Naja Nielsen, Digital Director, BBC News

Naja Nielsen is not a digital native journalist. At 54, her career began before social media, YouTube and the widespread use of email. But she has become something of a digital pioneer. And since 2019, when she was appointed digital director of BBC News, she has been on a mission to modernize the 100-year-old public broadcaster.

“Technology has revolutionized every part of the journalistic craft, mostly for the better,” she says. “We can research better, report better and produce better than ever before across text, video, pictures, graphics and audio. But the digital revolution has also meant an explosion of content, which means making it possible for the audiences to find and discover the best [is] much harder.”

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Nielsen began her career in her native Denmark, where she worked for more than a decade at Danish broadcaster DR as a reporter, presenter and editor and, eventually, head of news, overseeing the broadcaster’s election coverage and implementing an inaugural digital strategy at the legacy broadcaster. She spent two years as chief journalism officer for Orb Media, a Washington, D.C.-based digital start-up that specializes in data-driven investigative journalism related to social and environmental sustainability. She also did a stint as a visiting scholar at Stanford University, where her research focused on journalism in the digital age.

Last month, her job just got a bit harder. With a coming budget shortfall — care of the U.K. government’s decision to freeze the TV license fee that supports much of the BBC’s work — director-general Tim Davie revealed 200 million pounds ($250 million) in cuts, necessitating the Beeb’s segue to a “digital-first” organization, with all of the cost savings that implies.

“That’s the most important thing we’re doing,” Nielsen says of the reorientation toward digital. “This is where we are putting all of our investment.”

The cuts, says Nielsen, “mean we have to prioritize harder and double down on the stories and services that deliver the most value for audiences. To become a truly digital-first media company and provide the services people deserve, we need to invest as well. So the task of reprioritization is big but so are the opportunities.”

BBC News, with outposts around the world and websites and apps in 41 languages — in addition to its flagship English-language services — is used by nearly half a billion people a week. The BBC, by nature of the outsize position it occupies in Britain, can be a polarizing place to work. “There is always somebody who has an opinion about what we do,” she says during a Zoom interview from BBC’s London headquarters. “But our independence is really important for us.”

Here, Nielsen talks to WWD about covering the royal family, journalism’s trust deficit and the differences between working in the U.K. and the U.S.

WWD: In America, and elsewhere in the world, trust in journalistic institutions has eroded to crisis levels. Partly this is due to the extreme polarization. But I also think the for-profit structure of most American media organizations has prioritized clicks over quality.

Naja Neilsen: [Trust] is so important to us and we don’t take it for granted. The funding is important. Because of our funding structure, we are owned by everyone and are here to serve everyone. And that means we have to figure out what is factually true. And of course, we will always call that out. No matter what people think about it. We do think that there are things that are objectively, factually correct. An example is climate change; there’s no reason to discuss whether climate change is existing. But what to do about it is very much a political debate. And I think it makes us stand out a bit in the media market where a lot of media, because of their business models, have gone down to primarily trying to serve a part of the audience, not everyone.

WWD: The internet is currently coursing with outlandish conspiracy theories and disinformation, which has given rise to the so-called fact checkers, but now there are fake fact checkers. How do you deal with the scourge of social media-enabled lies?

N.N.: We have come to realize over the past years that actually fact finding, myth busting, reality checks, it’s important we do it. But it only helps us so far, because sometimes when you do a reality check on the story, we can see in the research that that will actually often lead to more people hearing about the myth and believing it. So it can be counterproductive. Increasingly, we think that the fight against disinformation is to make sure that we have really powerful, impactful, correct information out there. That is the antidote. It’s not trying to fight off all these strange bits of propaganda and lies.

WWD: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the first Western war fought during the digital age. And it has often been difficult to verify accounts of the fighting and atrocities while misinformation and propaganda has spread on social media. How is the BBC approaching that story in terms of verification?

N.N.: There have been several examples during the war — and I’m not going to criticize other media — where we have refrained from publishing until we knew whether things were right or not. Although it’s easy to sympathize with people that live in a country that is being attacked by another country, that is not the same as whatever anybody from Ukraine is saying is always correct. But also, if you’re in the middle of the war, you might not have the full picture of what’s going on. So we use satellite imagery, we use data, scraping social media, talking to a lot of sources. And we do that even when Russia has banned some of our journalists from entering the country or, at an earlier point in the war, blocked our website. That does not mean that we don’t keep being open minded and curious about what the story looks like from a Russian perspective. There’s a range of views inside Russia, and we go out of our way to make sure that that is part of our coverage.

WWD: How do you make sure your coverage on these places is not tone deaf? Yes, you have local reporters on the ground, but very often reports about those countries do come out of London.

