Episode 2: Judy King – Innovation Director at BBC Monitoring

In the second episode of MediaRoad SkillBytes we meet Judy King who is Innovation Director at BBC Monitoring, Judy heads up a small team bridging the gap between editorial and technology. She is now focusing on the challenge of combining automation and algorithms with the expertise and insight of BBC Monitoring’s multilingual journalists.

Episode 2

Eoghan: You’re listening to MediaRoad SkillBytes with me, Eoghan O’Sullivan. The MediaRoad project is supporting the transformation of the European media sector by building an ecosystem for innovation. SkillBytes is a podcast series where we’re exploring changing skill sets and career paths in today’s media technology environment. Our guest for this episode is Judy King, Innovation Director at BBC Monitoring.

Judy: I do find it amusing that we work in monitoring in all these different languages, but often the biggest challenge in terms of understanding is between technical and editorial – even when we’re speaking English.

Eoghan: Hello Judy.

Judy: Hi there.

Eoghan: You have the job title of Innovation Director at BBC Monitoring. Now, before we get onto exactly what that entails, I’m going to set you a challenge, which is to summarise your career to date in thirty seconds.

Judy: Oh, my word. I started off by being an English teacher in Japan for two years straight after university. And then after that, I joined BBC Monitoring. This is my twentieth year, but I have pretty much done every job in the building. So from researcher to journalist to assistant editor and now Innovation Director (the first ever I think) at BBC Monitoring.

Eoghan: So BBC Monitoring: of course the BBC is familiar to just about everybody in the world at this stage. What does BBC Monitoring do?

Judy: Yes, people have all sorts of different ideas about what they think BBC Monitoring does: from monitoring whether people have paid their licence fee to monitor BBC content. But actually, what we do is we monitor the world’s media. We cover pretty much every country in the world. We have journalists who, between them, speak around one hundred languages and they’re looking for news and spotting disinformation to inform BBC reporting, but also to better inform the UK government and our commercial users as well.

Eoghan: You mentioned that you have a big staff of journalists. What other employees form part of BBC Monitoring?

Judy: We’re just over two hundred altogether. The vast majority are editorial staff based in… actually we’ve just moved recently. We were (for about seventy years) based just outside of a U.K. town called Reading, about thirty miles from London, in a stately home. But actually, in May last year, we moved into New Broadcasting House (the heart of the BBC’s newsgathering). We’re on the sixth floor there. We’ve got about one hundred journalists there and a similar number in thirteen offices around the world. In addition to the editorial staff, we have a very small innovation team, which I head up, with business analysts and product managers. We also have a business development team.

Eoghan: You didn’t mention any specifically technology-focused staff there.

Judy: That’s correct. Because we are a department within the BBC, we work with the BBC’s technology teams. We have a close relationship with the BBC’s News Labs team, who perhaps you’ve come across. They have a really interesting BLOG, which I should promote! They do all sorts of experimentation. And also with the BBC’s R&D teams looking at new and emerging technologies and how we can benefit from them.

Eoghan: How much has technology had an impact on the way that the jobs of people working in BBC Monitoring have changed? I mean, you’ve been around for 70/80 years. I can imagine the job has changed a lot over that time. But perhaps in the last five to ten years, the impacts of technology have been quite big.

Judy: Yeah, absolutely. Back in the day, journalists would just have a very small toolset to use. Whereas nowadays we ask them to use a whole range of tools. They’re having to keep across new channels, new social media platforms coming online the whole time. And to respond quickly to that to make sure we don’t miss a story. There was an example during the Iranian elections when all of a sudden (we were just absolutely not expecting it) former President Ahmadinejad just turned up giving a speech on Instagram. Our Iran team quickly rallied and botched something together to be able to record that infamous speech on Instagram. It’s really their response to the media environment that requires this much more tech-savvy (attitude) than perhaps even when I joined.

Eoghan: Your job title is Director of Innovation for BBC Monitoring. So what specifically are you trying to innovate?

Judy: In some ways, it’s a continuous improvement really. But Director of Continuous Improvement wouldn’t sound so great. So it’s like looking at our product set, really working with the business development team, understanding what our users are wanting and seeing how we can shift and adapt to that. And on the other hand, looking for that dis-continuous improvement, where we can take advantage of new technology to make a big leap forward. A big part of what we do is related to broadcast monitoring and many other people in this media monitoring space do online and social. There are loads of tools out there to help you track trends across social media, but there isn’t really for broadcast sources. We’ve just embarked on a project called Project Vault, which will enable journalists to use transcription speech-to-text tools in different languages to help them keep across many more broadcast sources.

Eoghan: Is the risk that the end of that path is actually some of those jobs disappearing: that the technology could actually (with artificial intelligence and machine learning) take over the job of monitoring?

Judy: I just don’t see that. I mean, let’s talk about Libya just for a moment. It is so complicated. There are two different governments, numerous online, radio, TV sources. Every faction has its own TV. There is no way, even with a word-perfect transcription that somebody who is not an analyst on Libyan matters could find their way through and spot what matters and what doesn’t. And so where I see the shift coming is: what we spend our time doing and where our customers see the value. I think it’s the “why it matters”, “why it’s happening”, “has this happened before?”. That’s where I see the roles shifting.

Eoghan: Does this mean that the profile of the people who are going to work for BBC Monitoring in future is changing a bit as well?

Judy: It is interesting because, of course, the new people who are graduating from university, they’ve grown up in this media environment where they’re on their phones, they’re accessing multiple different types of media. If someone is a graduate in a foreign language, they automatically come with having grown-up in this different media environment themselves.

Eoghan: You mentioned earlier that you have just moved from a stately home outside Reading to the centre of London. Now that surely must have been quite a culture shock?

Judy: It’s a huge culture shock. I’d worked in Caversham Park, which was the name of our stately home, and I loved it. You know, what a place to work: beautiful grounds and a really interesting job. The move to London, I can honestly say I did not greet with enthusiasm. I think many others were like me. However, it has transformed what we do: just that ability to collaborate easily. We’re able to do data projects working with BBC’s visual journalism team. I’ve already mentioned News Labs, they are on the same floor as us. We can just have a meet-up. That human interaction does make such a difference in terms of creative collaborations.

Eoghan: Has the Innovation Team been the same people since it was founded? Or has there been a turnover of staff in that team?

Judy: Yes. We’re brand new. We’ve been going less than a year. All the posts within the team are on a fixed term contract. That was done deliberately to make sure that we can keep getting fresh perspectives in the team. Originally it was planned that each person would be in the team for one year. But actually, Monitoring’s quite a particular part of the BBC. I mean, we’re not as special, probably as we think, but there are things that are unique to Monitoring. And so it takes people some time to build up that sort of expertise. So I asked, and it’s been approved to extend that to two years.

Eoghan: I’d like to finish by coming back to you, Judy King. This is the SkillBytes Podcast, and we’re talking about skills and competencies and so on. Taking where you are now in your career if you were to give one piece of advice to yourself at the beginning of your career, what might you say?

Judy: I think what I’d say, maybe what I’d say to my kids: seize every opportunity.

Eoghan: Judy King. Thanks for joining us today on MediaRoad SkillBytes.

Judy: Thank you.

Eoghan: You can find more information on the initiative that has inspired this series by heading to mediaroad.eu.