How can the BBC get it so wrong on the local press?

bbc

Senior managers at the BBC aren’t stupid. They will have known the reaction their suggestion that the ‘decline’ of the regional press means the BBC has to be better at local news will have had. Given the organisation has been trying to work more closely with the regional press, and be a better neighbour, in recent months, the question for me is why they chose to produce such a misguided and ill-informed representation of the regional press.

Within the regional press, we’re often guilty of raising an angry fist at the BBC, and assuming everyone who works at the Beeb is the same. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In the past few months, I’ve worked with a number of journalists who are as passionate about local journalism as anyone else, and who really believe that the Beeb and regional media can achieve more for society if we all work together. And who are working very hard for the BBC to be a better neighbour.

But as an organisation, the BBC has a significant problem with the regional press. It’s almost an abusive relationship. Many parts of the BBC, particularly local newsrooms, are utterly dependent on the regional press to give it an overview of what is happening in ‘regions’ chosen based on reach of mast rather than any sense of community. Yet these same newsrooms never miss an opportunity to give the regional press a very hard kick.

One interesting aspect I find within the BBC is the difference in attitude of its legacy media teams and the online teams. BBC Sport online links out to the local press all the time, and has a strong relationship with many local newsrooms as a result. BBC News online  – particularly those working on the local news services – also work very hard to work collaboratively, and I hope this can continue. But when BBC North West Tonight couldn’t bring itself to say ‘Manchester Evening News’ when covering the £1.5m the Manchester Evening News raised overnight for the Manchester Dogs Home, you see there’s a big gulf in attitude between different parts of the Beeb. BBC News online had no such qualms.

Like newspapers which wouldn’t reference their websites in print, parts of the BBC seem to believe they can pretend the regional press doesn’t exist. Unless there’s a chance to give us a kick.

From a 400-word online article and debate with Roy Greenslade on Radio Wales about the Western Mail’s decision to stop selling the newspaper via newspaper sellers on the street to Radio Merseyside’s clumsy suggestion that the Liverpool Echo was moving lock, stock and barrel to Manchester (it wasn’t, the paper is now printed there), the BBC has form for turning every commercial decision made by the regional press into a headline-leading news story.

All talk

On one hand, we should probably be flattered that the BBC places such importance on what we do. On the other, I think it’s a sign that what we do – and specifically the newspaper – plays a disproportionate part in the live of many local BBC journalists.

There’s one very simple reason for that. The BBC talks a good fight about local news, but doesn’t really deliver. For all the talk of declining numbers of journalists in the regional press which litter the ‘Future of News’ report, the regional press still has many more reporters on the ground, covering news day in, day out, than the BBC. Those reporters  in turn act as sort of on-tap research function for local BBC newsrooms.

Scarborough News editor Ed Asquith was rightly furious when the Future of News report sought to call into question his paper’s coverage of problems at the local hospital. The report tries to suggest there were fewer boots on the ground to cover the story, yet it was still the News which dominated that story – a point ignored by the Future of News report.

Growing, not declining

There is one key fact that the BBC’s report ignores when dealing with the local press. More people locally are reading local news and information via local newspaper websites than ever before. The BBC reports the well-worn academically-sourced numbers about the number of people working for Media Wales. It fails to mention that WalesOnline reaches more people in Wales every week than all of the papers had for decades.

Likewise, it is almost dismissive about taking news brands online only. I’m heavily involved with our GetReading project, the website which serves Reading and the area. We all know it was sad that the Reading Post closed, but it was done so for commercial reasons. The myth that in Reading, people either read the Reading Post or the Reading Chronicle was just that – more than half of people read neither. And while it’s early days, the audience numbers are encouraging. We’re already reaching more people locally via the new website than we did previously. But that sort of information, if it had been sought, would have interfered with a negative narrative the BBC, as an organisation, has for the regional press.

