HOW REGIONAL NEWSPAPERS WILL USE THE BBC TO HIKE PROFITS

JIM CHISHOLM

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, is being “encouraged” to join forces with local newspapers, where, to quote Chancellor George Osborne: “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 £38k 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”.

After 40 years, my love of newspapers has not diminished. In the last 20 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. 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, in terms of advertising, 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 arena, from where their gross-margins are largely derived?

This current intervention shows this government’s 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.

Is this a different “digital age” from the one that has existed for the last 20 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.

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.

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, digital engagement and culture.

Needless to say, the only area in which they benchmark well is profitability.

Just because the traditional press is 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 30 titles, the most noteworthy of which is the Broughton Spurtle.

I find it hard to believe that the protagonists of this BBC/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

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.

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestEmail this to someone

Be the first to write a comment.

Letters to the Editor