The BBC / local press alliance is wrong

Why the BBC/Local Press Deal is Bad News

Am I alone in feeling that this BBC deal with the UK’s local publishers to share news resources just ain’t right?

The story so far:

The BBC, the UK’s state-funded, public service broadcaster [PSB] is being “encouraged” to joining forces with the local newspapers, where, to quote George Osborne (The UK’s Finance Secretary): “We’re engaged now in negotiations with the BBC to see how we can use the licence fee to support local, independent news-gathering.”

In this agreement the BBC will pay £14 million to the regional publishing groups, in order to fund  364 journalists to cover council and court meetings . This equates to £38.5k for more or less one reporter for each of the UK’s defined council areas. And for a “provision by the regional press to the BBC of a comprehensive reporting service primarily covering local authorities”.

According to the lead negotiator for the regional press, the deal will also include:

  • a video bank that would make BBC regional content available to local media partners free of charge
  • a shared data journalism unit; and
  • an agreement on better linking to local media content on BBC news sites and attribution to content originated in the local media.

After forty years, my love of newspapers has not diminished. In the last twenty years, I’ve witnessed the sad decline of print sales across the Western World, confounded by, yet in the midst of, our industry’s inability to exploit the digital revolution[i]. And I’m an avid fan of BBC news, if less supportive of some of its… er…. more populist fluff.

To me, this proposed deal is a mix of misplaced agendas.

First off, is the anti-competitive hypocrisy. OK so the government is now softening its position on local publishers acquiring each other because of the need for competing voices. But suddenly it seems it is OK for the UK’s biggest supplier of news to join forces with all these regional publishers a sort of “one story fits all”. So much for plurality!

And let’s not forget that the once regional commercial TV network, now ITV, is three times the size of the regional press, and Google is eight times the size. Where does this deal help regional publishers compete in the advertising space, from where their gross-margins are largely derived?

As far back as 1926, politicians of all parties, in government or opposition have criticized the BBC’s impartiality. This current intervention, perhaps the greatest since nationalisation in 1927, and its determination to constrain the BBC is as much about dogma as it is about paranoia.

Osborne’s suggestion of using “the licence fee to support local, independent news-gathering”, is not so much about rescuing an endangered species as it is about emasculating the BBC.  I’m not sure the licence fee payer would like it, if they understood it.

Perhaps the strongest argument against the licence fee subsidising the“beleaguered” local publishers is that their crisis does not seem to inhibit them from sucking out 20 pence in the pound in profits; double the norm across Europe where historically publishers have been far less avaricious.

On this basis George Osborne’s recent proposal to provide regional publishers with £1,500 of “business rate relief….. per office…… to help it adapt to the digital age” is chicken feed. Unless of course every Evening Standard vending box is considered an office.

Is this a different “digital age” from the one that has existed for the last twenty years? Or perhaps Osborne is reminded of once communications minister Ed Vaisey’s comment that  “a page in a local newspaper is worth much more still than a Facebook campaign. Better a supine press in the pocket than a BBC beyond control.

And let’s believe that this has got nothing to do with the UK plummeting from 20th to 38th on the World Press Freedom Index since 2009.

Contrary to a range of misplaced assertions, there is not a shred of evidence that the BBC has harmed the regional press. There are a string of reasons why British newspapers have suffered more than most other European markets, but the BBC certainly ain’t one of them.

Within the consistent story of the demise of the newspaper industry, there are distinct differences between the different players in the UK. These include market performance, strategy, and culture.

In various files in my archives, going back over twenty years there are many examples of a clear correlation between higher profit levels and greater circulation decline.

There is an irony in this particular debacle, that the loudest voices supporting this dubious alliance are from those industry leaders who are residing over the worst performing companies in terms of circulation[ii], digital engagement[iii] and culture[iv]. Needless to say, the only area in which they benchmark well is profitability.

Just because the traditional press are struggling does not mean that the “local media” is in a bad place. On the contrary, among what we traditionalists might call a “cottage industry”, is a thriving print and digital, social, viable media scene. It is estimated that there are around 30,000 community or neighbourhood print and digital services in the UK. In Edinburgh alone, I can list over thirty titles, the most noteworthy of which is the Broughton Spurtle[v].

Take a look at www.bristol247.com or competing in the same city:www.thebristolcable.com). Then there are multi-location players such aswww.thecitytalking.com and even global news businesses such as www.vice.com.

I ask, will these thousands of innovative and ambitious entrants, each trying to help local democracy flourish, be disadvantaged by some incoherent pact between a world-class PSB and a group of overtly avaricious corporate bodies, who at a local level would do everything they could to suffocate this new wave of community champions? If they knew how.

Take a look at URBS London[vi]. A start up by two seasoned regional press executives. Not only are they breaking stories in their own right, but their stories are being captured by the big media brands. Meanwhile URBS are also working with the London Government on knowledge dissemination, interpretation and debate. The chances of any BBC data journalism project (and their Data Journalism stuff is very good) being translated into a coherent local story is a fart’s chance in a thunderstorm. Not only is URBS expanding in the UK, but being adopted in other markets, notably Canada.

I find it hard to believe that the protagonists of this PSB/local press caper will in anyway use it to build resources, or develop more creative news gathering or presentation.

It will simply enable further cost cutting elsewhere. The BBC, and those who purport to protect the interests of the licence-payer would be far better off furthering the BBC’s world-class news service, by incubating news start-ups, such as the emerging alliance of independent journalists and the new breed of data journalism providers

These guys will provide a far better return, financially, innovation and social responsibility. Much as I love the local newspaper industry to bits, it has, to a large extent, brought problems upon itself.

I cannot help but believe that this whole strategy-free-zone is a conspiracy between one or more local publishers who are happy to milk the business to its demise, exploiting a government hell-bent on emasculating the BBC, probably the world’s finest news media institution.

 

[i] In 1993, I co-wrote, with the late Deirdre O’Callaghan, “Electronic Publishing” for the then World Association of newspapers.

[ii] ABC.org.uk

[iii] comScore MMX

[iv] Glassdoor

[v] For the Sassenachs and other foreigners among you a spurtle is “a flat, wooden, spatula-like utensil spoon” dating from the fifteenth century, used for stirring porridge.

[vi] For the record, I am currently working with URBS on a new project.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.