Increasingly, newspaper businesses are successfully replacing lost print revenue with digital revenue. The decline of print does not mean the decline of local journalism. It changes what we do and the way we do it. Can the BBC really claim people are no longer being served well by the regional press when 1.1million people found advice on how to get the most from German Christmas Markets in Manchester and Liverpool from us, or the 800k who read articles choosing a bonfire night? Or the 1.5million who used our World War I war widget, or the three million who have used our data packages on schools data over the last two years? 

All of the above are examples of how our content has changed and evolved, reflecting audience demands. The BBC chooses to ignore this in the Future of News report, instead choosing a lazy narrative which suggests local news is in peril. Whereas the part of the industry I work in knows it has no divine right to be read and therefore seeks to adapt to remain in business, the BBC’s legacy media attempts to adapt and change have been woeful.

Glass houses, and all that

Who really listens to BBC local radio anymore? There are parts of it which are very good. There are parts of it which are so niche that they are irrelevant to the majority of people. BBC regional TV news always does skew in favour of wherever the big cities are, or, often, where there is a strong local newspaper providing a diet of ready-made leads. The real threat, identified by the Future of News report, is that the idea of bundling content for large numbers of people is on the way out. The regional newsrooms I work with are aware of that and dealing with, for the BBC it challenges the very existence of regional TV and local radio.

The idea that the BBC can provide a strong diet of local news relevant to everyone is a nonsense, despite what the report says. It would take a huge investment which simply wouldn’t deliver a return of any scale and yes, it would probably push some news brands out of existence. Should that worry the BBC? Maybe, maybe not, but suggesting it can ride to the rescue is very wide of the mark.

The Future of News report rightly identifies personalisation and greater user choice as key issues for news. The BBC will always serve the function of being the supposedly neutral voice of information well. But increasingly, the news brands making an impact are the others which come with personality, and a view of the world which people relate to. The BBC can never hope to provide that, because it is would be accused of bias.

Regional newsrooms which take digital seriously are cementing a closer relationship with readers than ever before. That shouldn’t be a threat to the BBC, because it serves a very different function. The fact the BBC has chosen to ignore such a key fact when proclaiming the demise of the regional press is very telling.

It tells us one of two things. Either the Future of News report is so shoddy that it would make the most green of trainee journalists blush, or it’s a cynical starter for ten to secure funding from Government for the next decade. Either way, when it comes to the regional press, the BBC is guilty of ensuring the facts don’t get in the way of a good story. The facts actually tell a better story, but it’s not one parts of the BBC want people to hear.

I love the BBC. I enjoy working with journalists in many parts of it. But I despair at its inability to tell the real story about the regional press. The question is: Why?

2 comments

  1. The BBC report might be flawed but I fear you fall into the same trap in presenting an overly rosy picture of the state of regional media. My newspaper has dramatically cut stuff in recent years to the point where we are now massively dependent on agencies, recycling news from other sources, scraping stuff off Twitter and Facebook and PA. Even high profile court cases are left to agencies while we sit in an office miles away from the communities we are supposed to be serving rehashing press releases. Easy news is chosen over anything that might take a few phone calls or, heaven forbid, some shoe leather.
    And finding clever ways of boosting hits on websites is not the same as building a loyal audience for quality journalism.

    1. Hi WorriedHack, I can see, and to an extent, share your concerns. But I disagree with your point on big audiences not being the result of quality journalism. There are many ways to boost audiences, of course, but readers aren’t stupid. They know when they are being had – and that’s the challenge for regional newsrooms. The main sites I work with are seeing 100% plus growth year on year, not because of tricks or cheats, but because they are focusing on what the audience wants. We then have to find a way to make the stuff we think is important (council meetings, court etc) which don’t always top lists of page views, more appealing to audiences. My hope is that digital revenues will continue to grow to a point where some of the losses you describe are replaced. In some cases, that is happening, but every newsroom is different. But are we dead or in decline? I don’t think so.

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