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November 21, 2008

The BBC Trust has thrown the local press a lifeline: Do not waste it

By Dominic Ponsford1

News that the BBC looks almost certain to scrap its plans for more local video news online will provide a chink of light in the economic gloom for the regional press.

In fact it could hardly have come at a gloomier time.

Guardian Media Group chief executive Carolyn McCall warned earlier this month that most regional newspaper groups would move into loss over the next couple of years – that’s after delivering 30 per cent plus profit margins in the recent past.

And the scale of their problems has been illustrated by hundreds of jobs going across the big groups Newsquest, Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror in recent months – and news of across-the-board pay freezes.

The one bright hope for regional newspapers at present is their fast-growing digital revenues.

The Ofcom market impact assessment found that the BBC Local plans would hit annual revenues of existing commercial local news providers by up to four per cent.

The BBC says it would have recruited 300 journalists over four years for its local video plans – but the scheme could have undermined a network of local newspapers that employs around 10,000 editorial staff.

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The regional press has been granted some breathing space now to develop its own local video and multimedia content. It must use it wisely.

This could be the last chance the regional press has to complete the leap into online and reinvent itself.

To do this regional publishers must now recruit those extra local video journalists themselves – grasping the opportunity that has been presented to them not only by today’s ruling, but by the drastic cutbacks currently underway in ITV’s regional newsrooms.

If the regional press giants continue the cost-slashing tactics of recent months they will create a vacuum for local news which the BBC or some other public service provider will be forced to fill at some point in the future and the golden opportunity presented by today’s ruling will have been lost.

As a postscript – I have to mention the small part that Press Gazette may have played in the decision arrived at by the BBC Trust today.

A month ago we reported comments by BBC Trust chairman Sir Michael Lyons at a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch which seemed to indicate that he had already made up his mind to green light the BBC Local plans.

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 that it once had. It’s not the same proposition that it was 15 years ago. Will the BBC make it better or worse? That’s exactly the issue to be explored.”

The Trust disputed a part of the quote. But we stuck to our guns because we had a tape and it was subsequently widely followed up.

The whole tenor of Sir Michael Lyons’ comments prompted a furious reaction because they gave the impression that he had a dismissive attitude towards the regional press and that he was not the independent regulator he is supposed to be.

Perhaps the backlash prompted by our reporting made the Trust re-think its ruling on this matter.

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