BBC debate lacks entrepreneurial say

So which side are you on? Do you like the BBC‘s proposal to create up to 300 new jobs in journalism by adding video news to its local websites?

Or are you with Sly Bailey of Trinity Mirror and Ian Davies of Archant, who fear that the BBC’s investment will crush local newspapers’ ’embryonic’sites?

It’s an ugly choice. Face-to-face with the nasty structural reality, the in-fighting has started in earnest. Naturally, both sides have big credibility problems.

Last week, it emerged that the Corporation’s online operations have over-run its annual budget of £74m by 48 per cent.

Instead of high-level sackings we got weasel words from BBC trustee Patricia Hodgson. After investigating, she has decided that the overspend is attributable to the ‘management structure for online activities in the BBC”.

To cap it all, the BBC’s online operations have been promised £150m plus to spend next year – if it sticks to unspecified tighter financial controls.

With this simpering response, the BBC Trust is steering the Corporation’s mighty hull toward a big rock marked The End Of The Licence Fee. Politically, this is about as inept as it gets.

The regional press has a different credibility problem. In fact, it has several.

There seems to be potential for collaboration with local newspapers in the BBC’s proposals, plenty of scope for linking and driving traffic. But these ideas have been lost in the storm of invective.

Another problem: Most regional newspaper chains enjoy de facto local monopolies. In the absence of competition, monopolies will spend peanuts on developing their businesses.

Only a few weeks ago, for example, Tim Bowdler, chief executive of Johnston Press, told analysts that the company had already made its big investments in what he calls ‘digitisation”. Henceforth, he said, developing digital operations ‘needn’t cost an arm and a leg”.

Really? That’s a claim that would meet with scepticism at The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian – and lots of other places where web projects demand constant funding.

Meanwhile, on his blog Out With A Bang, journalist-entrepreneur Rick Waghorn says that the big regional chains could afford to compete – if they wanted to.

But what are the chances of any one of those boys getting up at an AGM and saying: ‘Look people, we need to invest in our medium and long-term future… so we’re not doing a dividend this year…”?

Regional newspapers are looking after their shareholders, so put print media first, because that’s where the cashflow is. But in doing so, they jeopardise their ability to invest in the future.

So there we have it. You can throw in your lot with a spendthrift with the managerial equivalent of Tourette’s. Or a miserly incumbent who has mortgaged the future to pay for the present.

That said, there is a third voice that should be heard.

Rick Waghorn is just the kind of journalist-entrepreneur who could, and should, be a major part of the future of local news provision.

A former sports reporter on the Norwich Evening News, he has poured his redundancy money into setting up three vibrant websites for fans of Norwich City, Ipswich Town and Colchester United.

Waghorn and others like him remortgage their homes and work long hours. They don’t get audiences with Lord Fowler’s committee in the House of Lords. Nor do their views attract many column inches. But they’re the real innovators.

It would be good to see Ofcom acknowledge businesses like Waghorn’s as the ’embryonic’operations that actually matter.

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