BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons has booted a hornet’s nest with his comments at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch on Wednesday – reported first on pressgazette.co.uk.
He seemed to pre-empt the findings of a BBC Trust investigation into whether or not the corporation should be allowed to go ahead with a new network of 65 local news video websites.
He said: “There’s nobody who can be satisfied with the quality of local news in most parts of the United Kingdom…The local press has nothing like the strength it once had.”
The general tenor of his comments appear to be that a new network of BBC video news websites could somehow fill the gap left by Britain’s declining regional newspapers.
This talk is both dangerous and wrong and has prompted an angry backlash from Trinity Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey and Northcliffe’s John Meehan.
Although print newspaper circulations at nearly all Britain’s local papers are declining, they still employ – at a conservative estimate – more than 10,000 journalists.
That’s 10,000 people going to parish council meetings, reading planning committee minutes and answering the phone when little old ladies phone up to complain that they live on the top floor of a council flat and their lift hasn’t been fixed in three months.
On what planet will the BBC’s proposed network of local news video websites – which would employ up to 300 journalists – replace the regional press?
The new video news network would be based on the footprint of the existing network of BBC local radio sites.
And anyone who has worked on a local paper will know that 90 per cent of BBC local radio’s news stories are usually follow-ups from stories broken in the local press.
That’s not because local radio journalists are lazy – they are no doubt exceptionally hard working – but they are vastly outnumbered by print journalists.
The regional newspaper industry is in a hole at present. Regional daily newspapers in particular are suffering steep circulation decline due to structural changes going on in society.
Like everyone working in journalism – their best hope for survival is to hang on to their audience by any means possible – be that print, magazines or online text and video news reports.
All the big regional newspaper groups are currently embarking on a leap of faith – investing in online video and other web services to make up for declining print audiences.
As Sly Bailey told Press Gazette back in August – when the upturn comes and the advertising returns, regional newspapers want to be able to show that they still have the audience – whether online or in print.
The regional press needs all the help it can to make this tough transition – and safeguard the essential role its journalists play in making local democracy work, holding those in power to account and binding local communities together.
The BBC in its public service role should do everything it can to help strengthen the regional press – not set itself up as a new competitor.