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January 23, 2008

Editors are right to worry about BBC’s ultra-local plans

By Dominic Ponsford1

News that the BBC is again looking into launching ultra-local news services will raise the hackles of local newspaper bosses.

The regional press is an industry which employs more than 10,000 journalists and which is currently ploughing headlong into the development of its own websites – which by their very nature are ultra local.

Regional dailies in particular are losing sales more rapidly than any other medium.

The continuance of their crucial role in building communities and holding those in power to account depends largely on their ability to win new readers online.

They face a tough-enough fight to make this happen with resources already cut to the bone because of the pressure on circulations and ad sales.

Being forced to compete with a publicly funded competitor could make this even harder.

The BBC’s planned 60 new websites would cover areas roughly equivalent in size to the patch of a mid-sized regional daily.

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While the BBC could never hope to compete in terms of reporters on the ground – it stands to make up for that with the technological muscle it can bring to bear and the ability it has to cross-promote its services.

At a time when the BBC is planning to cut 2,000 from its workforce in the face of a tight licence fee settlement – and faces a struggle just to continue to provide the excellence journalistic service it already does – it seems a strange time to launch such an ambitious new project.

Especially when such a move poses a possible threat to journalists on local papers who – like the BBC – perform a crucial public service.

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