On Wednesday, the shortlist for the Regional Press Awards was announced. More than 130 examples of top-class local journalism are on display. Hours earlier, Ofcom had made a decision which puts that sort of journalism at risk.
It had decided to support the BBC’s plans to take an axe to its local radio services, and instead switch some of the displaced roles into playing catch up with local publishers online. Publishers whose very existence in the future will be less certain if the BBC is ultimately allowed to go ahead with its plans.
The BBC plans to turn its local radio stations into a shell of what they once were. Local programming after 2pm each day will be replaced with super-regional programming. The BBC argues it needs to do this because 85% of local people don’t use BBC local radio at all. Let’s call this what it really is though: This is the BBC abandoning some of its most vulnerable listeners in an attempt to become relevant to people who don’t currently get their local news from them – with no proof anyone wants such a move.
Ofcom, rather adding fuel to the rumour that it now regulates the BBC in a way a schoolchild would mark its own homework, has permitted the plans to go ahead, arguing it will impact revenue for local news publishers by no more than 1%. It’s answering the wrong question. It should be asking: Where is the proof the BBC needs to do this at all?
Rhodri Talfan Davies, the director of Nations at the BBC, rather let the cat out of the bag when he was back before a DCMS select committee in November, telling MPs: “We need to deliver a trusted, seven-day-a-week local online news service and that’s not where we are right now.” He’s right – they are not. But where’s the evidence they need to be?
There is none. This is about the BBC trying to justify its licence fee into the future – having consistently missed the boat to provide a proper local news service for years. In fighting for its own future, the BBC runs a serious risk of doing permanent damage to local news in the UK.
How so when an extra 100 more reporters covering local news is still tiny compared to the number of journalists employed by local news organisations, big or small?
The answer, as it always does, lies in the way the BBC is funded. To achieve any sort of impact with the redeployment, the BBC will have to focus on cherry-picking the stories which appeal to the biggest audiences. These are often the stories publishers rely on to drive significant audiences themselves, to generate revenue to sustain journalism and to build brand awareness.
The BBC’s slick, fast-loading website operates without adverts, and benefits from a deeply-resourced product and development department, courtesy of the licence fee. As such, it has a huge, competitive advantage when it comes to appearing first in search, or any algorithmically-driven feed, as these often factor page load speed into algorithmic decisions.
This makes sense – but when the BBC is suddenly competing with local news providers, which need advertising (which slows pages) to compete, it creates an immediately uneven playing field. Put simply, thanks to the way it is funded, the BBC has to work less hard for every page view or reader.
Then you have the BBC’s ability to endlessly promote itself. While budgets are constrained for marketing at local publishers, the BBC is already using up precious minutes in its regional news programmes to point people to its website. It creates a veneer of a local news service, which in no way replicates the depth provided by local news publishers but has the potential to create a “just enough” service for what people are looking for, but none of the depth on what they need to know.
But, thanks to the unique way the BBC is funded, less will be incredibly damaging to local publishers, who did invest in truly local digital journalism at a time when the BBC was still trying to protect regional radio and TV services.
Think I’m going over the top? As far back as 2006, I remember people asking the Liverpool Echo why something wasn’t online, telling them it’s in the paper which they could buy, and being told in reply they’d just get it on the BBC. Actually, they couldn’t – but perception so often trumps reality. Sixteen years on, and a beefed up local news service will only exaggerate that perception. And that perception will make the subscriptions, as well as scale, plays from local publishers far harder to deliver too.
The BBC’s Rhodri says the BBC can’t only exist locally to be a “polyfilla” to fill the cracks created by so-called news deserts. They do exist. But polluting a delicate eco-system for local news isn’t the right response either – the BBC will create a problem it will then, handily, step up solve. But what they replace it with won’t be as strong as what exists now.
It could, of course, try and find ways to work with local news publishers. Indeed, for a while it felt like the BBC was a collaborator. When it was forced to work with publishers by the Government, the local democracy reporter scheme followed.
That’s where goodwill and collaboration gets you – the industry working together for the good of local news. For some reason, that’s no longer good enough for the BBC, which either doesn’t understand the power of its own actions on the local media sector, or has decided self-preservation means it doesn’t care. Either way, it’s bad news for local journalism right across the UK.
The BBC could be the saviour of local news. Instead, it’s choosing to be a threat far more dangerous than the platforms – after all, those working in local news don’t have to pay for Google and Facebook to exist.
The BBC is using state-guaranteed money to build a future, regardless of the damage it will do or the fact it won’t be a patch on the service it seems unworried about harming.
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