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Government research plays down BBC local news sector impact

Ofcom will publish annual report on BBC position in local news sector.

By Charlotte Tobitt

The BBC’s online local news output does not add up to a “one-for-one substitute” for commercial providers, research published by the Government has said.

Although the BBC and other local news publishers do duplicate content, the new report found the BBC “rarely” covers local events not also covered by its commercial rivals.

The commercial news sector provides distinctive coverage, it said, as they report on a “much larger number of local events than the BBC”.

However, News Media Association chief executive Owen Meredith spoke of the threat senior industry figures fear from the BBC in a statement on Monday. He said: “By needlessly boosting its digital local news offering, at the expense of much-loved local radio services, the BBC threatens to crush commercial local news publishers who cannot be expected compete with the might of the licence fee.

“Ultimately, this could result in the BBC becoming the only source of local news in many communities.”

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In its mid-term review of the BBC published on Monday, the Government said it should “clearly demonstrate how it effectively balances delivering for licence fee payers and supporting the UK’s wider creative industries when making decisions about how its services and output are distinctive”.

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The review came ahead of the next renewal of the BBC ten-year Charter which set to take place at the end of 2027.

It said the BBC should “meaningfully engage with its competitors, such as radio stations and local newspapers, when it is considering a change to its services” and recommended that Ofcom publishes an annual “high-level view” on the BBC’s position in the local news sector.

In December bosses from five commercial local news providers – Reach, Newsquest, National World, Iliffe Media and Midland News Association – made a rare joint statement calling for the BBC to ditch its planned expansion of local news online and do more to link to other publishers, calling the corporation their “neighbour from hell”.

Rhodri Talfan Davies, the BBC’s director of nations, responded that there is no evidence the corporation “crowds out” local competition and that it is the wider internet that is to blame for their recent difficulties.

The new research appears to back up Talfan Davies by suggesting the BBC publishes only a core set of stories, leaving audiences to go to other publishers for wider and deeper coverage.

However the data analysis took place before any impact from the BBC’s October 2022 announcement that it would create 130 jobs in online local news in England, with new dedicated services for Bradford, Wolverhampton, Sunderland and Peterborough and 11 new investigative reporting teams.

BBC local news analysis: Other publishers usually first to the story

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport commissioned research firm Alma Economics to carry out a study examining the relationship between local news content from the BBC and commercial news providers, and to what extent the licence-fee funded organisation complements or substitutes the work of competitors.

The study included analysis of 57,123 BBC and 86,315 commercial local news articles published online between July 2018 and September 2022, and interviews with 13 editors at commercial news websites and with one senior BBC executive.

The report acknowledged there were limitations in its data collection and analysis, but said the large number of articles involved means researchers could be “reasonably confident that our quantitative findings are indicative of the relationship between the BBC and commercial providers in online local news provision”.

The researchers estimated that fewer than 42% of local news events were covered by both the BBC and commercial news providers, but fewer than 2% of local news events were covered by only the BBC – which focused more on broader issues faced by communities than specific events.

For local news events that were covered by the BBC (rather than all events covered by any provider), they were covered on average by three commercial news providers as well as the licence fee-funded organisation.

On average, also only for events covered by the BBC, the broadcaster was the first to the story 19% of the time – most commonly about weather, the NHS/health, and local government. It was the third or fourth outlet on average to report on each event, meaning it generally picked up stories after other publishers had gone first.

Of the 57,123 BBC articles in the dataset, 8% included links to other websites and 7% included links to other news providers. The comparable figures for the 86,315 commercial news stories were 6% and 3% respectively. Ofcom suggested in 2019 that the BBC ought to provide more links to other news websites to support the wider industry.

The interviews showed, the report went on, that BBC local news teams had to cover a wider geographic area and so could not provide as much coverage of local events. One non-BBC editor estimated that his team published 15 to 20 articles per day while the BBC local news equivalent published four to six.

BBC stories ‘similar but do not duplicate’

There was nonetheless some concern about the difficulty with “competing with a free source of local news in an environment with shrinking resources, even if they sought to differentiate themselves from the BBC in their coverage.

“Interviewees were worried that the BBC might choose to expand or invest greater resources in online local news coverage, which would bring them in more direct competition with commercial providers.”

Others wanted to see “greater collaboration with the BBC in local news coverage, in particular developing longform pieces or carrying out investigations”, as well as expanding the Local Democracy Reporting Service to cover court reporting.

The report concluded that the BBC “does not serve as a one-to-one substitute for commercial providers in online local news provision.

“Content duplication between the BBC and commercial providers in online local news does exist, but in a way that is consistent with multiple providers covering some of the same news events in a consistent manner.

“While the BBC tends not to be the first publication to cover a local news event, BBC articles tend to be shorter, relying more on paraphrasing and synthesis rather than lengthy quotations from sources; the language and text used is similar but does not duplicate commercial provider articles.

“More importantly, the BBC rarely covers local news events not also reported on by commercial providers, but commercial providers report on a much larger number of local events than the BBC…”

The researchers said they felt they could be “reasonably confident in our estimate of the lower bound of the distinctiveness of the commercial news sector’s online provision of local news”.

The Government’s mid-term review also said Ofcom’s oversight of the BBC will extend to its website content, and that the regulator will take on new responsibility to oversee more of the BBC’s complaints decisions.

Other findings from the data analysis:

Thursday is the day of the week most local news stories are published, with Saturday and Sunday the lowest. May and June are the months with most stories published, with April and September the lowest. These are consistent between the BBC and commercial providers.

Law enforcement/crime made up 31% of all the stories in the dataset, followed by the NHS/health/Covid-19 (24% of articles), business and the economy (13%), local government and politics (9%), educations (4%) and weather (2%). Almost a fifth (17%) of stories were classed as local interest stories such as community events or issues.

The average length of BBC articles was 355 words, while it was slightly higher (389) at commercial providers.

And on average, articles included the names of around four individuals and six quotes.

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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