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Making viral videos with the BBC's 'explainer-in-chief' Ros Atkins

For somebody who was ready to quit journalism in 2019, Ros Atkins is doing a pretty good job reinventing it. He’s become the King of the ‘explainer’ — short videos that unpack complex issues or events — attracting millions of viewers on his BBC program Outside Source and on social media.

In the latest episode of JNI’s Journo podcast, the ‘explainer-in-chief’ shares some of the secrets behind his success.

Here are four things that Atkins does that all journalists can do.


1. Take inspiration from different types of storytelling

In 2019, Atkins nearly walked away from journalism, concerned that audiences were losing interest in the way journalists were sharing information, especially online.

Atkins resolved to find a different way of telling complex stories that would interest digital audiences. He studied different types of storytelling — documentaries, podcasts, stand-up comedy — even drawing inspiration from chatting with mates at the pub.

He radically changed his journalism. The telling of the story became central to his explainers. Atkins threads information together with a narrative structure, keeping the story moving with simple language, rather than just talking to pictures.

“I don’t go away from the basic tenets of journalism, but the way that I’m doing it does go away from more traditional approaches,” Atkins said. “And the single guiding principle that I take away from this huge, amazing storytelling surge — because of the internet — is that you have to make the story central.”

“We’re trying to create stories you want to hear the end of.”

2. Spend more time marketing your work

You’ve spent hours gathering vision, writing and editing your story. But it’s been broadcast and published online. Time to kick back.

Not for Ros Atkins.

One of Atkins’s bugbears is how little time journalists put into distributing their stories compared to the time they spend making them.

“If you want a successful digital product, you need to think about its distribution,” he said.

“Even if you’ve identified how you’re going to distribute it, it’s just not going to happen by you sending a couple of emails.

“When we’re working out how much time we’ve got across the week, we block out time to distribute the work. It’s part of the work.

“Otherwise, you risk making something that’s brilliant, but that doesn’t have impact. And that’s a shame if you’ve spent the time on the journalism.”

3. Give yourself time to explore new ideas

As well as finding time to distribute his journalism, Atkins also tries to carve out moments for creativity and new ideas.

“We have to find ways of creating space … to think about creativity, to think about storytelling,” he said.

“Because if we don’t, we’re just going to keep creating the thing that we’ve always created. And there’s increasing amounts of evidence that some of those more traditional journalism formats, brilliant though they’d been in their heyday, are struggling to engage people.”

On a quiet day recently he sent his producers away with orders to consume any type of explanatory storytelling they could find — to look for new ideas. Atkins clearly wants his team to constantly reassess the way they tell stories. He knows that what works for audiences today might not tomorrow.

4. Impartiality remains essential

The language and tone of Atkins’s explainers might have raised some eyebrows at the BBC, famed for its suspicion of opinion and emotion. He can be frank and assertive, and he’s not afraid to call out mistruths when he finds them. But the straight-faced Atkins always keeps his journalism rooted in facts.

“I believe in it being impartial,” he said. “If we ever stopped being impartial, we would lose everything we have, both me as an individual journalist and the BBC, like it’s at the core of what we do.

“But there’s no doubt I am being more assertive and more direct than perhaps we may have been in more classic reporting.”

“Sometimes people ask me questions about impartiality, as if it’s a constraint,” Atkins said. “I don’t see impartiality as a problem. It’s not something I’m having to put up with. It’s something I think is a brilliant idea and an important strand of journalism.”

Atkins’s style, often described as ‘assertive impartiality’, has proved successful.

“One of the really rewarding things of this experience, experimenting with tone and with language and storytelling style, is that … our explainers generally have been welcomed and praised across the political spectrum. They’re not seen as being on one side or the other because they aren’t on one side or the other.”

Go deeper: How the BBC’s Ros Atkins became the voice of reason in global news