Many media sages have predicted the death of Sky News since its launch in 1989. They thought the 24-hour U.K. broadcaster would be marginalized by the online news avalanche. They thought that Sky News’ traditional, impartial take on the day’s events would start to look old-fashioned in an age of Vice News and Buzzfeed. Well, it didn’t happen. Under the leadership of editor John Ryley, the news network is arguably more preeminent than ever. In February, Sky News was named News Channel of the Year for the 10th time at the Royal Television Society’s Television Journalism Awards. It beat the BBC News Channel and Al Jazeera English. The RTS’ judges noted how Sky News had maintained its professional coverage of day-to-day news while breaking more exclusives and adding an analytical edge.
“Over the last four to five years we’ve moved from being focused on breaking news to providing context and analysis around stories,” says Ryley, who oversees a staff of around 600.
The editor exhibits a boyish enthusiasm for keeping Sky News ahead of the curve.
Ryley took over the editor’s job in 2006 after 11 years at the channel; he’d trained at the BBC and worked also for the U.K.’s other leading TV news outfit, ITN.
“The ability to deliver fast, accurate coverage of big stories is a key part of what we’re about,” Ryley says. “When big stories break — like the ghastly events in Paris in November — it is still the responsibility of a news channel to chuck the kitchen sink at them. The challenge is what to do when those big stories don’t come along. That’s why we needed to move the channel on.”
Longer, 12-minute reports are screened in afternoon slots; Sky News Tonight provides analysis and Ryley recently set up a small documentary unit.
One of Sky News’ docus, “Hard-Wire: Law of the Gun,” above, examining how U.S. police forces can learn to avoid shooting violent suspects, was shown on Sky Atlantic. A clip from the film got 7 million hits on Facebook.
Sky News frequently beats its better-funded rival, the BBC, something Ryley relishes. “You had to be very resourceful. To this day, we don’t have the budget of BBC News,” he told the RTS a year ago.
To maintain its reputation for innovation, Sky’s embrace of the digital domain is resolute. “Today we’re a multiproduct, nonstop news organization. People who watch the news channel are of a certain age, 40-plus. But 12 million people have downloaded our mobile app,” Ryley says implying these users are much younger.
Sky News bulletins became available on Snapchat in spring 2015. Subsequently, the broadcaster embraced virtual reality.
In the fall, Sky journalist Alistair Bunkall traveled to Greece to make “Migrants Crisis, the Whole Picture,” a VR report of the suffering of Syrian refugees at a makeshift camp. The film was a collaboration with San Francisco-based VR specialist Jaunt.
“We shot it from the perspective of a refugee living in a tent and being on the beach at Lesbos,” Ryley says. “For all sorts of visual content VR will be a very big deal in the next year or two because you’re immersed in the experience.”
In the coming months he hopes to pioneer live news VR coverage.
Regarding Sky News’ own future, Ryley is upbeat: “Today is a golden age for journalism. When I grew up the TV was just about a rectangle in the corner of the kitchen or the sitting room. Today you’ve got a combination of video, text and audio to tell stories in really engaging ways. But if we didn’t have the news channel, we’d have to invent it, because it generates all this material for all our other outlets and screens.”