done a lot of it with this. We're moving toward more connected cameras, where our material won't need a particular feed point to get back into the building or get round, so that, again, will be an advantage. So I suspect actually, Craig, sustainability is one of our key drivers next.

How do we make our fleets and our teams greener? And we're really actively looking at that now. When we come up for vehicle replacement, you know, it's very much, you know, can we do an electric vehicle workflow? Really, really want to do that. And, can any of our big trucks? We're trying to either get their generators off diesel, and retrofitting things like that. Very much looking at all those workflows to see how we can be greener in the future, while being able to get to places quickly, not having to stop, and, you know, necessarily recharge because you know, we're in news business. We need to get to places quickly. So you’ve just got to look at things like, you know, charging distance, and how far you can get things like that. So when we hit that sweet spot, we'll hopefully be good to go on something.

CW: Yeah, we've actually done a podcast with the team from behind the WeAreAlbert initiative, talking about them. And I think one of the other things about that is it potentially opens up other opportunities, because one thing that you may do is perhaps look to hire more in-location staff, as opposed to sending people to go and do that, as well. So I think it's actually something… Well, there are a lot of people who look at the kind of sustainability targets and think things like if “I can't charge up my vehicle to get there, how do we cover it?” It's actually about thinking about trying to do things perhaps in a slightly different way.

MW: Yeah, and we had a recent interview in Germany, we were looking at flying somebody out there, and we in the end, we hired a German freelance to do it because actually, you know, by the time you've paid for the flights and the sustainability element of it, it was just easier to do.

We won't do that on all stories. I mean there... I think there's some like the, you know, the investigations that we do, we'll always want to go and fly in. But if it's as simple, straightforward interview that we could probably do, we might look at a lot more of that.

CW: And one of the things that the BBC does is it covers a huge amount of ground. There's lots and lots of distribution points, as well, Morwen, it's not just about the sort of broadcast and the on-air. So what kind of challenges does that try to face in terms of distributing content to so many different outlets?

MW: Well, it's versioning for us. In my department, it's so you've got a shoot edit that's working on a story, and so we had the Djokovic interview last week, I think it was, a few weeks ago. And it was how do you get that out for all those outlets? It was a big exclusive for the BBC. Not only was it a BBC One program, but it needed to go on radio, television, online, but lots of versions online, as well.

You know how many outlets there are, and they all have a certain different look. So versioning it for distribution—that's our biggest challenge in my department. Clearly BBC has distribution issues elsewhere, some of which are done by very big, old transmitters. But certainly in my team, versioning takes up an awful lot of time, and to get those versions right for the audiences who want to interact with it on that platform. And so one size does not fit all. We know that, and we have learned that if you just put a big television package online, it doesn't work. It just does not work. So we're experimenting with ways that maybe you could cut something for the television that would work online, as well. But you've just got to accept there are various outlets that will need a bespoke cut.

CW: For that kind of thing, is that the kind of thing that you begin to look at where AI can play a role, or is it still the case of dedicated teams need to look at the different versions that’s being produced?

MW: I think there is technology out there that can definitely help us on that, and in some cases is helping us on that. There are, you know, various edit tools that can sort of replicate different versions, so we're looking at all that. And, you know, AI is playing a great part of the last general election. So, you know, a few years ago, we took facts and we were able to produce little, you know, two or three sentences on what happened in each count using, you know, artificial intelligence to put the facts together in a format to do that with automation.

CW: Yeah, I mean, that's the kind of thing obviously the financial industry has been doing for quite a long time. You know, you get company reports come out, and they automatically generate reports from there. So I think it's an interesting area of sort of future development, as well.

What about things like story-centric workflows? I guess that kind of feeds back into that versioning conversation, as well. Is story-centric really at the heart of what you're trying to do now?

MW: Yeah, I mean, massive change in BBC News in the last year, and our initiative called Modernizing BBC News has really taken for the biggest, you know, changes in the last 20 or 30 years really, for BBC News, and has looked at the way we gather our stories and created story teams. So, as you're saying, story-centric around expertise, so learning an identity and culture, and money and working business, and various teams, and actually, spread them throughout the UK, as well. So our learning and identity team will be based in Leeds, our climate and science will be based in Cardiff, for instance.

So, we've centered around those areas and actually, we threw the stuffing of it all up, through everybody in BBC News in a big pot and say “Who wants to apply for what?” And so it really is a completely new team. At the heart of that is a commissioning structure which looks at stories that people are bidding for, or suggesting, and it has to have a certain amount of buy-in. So people just don't go off and make stories. It's all approved at a certain point, but the story-centric is one where, you know, we do like to think we have expertise at the BBC, and, you know, that's what people turn to us for—the explanation of stories. And that's been protected very much by this story-based way of reorganizing ourselves.

