Phillip Mendonça-Vieira

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A timelapse of the BBC and assorted thoughts

August 2, 2011

The cron job I set up to capture the nytimes’ frontpage was also set up to collect the BBC’s:

Catch the Chilean miners at 0:30. The Arab Spring begins in earnest around 3:00 with Tunisia (and eventually picks up Egypt). The Japanese tsunami hits around 4:30.

The video goes from September to May; I cropped it to match the music. The song is the first movement of Philip Glass’ [Violin Concerto No. 1](\)). For some reason the top red banner didn’t render properly. I have no idea why youtube didn’t render a 720p version.

Differences in reportage

There are several interesting things going on here.

The thing that stands out the most in comparison to the nytimes is how the BBC’s editors behave more placidly in their content curation. Where the nytimes crams its homepage with as much information as possible, the BBC picks the most important story of the day and runs with it.

I suspect this difference comes down to a dramatic divergence in the sheer volume of content both organizations feel the need to showcase. Where the BBC is happy to file short, factual pieces, the nytimes house style seems to force them into multi page arrangements. Where the nytimes quantifies the BBC strives for brevity.

This can be seen most clearly when you compare their coverage of the Chilean miners:

One pleasant upshot of this, however, is that the nytimes’ homepage is more dramatic. If I want to know the most important story of the day, the BBC will do me right. If I want to follow an event with bated breath I might be better served by the nytimes.

See how they covered the Egyptian revolution:

There is another great thing about the above video: you can see around 1:56 how the news cycle briefly moved on once the pace of new developments slowed down. I feel like this has nagging implications on our own perceptions of foreign events. You can see how the two sites share a large portion of photography and how quickly a subject gets dropped once it stops being news.

Woe betide protestors in Bahrain and Syria for being late to the party and living in uninteresting countries. Heaven help you once your civil war stops featuring dramatic reversals, like in Libya.

(Note: this more a limitation of our collective attention span. We just have a limited capacity for empathy. I didn’t even mention the Ivory Coast.)

Anyhow, I also produced a video comparing their coverage of the Japanese tsunami:

So, which news organization should I follow?

Frankly, the nytimes features a lot of noisy, America-centric news pieces. Just by watching the timelapses I felt vastly more informed on “what is happening out there” based on what the BBC decided to feature.

That said it’s important to keep in mind that the nytimes offers a “global edition” which was not captured by my timelapse, and that the BBC you get on TV in the UK has a more domestic bent than their global news website.

The BBC offers a very broad, yet shallow coverage. They’re great for quick summaries, but all too often they seem almost alergic to drawing conclusions. I’m infuriated by their policy of putting everything in quotes; it’s as if they’re trying to absolve themselves of any responsibility for interpretation.

The nytimes on the other hand produces awesome multimedia illustrations for the stories they cover. Their biggest problem in my humble opinion might be a reticence to embrace the medium; all of this quality work gets hidden in a side bar and becomes lost to the tides of time. They also have excellent photography editors.

Could you now espouse some bullshit on the nature of media in these tough digital times?


Once an iPad equivalent drops below $100 it will stop making economic sense to pulp hundreds of tonnes of trees and ship them out on a daily basis. If you don’t operate on a mandated subsidy it’s going to be difficult to justify ongoing costs in news coverage. Especially given that there’s some mounting evidence that news simply isn’t profitable.

The upshot of this is that in the meantime quality news coverage is going to contract and we’ll probably suffer somewhat on a intellectual, moral, and democratic level, etc, etc.

I’m not too concerned; our democracies emerged without the modern news distribution apparatus’ and we’re suddenly starting to see corps of semi-professional, semi-volunteers picking up the slack on a local level. The next ten years are going to be crummy on almost any vector you want to pick, but at least we’ll be experiencing the last and most complete expansion in distribution and access to information.

This is incredibly exciting. This will never happen again. Everything we do now will be taken for granted and ignored by future generations. We’ll figure things out eventually.

You're a web developer, though. Your opinion is meaningless. You are wasting all of my time. You can barely write as it is.

I, uh, hrm.

Whatever. For some miracle I've kept reading this far. Tell me about things you're actually qualified to talk about.


First things first, I was wrong when it comes to automated archives. The nytimes does keep an archive. So does the Boston Globe. An enterprising fellow keeps a detailed archive of the BBC News. I’m a lot less pessimistic about preservation.

Andy Rutledge came out and redesigned the nytimes frontpage. It’s pretty, he has a lot of good points and I agree with him when it comes to information saturation. Some people think he’s missing out on a few important details. In the meanwhile they’ve all put forth interesting ideas that are better articulated than anything I can contribute.

This is probably best critique of the critique I’ve found to date. I’m just going to bring out what I think is the money quote:

Why not take a page out of blog design and have a running tally of your most recent major headlines? This way I can visit a news site any time of the day and see what I missed previously. Can’t you safely assume that a majority of the readers aren’t going to scan the whole front page for something that interests them, especially if you are trying your best to draw their attention with major headlines?

I can’t prove it but I’ve been saying this for years now. I think that’s probably the best move forward, but I suspect that’s going to require a paradigm shift in how we think of content management systems.

A final note

This is all I have left to say about timelapses. I’m astonished you’ve read this far. Give me a shout if you have any questions or comments.

# 2011-08-02