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James Harding: BBC wants to work with regional press to ‘drive the revival of local journalism’

By William Turvill

BBC director of news and current affairs James Harding (pictured) wants the corporation to help “drive the revival of local journalism”.

Speaking at the Revival of Local Journalism conference in Media City, Salford, Harding described job losses and economic pressures in the sector as “calamitous”. But he added that “pessimism around local journalism is overdone” because the public retains a strong interest.

He said that the regional press should blame Facebook, Google, Zoopla and Gumtree for commercial problems, with classified and local advertising business hit, and added: “To my mind, the squabbles in recent years between the local press and the BBC are getting us all nowhere. We have looked like a circular firing squad.”

Harding told the regional press that the BBC is “willing to see how we can work together” and said he was open to ideas that would require “regulatory approval of the BBC Trust, would have to adhere to the demanding requirements of the BBC’s editorial guidelines and would, above all, have to meet the needs of the BBC licence fee payer, who pays £145.50 each year and expects an independent, impartial and accurate news service”.

The corporation is in the process, he said, of “tackling the old bugbear of ensuring the BBC credits other news organisations for their stories” and is experimenting with other ways to work with the regional press.

He alluded to a pilot in Leeds where the BBC’s website is experimenting with how it can “make more of local newspapers’ stories and digital content of local newspapers to our audiences online”.

“We are collaborating with citizen journalism teams, such as the Real Whitby,” he said.

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“In Birmingham, we have been trying to make available BBC video and audio content available to local newspaper websites, extending both our reach as well as their dwell time and comprehensive coverage of particular stories.

“And this morning, we’re very proud to announce that the BBC and Glasgow 2014 will allow other news organisations access to the Commonwealth Games footage. Sharing this footage will not only mean the Commonwealth Games reaches an even larger audience, I also hope that running the brilliant sporting moments we expect to see this summer will mean that local and regional news organisations can put their local sporting stars – as well as the great drama of the Games – on screen for their audiences.”

He added: “And we are, in good faith, in the market for experimenting, for trying out new ideas.

"So, when I was in Kent last month, Geraldine Allinson of the Kent Messenger Group asked whether local news groups provide certain programmes or information packages for use on the BBC’s regional and local outlets in much the same way the independent TV sector delivers programmes for BBC Current Affairs?

“And so we’re looking at whether we could do that for sports or court reporting. When I was in Leeds a couple of weeks ago, editors from the Yorkshire papers asked whether we might stream radio or distribute TV packages over regional and local news sites, extending our reach and your dwell time? Again, we’re looking to see if we can do just that.”

Harding dismissed any suggestion that his speech was motivated by the fact the BBC Royal Charter is up for renewal in 2015. He said: “We genuinely would like to help.” 

Last month, Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield called on the BBC to close down "under-performing local websites" and work with regional publishers.

Highfield suggested the licence fee-funded corporation should share its content with local newspapers and their websites in order to better serve the public and help sustain the regional press.

Speaking at the Newspaper Society's annual general meeting today, Highfield, who used to be technology director at the corporation, said the BBC could become a “local media distribution partner” and use local papers to distribute their content to the public. 

Highfield said the BBC should "keep their regional brands – Look North, BBC North West et al – but close their under-performing local websites and work with us".

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