First News Launches Current Affairs Weekly Series (UK)
How many people would put money on an untapped thirst for serious news and current affairs among young teens? Two new media ventures are doing just that – while also touching on sensitive issues of editorial judgment.
The newspaper First News is planning to take on the BBC by launching its own weekly internet-based television current affairs show aimed at 10-15 year-olds, while So! – a magazine created by teenagers and distributed in schools and shops – is expanding into regional editions.
The latter includes a feature on the BNP by a British-Asian teenager, which also grapples with issues of identity in her community. The article is all the more significant given the storm surrounding a much-criticised interview with two BNP members on Radio 1's Newbeat last October.
The interview introduced senior activists from the extreme-right party as "two young guys who are members of the BNP" before allowing them to claim, unchallenged, that the footballer Ashley Cole was not "ethnically" British. It also brought criticism that programme editors had misjudged the intelligence of the audience.
"Newsbeat is aimed at a younger audience, but 'young' should not equal 'stupid'," wrote a former BBC online entertainment news journalist, Darryl Chamberlain, in a letter of complaint that was partially upheld by the corporation.
Maire Messenger-Davies, a professor at the University of Ulster who specialises in the media and the young, says: "The problem is that the BBC doesn't cater for viewers and listeners over the age of 12 and up to about 15, which is an extremely important age group. CBeebies is preschool, while Newsround is also for a younger group. It's a very important age, when you would hope young people start thinking about the wider world. But it has been a policy decision and, I suspect, one based on the myth that all young people are on the internet and don't listen to radio or TV."
The alleged gap is all the more surprising, she says, given that research by her university and others in partnership with the BBC shows that age group is "crying out" for specialist news programming. The study of 220 youngsters aged between nine and 14, who made video diaries, revealed a hunger for information about international events and for local programming. However, the BBC denies that it serves teens poorly when it comes to specialised news programming, and says Newsbeat serves this audience, along with older listeners, while a separate initiative tailored to teenagers exists online.
Nicky Cox, the editor of First News, endorses Messenger-Davies's charge that the BBC is failing news-hungry teens and pre-teens. Aiming to exploit this, First News will be launching an internet TV show in May that will provide an hour of news coverage once a week.First News, launched in 2006 by Cox and Piers Morgan, has 763,800 readers a week and its show is described as "a cross between GMTV and BBC Breakfast but for young people".
Cox says that, like the newspaper, the show will not shy away from controversial subjects, ranging from the war in Afghanistan to the BNP and racism. "The only story which I think we deliberately avoided was Josef Fritzl," she adds. "There was just no angle that we felt we could come in on that was appropriate for our readership."
Meanwhile So! is planning to launch a west country edition later this year following the successful roll-out of a northern version in December, complementing its original edition in the south.
Are these competitors simply filling a gap in programming provided by the BBC? Simon Goretzki, the deputy editor of Newsround, says that the programme shifted its focus towards viewers under the age of 12.
"That was a Children's BBC decision made a few years ago about where the CBBC channel was best aimed at." The result, he agrees, is that there is "a gap" between Newsround and Newsbeat. "There is no one at the BBC who is pretending it's not an issue."Editorially, Goretski says that there are areas where Newsround treads carefully, such as suicide and sex, but major stories are not ignored. There are plans to send a team to Afghanistan, for example.
Only time will tell if the BBC's enthusiasm for tackling "difficult" issues in news programmes for even slightly older "youth" audiences has been blunted by the Newsbeat/BNP furore. The broadcaster faced calls for an internal investigation after it received more than 100 complaints. The BBC upheld the complaint and reminded Newsbeat to ensure listeners had enough information about interviewees.Rod McKenzie, the editor of Newsbeat, refers questions about the episode back to a blog he wrote in October, when he insisted reporter Debbie Randle's handling of the interview was rigorous, and that the bulk of the "tough" questions she asked were inspired by, or directly quoted, listeners.
As for the charge that the BBC is failing to provide a news service for young people outside of Newsbeat's 15-29 year old target audience, he insists that while the core audience are people in their early 20s, listeners from outside that age-group still have a relationship with the programme. He adds that most 14- to 15-year-olds are not interested in "hard news". McKenzie says the current affairs "gap" between Newsround and Newsbeat is plugged by BBC Revealed, an online television show edited by him and accessed through the broadcaster's teen content initiative, Switch.
"Revealed has tackled lots of issues which would be of interest to a slightly more thinking 15-year-old, if you want to use that term, everything from drinking to relationships with parents to being gay," he says. "In terms of hard news [for younger audiences] the BBC is better than it was and somewhere between Newsround and Newsbeat we can cater for them."
He believes arguments about a lack of specialised news services for under 15s run the risk of patronising them, while ignoring that they and older teens differ in what they want to watch or listen to. "It's not our job to force-feed people news," he says.