Briefing Notes: BBC’s Today Programme

Chloe Choppen
Chloe Choppen26th February 2019

Laura Cooper, Assistant Editor in charge of planning


The role of planning editor

Laura told us about her career – she worked for Chatham House before joining the BBC as a graduate trainee, and so she has always had an interest in international issues, specifically the Middle East. She has worked on Today in a range of roles – researcher, output editor, and now she is an Assistant Editor responsible for planning. She also goes on the road to produce big planned events – she went with Mishal Husain to broadcast live from Cox’s Bazaar and more recently from Gaza. She was involved in a more junior capacity in coverage of Liberia in 2012, when Evan Davis was presenting and Today broadcast from Liberia on a number of occasions, in collaboration with Save the Children.

Her role as Planning Editor gives her the main responsibility for future shows. She usually aims to have around 4 items in place when she hands over to the day editor, the day before a show – this might include a lead item, a discussion, several packages. Some of this will change as the day progresses and there may be further changes overnight.

This gives her an important role in shaping the programme and she works closely with the Editor, Sarah Sands who has been in post since 2017. Sarah was previously Editor of the London Evening Standard – she will be the guest speaker at our dinner for CEOs from our member organisations in November.


Overview of Today

Laura sees the main role of Today as beginning a conversation for the day. She will pay close attention to running news stories and try to secure interviews with key players. She will be in regular touch with bureau heads, seeing what’s happening on their patches and what merits inclusion in the show. Under Sarah’s editorship, there is a commitment to broaden the range of international coverage and seek out different perspectives. Part of this is reflected in a desire to present the show from foreign locations – Gaza is a recent example of this.

Laura is reading widely and keeping her ear to the ground – across a range of topics – international, science, business, sport, the arts. She sits on a Planning hub with planning editors from the World at One, The World Tonight, World Service etc. She knows what they are doing and avoids duplicating their efforts.

In terms of studio guests, Laura is keen to recruit new voices, people who do not regularly appear on the show. They need to speak good English and have a personal perspective, and not just act as spokespeople for NGOs. They have a keen interest in recruiting more women and more contributors from ethnic minorities. They are aware that they need to do a better job of reflecting the UK population.

The Gaza coverage gives some useful insight into how the programme is rethinking its foreign coverage. When they decided to present the show from Gaza they did so because they felt it was an important story that had dropped off the news agenda and when it was covered, it was through the prism of politics and polarised political views which they felt was a turn off for the audience. They decided that this time they would not talk to any politicians but make their focus the stories of ordinary people from both sides of the divide. So the big interview at 8.10 was in fact with two women, one from each community. They thought this would offer the audience a more engaging way into a difficult story.

Today is planning more coverage from the Middle East with future live broadcasts with Mishal Husain planned from Beirut, looking at the plight refugees and the impact of the Syrian war.

Laura said the Today audience is older, well informed, interested in a broad range of stories. They have a lot of audience feedback and research on what the audience is interested in. The BBC does not share this research with outside organisations.

Another new approach adopted under Sarah’s editorship is reporting from Universities around the UK. Today is keen to appeal to a younger audience and to reflect their views and life experiences. The team is now looking at the possibility of reporting from Universities in other countries such as India. This offers a different way of covering foreign news, something they are keen to do.

Laura accepted that the latest audience figures show that Today is losing listeners. She believes that the audience goes up and down so is not overly concerned by this. In fact the BBC is losing listeners to commercial radio. The trend is not just affecting Today.

Today is principally a radio show but it also has an online presence, with a producer managing their Twitter feed and their Facebook presence. They use Twitter to disseminate programme highlights for people who may not have listened live, and they use Facebook to appeal to a younger demographic. Today has recently launched a podcast called Beyond Today which is edited by John Shields. Sometimes it focuses on issues that are included in the radio show; on other occasions it has its own agenda. Matthew Price presents the podcast. Recent items have included electric cars, low carbon futures, algorithms and dating.

Laura’s priorities for future coverage are

  • Broaden the range of interesting voices
  • More original journalism
  • Go on the road more
  • Secure some interviews with those who are harder to get on the show


Audience questions

Laura was asked about returning to stories that had been previously covered, such as Cox’s Bazaar. She admitted this was a tough one – there would need to be something new to say. And there were limited resources so if they went back it would mean less time and money to cover something else.

Laura was asked about coverage of less high profile stories such as Central African Republic and DRC. She said there had been an item recently from Alastair Leithead in the DRC but accepted that they tended to follow established news stories. Laura said that she was keen to hear from NGOs about the stories they felt she should be covering. She welcomed short pitches by email and was happy to meet for coffee. Pitch well in advance if possible.

She was asked about audio diaries and said this was something they did occasionally where there was someone in the field long term who could provide first person testimony – but they did not want to overuse this approach.

MG, 25.2.19

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