ITV News is launching three online-only shows in a major overhaul of its digital strategy

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

ITV News is to make a major strategic move by launching three new digital-only programme formats, hosted by high-profile presenters Robert Peston, Julie Etchingham and Rageh Omaar.

The large investment is a signal of the repositioning of ITV News as more of a cross-platform service, focused beyond the confines of its scheduled television bulletins.

Until now, the 50-year old news brand has been more cautious in digital spending than some of its broadcast news rivals.

The step change is the first major play by ITV News’s new head of digital, Stephen Hull, who it recruited from Huffington Post six months ago.

In his first media interview in the role, Hull explains the strategy to The Drum, saying the portfolio of digital-only programmes helps ITV News to be “distinct” in a tough and saturated news market. “Being able to use our on-screen talent opens the door for us to do so much more,” he says. “The ambition is to have a lot more of these with lots of specialists all the way through next year.”

The new formats

Peston’s new show, called ‘Now What?’, will be a half-hour format that will feature the ITV News political editor in head-to-head interviews “with the experts who can give useful solutions to the huge problems we are facing right now”, says Hull.

He argues that ‘Now What?’, together with the other two formats, will “show that digital media and publishing can be grown-up, articulate and thoughtful”. It will be screened on the ITV News website and by a digital platform partner. Earlier this year Peston conducted Theresa May’s first interview via Facebook Live, generating nearly 1m views and 40,000 comments.

“Robert has got a huge profile both on TV and, crucially, on digital media and he’s got a rare ability to engage new audiences in new ways,” says Hull. “He is extremely excited about asking people about the solutions, not just focusing on what’s going wrong with the world.”

‘Ask A Woman’, presented by regular ITV News bulletin host Julie Etchingham, will be a series of long-form pre-recorded interviews with influential women in Britain. The interviewees will be a mix of “household names” and lesser-known social entrepreneurs who have had major impact on British society.

The third format is possibly the most innovative. ‘Young, British and Muslim’ will be a discussion programme presented by Rageh Omaar and including a panel of three young guests giving their views on topics in the news. “I’m really excited about this one,” says Hull. “It’s a (young Muslim) voice that we don’t hear in mainstream media in a positive way and we think there’s a huge reason and motivation to give them a platform that becomes a household brand to them".

Somali-born Omaar, who came to prominence covering the 2003 conflict with Iraq when he reported for the BBC, later worked at Al-Jazeera before arriving in 2013 at ITV News, where he is International Affairs Editor.

Prioritising content over sponsorship

The three digital-only programmes do not yet have sponsors, as ITV says it is focused on the quality of the content rather than its monetisation. “There are loads of carcasses on the digital publishing motorway of businesses who tried to sell something before they built it,” Hull says.

To complement the shift to digital, ITV News is creating its first purpose-built digital studio on the ground floor of ITN’s iconic headquarters at 200 Gray’s Inn Road in London. It is being created by Sarah Milton, previously a set designer for ‘The Great British Bake Off’ and ‘Loose Women’.

“The floors are already up,” says Hull of the studio project. ‘It is going to be state-of-the-art and cutting edge. It will operate independently of the [television production] gallery so we can create our own content.” The studio will be equipped with advanced camera technology tailored for digital platforms but offering TV quality so that material can be shared with the bulletins.

ITV News’s renewed focus on digital is somewhat overdue. While it is unrealistic to think it can compete head-on with the resources and global footprint of the BBC, the Facebook numbers tell a story; the corporation newsroom’s 45m likes on Facebook dwarf ITV News’s 1.8m following. Little Channel 4 News, which is produced in the same ITN building, has targeted Mark Zuckerberg’s platform and racked up 4m likes.

Hull is currently working on a redesign of the ITV News website and its app. He has been given a green light to add to his 18-strong digital newsroom but won’t necessarily focus on Facebook, believing that there are good opportunities for growth on “new and emerging platforms”. He is recruiting specialist staff accordingly. “It’s hard to grow on platforms that are established, especially Facebook, [because] a lot of people aren’t liking new things all the time,” he says.

Nonetheless, ITV News did use Facebook to launch a new ITV News Royals page which gathered 30,000 followers without marketing. “The point of that was to prove we can grow new audiences,” says Hull. “It shows the different verticals we can launch around passion points.”

He also thinks Facebook’s sister service Instagram offers great potential. “I think Instagram is an obvious platform for us. We have 150,000 followers there and haven’t done much work on it.”

Competing with increasingly video-focused publishers

For some time there has been much talk in the digital media industry about the need to “pivot” from text to video, the medium which invokes biggest engagement with online audiences.

Broadcast news organisations with long traditions of producing high-quality visual content are at a great advantage here. “Emerging brands and legacy newspaper brands haven’t got enough video and are finding that the route to market is really expensive,” Hull claims. “Our issue is that we have got so much video – how do we make the best use of it?”

He says his online team chooses material partly from the insights of user data and partly from journalistic instinct. For all its self-produced video, ITV News still cannot resist Facebook-friendly UGC clips bought from agencies and uploaded to the ITV News website alongside the big headline stories. It is “an eclectic mix”, Hull concedes.

The key intersection for him is where “emotion”, which he says is “the currency of the internet”, can be combined with the core values of ITV News, which he defines as “distinctiveness, innovation, quality, authority and trust”.

His best example of this combination is an interview secured by one of his digital team with a homeless man who assisted survivors of the Manchester bombing in May. The interview was a viral hit online and also provided content for the TV bulletins. “It was very emotional, informative and distinctive and it did very well for us,” says Hull, who aims for a “virtuous circle” where the digital team produces material for TV, and vice versa.

This new batch of internet-only programmes would also appear to offer ITV News the chance to grow its overseas reach, capitalising on its long traditions in global news-gathering.

But Hull says his focus is on the domestic audience. “The first goal is to remember that we are a UK brand and UK audiences are the ones we love and we want them to engage with us,” he says. “If we can win that, then we can think about international.”

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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