CW: I think as well, the thing with something like story-centric is that people recognize that it has to be a tailored version depending on what it is that you're going to do. But you can still produce interesting and engaging content, but you can actually version it, perhaps for different regions, or perhaps for different areas of the country, where in essence, it's the same story, but tailored in a slightly different way. And from an efficiency perspective, it's actually a much more efficient way of delivering content as well.

MW: Yes, I mean absolutely, it went back to our earlier point where, you know, we have an in-house tool that does the language for each—we got here 26 language services and can re-version one television piece with the straps on for different versions. But it's important to recognize that different audiences will want different things, and to take elements out of maybe a piece and just to, you know, maybe if there's an example of, I don’t know… revolutionary hip surgery. Maybe just take it from the person that will benefit from the hip surgery rather than the traditional television package of, here’s an example, here's a doctor, here's the cure, here's the science lab, you know. Here's the piece-to-camera that. That's a very traditional way you can do it just through the story of the person, maybe. And that's quite an appealing way, particularly for our digital audiences.

CW: We talked about web-based tools, but the other aspect I was going to ask is around mobile tools, and what people are looking to do with phones. Is that something that's kind of key to the way that news is being delivered and really communicated now?

MW: So, gathering by mobile's been something, you know, I've been very, you know, involved in. We used to have a team called a “mobile journalism and innovation,” but actually we decided it's so part of what we do all the time, we've changed it to “connectivity and innovation” now, because we really feel it's like day-to-day, what we do.

So it’s always interesting, isn't it, over the challenges of, you know… we've got some very highly skilled camera operators who work with big cameras and so few years ago we had a pilot where we asked them to put down their big cameras and we gave them the top-end smartphone and asked them to go away and see what they could do with that, and it was quite some years ago. And I remember particularly it was the death of Stephen Hawking, and our camera person went around and was doing an end-of-program package with what Stephen Hawking had meant to young people. So he went to a science fair and he captured it all on mobile, and the piece was brilliant, because you know how it is when you get young people on with a big camera and they all act around in the background. Well they just all interacted in a perfectly normal way because they’re used to having a mobile phone in their face, and so it was nothing different to them. And we got a really good piece.

And not only that, that when that went, we had a debrief after the six o'clock news, when we told the presenter—because we didn't tell them it was shot on mobile—and they nearly nearly fell off the chair. And the real tribute to that was it then ended up on the ten o'clock news without a single change in it. And normally when people think “Oh yeah, well now I found out it was on mobile, we'll drop it,” but they didn't. And we've built on that. In particular, our colleagues in the English regions are doing a lot of work in the mobile area?

We've got a great in-house tool that can send material in. So, on my phone here now, if there was something newsworthy, I could literally go on to that app—I've got it right in a key position on my phone, and it knows it's Morwen Williams’ a phone, it geo-locates me, and it goes straight into the servers. And so if I took the picture now, I'd just put a slug on it, and then it would go straight into the servers.

So we've really built on this mobile technology and, you know, everybody has a smartphone, a BBC smartphone. And we're going to be making more films, I think, on them in the future, and we are doing some training in that area, as well.

CW: Yeah, I think there's an intimacy about doing something on a mobile phone that is different from turning up with a crew—even if it's not just one person, you know, a one man band or one woman band who turns out to shoot things. There is something different about just having a phone and having a conversation.

MW: And, if you've got somebody that's really upset—and we have to interview people who have seen, you know, tragic things, or have had tragedies in their lives, and if you're there with a big camera, it can make them very nervous. And so, whereas I say, mobile phones in your face is all part of everybody's daily life these days, and so actually, you get a better interview 'cause the person is a little bit more relaxed and it's less of an ordeal for them. And that's important for people, to make people feel at their ease.

CW: Yeah, I also think there's another aspect to not just the mobile filming of things, but also the fact that we have been able to interview many more people now because of things like Zoom and Teams—you and I are speaking just on Zoom, Morwen. It's also slightly changed the nature of some of the programming, as well, because you get people on that you probably wouldn't have gotten before, as well.

MW: Yeah, I mean, our late night program, News Night, had to go to guests all appearing remotely 'cause we couldn't have people in the studio and it just meant the diversity of guests—whereas it doesn't look as great, it's not as great an interview, in some cases as it is if you've got somebody next to you. But I actually, you could get lots more people on that don't have to find the way at 10:30 at night into a BBC studio, or to get a truck to them or a connected backpack camera, or whatever. And maybe people, you know, it might be single parents who have got childcare responsibilities who couldn't get out and they would say, “Well, you know what, I can't do your interview for you.” Or people that lived a very long way away and all of a sudden they can now get on. And I think that will stay.