N.N.: One of the huge joys of working for the BBC is the diversity of our newsroom. Our journalists are literally from everywhere in this world. We’re from all religions, all cultural backgrounds, all ages, and we’re working across all platforms. And that means that we always have a colleague who would say, that is an outsider’s perspective or that is true. And I do think it goes to higher-quality journalism as well. And I think it is one of the things that makes it possible for us to potentially play an important part in fighting disinformation, because we’ve got this expertise. That includes topical expertise, people that know everything about pandemics, or black holes, or development of Hollywood.

WWD: How does the BBC view America as a market but also as an important part of the world to interpret that, at the moment, feels like a backsliding democracy to many of us who live here?

N.N.: Actually, the two countries are not too dissimilar. I’ve lived and worked in America as well. I think their diversity is really the strength for both countries. So yes, we have some people with the British accent, but we have people with a Danish accent like me. And then we’ve got people with all sorts of accents. So we see the U.S. as an incredibly rich, creative, interesting market for us to publish in. And we do believe that we are not here to teach anybody anything, but we do think we can provide a different perspective that is maybe not British but global.

WWD: Obviously, the BBC is a large and diverse organization with myriad platforms and many forms of content, not just news. But the TV license in the U.K., which supports so much of the BBC’s work, is unpopular at the moment, when the cost of living for so many Britons is skyrocketing. Do you feel buffeted by these debates?

N.N.: So we are getting some of our funding from the license fee that covers television and everything else we do here in Britain. But internationally, and I don’t know that everyone knows that, we are commercially driven. And that means that we have a mixed economy, and when it comes to the license fee, we believe that some sort of public funding is what has led to our excellence. Because the market alone would at least risk making it important to target the groups that pay and that are commercially interesting. So we think there’s something in the model. That said, democracy is going to decide what the model for the BBC is, right? We are serving the public and it is the public that decides how we’re funded.

WWD: In many ways, the BBC is among Britain’s foremost institutions, like the National Health Service. And sometimes the BBC is the story, right?

N.N.: This may sound strange, but we cover ourselves as curiously and critically as we’re covering everyone else. We’re actually very trained with that. For instance, we just launched a big investigation together with The Guardian into former [BBC 1] radio DJ [Tim Westwood] that is accused of abuse. We are going hard on ourselves when it is relevant.

Emily Maitlis’ devastating interview with Prince Andrew about his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein for the BBC program Newsnight, leading Queen Elizabeth II to strip her son of all his military titles and royal patronages. - Credit: Courtesy BBC News

Emily Maitlis’ devastating interview with Prince Andrew about his relationship with Jeffrey Epstein for the BBC program Newsnight, leading Queen Elizabeth II to strip her son of all his military titles and royal patronages. – Credit: Courtesy BBC News

Courtesy BBC News

WWD: How has the way you cover the royals changed as Princes Harry and William, in particular, have pushed back on the intrusiveness of the media and its role in the death of their mother, Princess Diana?

N.N.: We do what we’ve always done. We are first journalists. We are curious and critical when we cover the royal family and also people stepping down from the royal family. We’re covering it all. Prime examples of that would be the interviews that [BBC Newsnight presenter] Emily Maitlis did with Prince Andrew and [“The Princes and the Press”] documentary by [BBC media editor] Amol Rajan. We are covering the royal family just like we’re covering other big institutions and important parts of both British and global society. And of course, sometimes there can be tensions in that, but that is the nature of a newsroom.

WWD: The BBC may not traffic in the kind of royal gossip that one reads in the tabloids. But do you nonetheless occasionally worry about access to the family when your reporting or coverage upsets one of them?

N.N.: No, not at all. Some of our critical reporting always entails a risk of losing access. Sometimes the visas are pulled away from us from wherever we’re doing our coverage. And we simply are determined to never let that influence what we do. I’m not personally in contact with the royal family, but I suspect that this is very much what Queen Elizabeth and the family would want us to do. Because the BBC is such an important institution in British society. And it works really well that we can both cooperate around big events [like the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee], but also that that they know that, just like everyone else, they will be under our editorial scrutiny. That’s part of the deal.

WWD: You’ve lived and worked in Denmark, the U.S. and the now the U.K. What do they have in common?

N.N.: There is a lot of imagination and inspiring innovation going on in all three countries. They have a long history of being connected to the wider world through trade and migration, and also share similar challenges with dealing with the history of war, colonization and slavery, for example.

WWD: What is the biggest difference between journalists in the U.K. versus journalists in the U.S.?

N.N.: It’s a cliché but true: many Brits would say “brilliant idea” to something they don’t like whereas many Americans would give a firm “no.” In my experience, most of the differences are superficial, though. Nearly all of the journalists I’ve worked with in both countries have been excellent: curious, critical, creative and courageous.

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