We are more prepared and set up now to be able to do those interviews that way, although I know the programs are really looking forward to getting people back into the studios properly. But it means it doesn't preclude a guest.

CW: One slightly different aspect, Morwen, that I know you're very interested in is about mentoring. So we've already done an episode with Rise, and I know that you're part of that, as well, and other mentoring schemes. So I think one question I wanted to ask: Is I think it's obvious what the people who are being mentored get from that kind of scheme, but I'm interested in what you feel that you get from doing mentoring in the first place?

MW: Well, it's all sorts of things, Craig. You know, I'm going into schools, as well, and school visits… I always learn something. And, you know, you never stop learning, and you know, just going into the schools I remember and I remember just saying “So where do you get your news from?” And, you know, nobody put their hand up, and, you know, just finding out how kids consume the news was useful from school visits.  

For mentoring, I just, you know I really enjoy doing that because I get to find out, you know, new ways of working different trends, different aspects that I don't always particularly mentor people who are doing a job similar to mine. It might be slightly different. And so I find out lots more about that sort of thing. My Rise mentee at the moment works in product for ITV, and you know, I'm learning things from her. So it is exciting to be giving something back, but also learning, as well, and I really enjoy the conversations that we have. They've all done very different jobs to me, and I've learned from them from them all.

CW: So a couple of final things, really Morwen. So we talked about a lot of people, of course, still working remotely. You know, I don't think anyone really knows what that sort of hybrid model ultimately is going to be like, so I'm interested in your thoughts on how you try and keep that sense of team, I guess, in an operation where you’re perhaps not seeing people as often as you would have been beforehand. How do you try to do things like that?

MW: Well, I mean, we've got a great management team and they flip flop between who's in, so our operations managers or our team leaders, our location managers… they see the teams regularly so that there's always somebody there to see the team.

I'm personally in two or three days a week, but I do a lot of Zoom calls, as well, with people. So I do think, you know, during the pandemic, it did feel like we came together as a team because, you know, we had the big… previously my staff meetings, I booked a room, and, you know, about 25 or 30 people could turn up out of 750 and, you know, I was regularly getting more than 100 people, if you consider how many programs I've got there, that's quite a lot of people who are busy at any one point.

And, you know, people on days off, and that sort of thing. But it really brought us together, and I'm not going to stop doing that. I am going to keep doing those monthly, certainly monthly meetings for all staff where we just call it the all staff catch up. And we've got people to come on and tell us things about what the latest COVID is, I'll get a guest on, but otherwise, we will just catch up and talk about things.

So I think there is a sense of team. It did bring people together. There was a little bit of a sense of “I'm coming into the building all the time and some people are staying at home,” and we had to work through that, because I think everybody just automatically assumed the unusual thing was working at home. Actually you know, don't forget, there's people here coming in on public transport and, you know, they would say risking their health, potentially, when we didn't know very much about how it was transmitted, coming into the building to do that, and we had to make sure that was recognized when we talked about people having the right chairs at home.

There were people coming in day in, day out, and night in, night out, to do our work, so that was an important difference to recognize.

 CW: It certainly has been an extraordinary period, Morwen, there's no doubt about that. As you know, Morwen, there is one final question I ask everyone on the podcast, so I will ask it to you: What is it, if anything, that keeps you awake at night?

MW: Well, yeah, it is a good question Craig. I don't know. My mantra is: I come to work to make a difference. So I need to keep coming to work to make a difference. And, you know, have I done the right thing, keeps me awake at night. Did I do the right thing today? It's the days are so long it doesn't always keep me awake and then hopefully it quickly moves into a “When can I get out on my bike next?” So those are the things I worry about.

CW: Thanks to Morwen for sharing her views, and as a keen runner myself, I totally get how she enjoys her relaxing time out on her bike away from the day-to-day challenges.

What do you think of what Morwen had to say? Let us know. We are always keen to discover your views.

Email us, we are [email protected] , or on social, I am @CraigAW1969 on both Twitter and Instagram. And don’t forget to like, leave a review, and share the podcast with your friends and colleagues.

Check out the show notes for more information on lots of the topics we discussed, from story-centric ways of working to digital versioning and more.

That’s all from this episode. Thanks to our producer, Matt Diggs, thanks to Morwen for taking the time to talk with us, but most of all, thanks to you for listening. Join me, Craig Wilson, next time for more in-depth chats about Making the Media.