Ultra-local TV puts papers in the line of fire

Many
local newspaper bosses are concerned about the BBC’s plans for tightly
targeted pilot news services in the West Midlands, Sarah Lagan discovers

THE RECENT unveiling by the
BBC of its plans to pilot five “ultra-local” TV news services in the
West Midlands prompted staunch criticism from the Newspaper Society
that they could pose a very serious threat to local newspapers.

The nine-month trial, which starts in December, will provide local news via satellite and broadband.

If successful, it will provide a blueprint for up to 60 services that will be rolled out around the country.

Press Gazette asked editors and senior figures from the regional press what impact they think “ultralocal”

TV news will have in their areas.

BELFAST

Belfast Telegraph editor Ed Curran said: “I think it’s a worrying
development – it is not a level playing ground. The BBC doesn’t have to
make a profit. I have a high opinion of the BBC, but I think the idea
of having a very localised service will be a challenge.

“We all have a great pride in the BBC but in recent years many of
the major national events have gone to other companies. Why can’t the
BBC restore its values as a national broadcaster by getting the test
matches and major events? I think it’s because there are more resources
going into the regions.

“It’s a far cry from the BBC’s motto of:
‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation’ – it is supposed to be an
international broadcaster.

“I’m not suggesting that they
shouldn’t organise themselves regionally. In Northern Ireland the BBC
has been a voice of objectivity in a divided society.

“There is a
distinction between having a daily news service for a region, which it
has had for many years, and going down to parish-pump reporting. Is
there really a need for the Government to provide this? Don’t local
newspapers already provide this?

“Choice is good, providing there
is a level playing field. Local weekly papers are run on very tight
budgets and rely on local advertising. If you have the BBC coming in,
how much longer will the other organisations exist?

“The big
concern is that this will put some out of business, and unfairly so. So
long as the BBC complements other media, that is fine. But I think the
BBC sees itself as a rival.

“An extreme example of this is that
there was a time when the BBC would interview specialists from the
regional press. Now, when the BBC wants to talk about health or
education issues, for instance, it asks elsewhere or even asks its own
specialists. They see themselves as rivals, not as being complementary.

“I
don’t want to stop them having exclusives but there is a balance
between creating your own agenda and being a public service broadcaster.

“There
needs to be more transparency in the BBC’s finances. It is breathtaking
the amount of resources and the number of people available to it in the
regions.”

HULL

In Hull the BBC has a high-profile new HQ, broadcasts a daily halfhour bulletin and is experimenting with a broadband trial.

Hull Daily Mail editor John Meehan said: “I believe that the
regional newspaper industry and associated websites have got a very
positive future and will prosper for a long time. It’s about whether
the competition by the BBC is fair.

“Fundamentally, in everything
we do, we have to make a commercial case for it. But the BBC doesn’t
have to do that as it is public funded.

“The government and the
department for culture, media and sport should not have an unrestrained
remit: the Newspaper Society has given a good case of how it should be
restrained.

“That certainly fits in with its public service remit, providing services that wouldn’t be provided by commercial organisations.

“Our
staff are paying through their licence fees for the BBC to compete
against them. People have only got so much time and, in most areas,
they turn to us first. The BBC doesn’t rival us in terms of detail or
breadth. The BBC’s national reach is being eroded and its local focus
is a justification of the licence fee.

“Where is the evidence that the public wants the BBC to provide local news already provided by us?

“The Hull Daily Mail employs 83 journalists, which is significantly more than the BBC has in Hull.

“The
regional press needs to recognise we are in a very competitive
environment. We must develop a range of services, the internet and
other digital channels, and the BBC should provide no commercial
services. Why should the Government spend money on what’s there
already?”

MANCHESTER

The Manchester Evening News has already launched a local television
service, Channel M. Editor Paul Horrocks said: “I’m not particularly
negative about [the BBC plan], there’s a lot of room in the marketplace
for lots of different platforms and tastes.

People choose to watch Channel M because the style is people-based,
it looks at what people think about the news items, not what the
presenters say. Part of the remit is to involve schoolchildren who will
see how it works and it will be part of their curriculum.

“In the North West we have BBC and ITV trying to balance coverage of the whole area: we just do the news for Greater Manchester.

“I’m
sure it will sharpen us up – there’s always a market for a particular
type of news. We shouldn’t start to worry unnecessarily just because a
new format is coming. They are already there in the regions. We can’t
just say the BBC shouldn’t expand and that we are going to hold back
the tide because there’s unfair competition.

“We can cope with or
without them as long as we produce the best news we can. It doesn’t
touch my soul enough to react to it. There are so many news channels
out there, it’s just progress.

“We all feed off each other
anyway. TV feeds off newspapers, newspapers feeds off TV. It will make
it harder for us all to retain a share of the market.

“If it
creates more competition and we have to sharpen up, then so be it. The
BBC will probably be slow and I don’t see it as a great threat.”

LEEDS

Yorkshire Evening Post editor Neil Hodgkinson said: “I think there
are good reasons to be worried about the proposals for ultra-local TV
by the BBC.

“The BBC is in the fortunate position of being a publicly-funded
organisation. In recent years, however, it has acted more and more as a
commercial organisation, using its unfair advantage of taxpayer
funding. This move has the regional and local press firmly in its
sights.

“A move to ultra-local TV (radio and digital sites)n
raises a number of contradictions. The BBC does not currently possess
the number of journalists or the community news tradition of
long-standing local newspapers. It is cutting its number of regional
journalists. How are they going to gather the content for this new
additional service?

“The suspicion is that it will lead to even
more lifting of local press stories. There isn’t a journalist in Leeds
who won’t admit to using the YEP as a research tool. However, if this
increases, then local newspaper journalists’ jobs could be threatened.

“Papers
such as the YEP employ journalists to get the news for our own papers
and websites. It comes at a cost. We have to raise the funds to print
the newspapers by selling advertising.

“If circulation was to
fall due to ultra-local TV and digital sites providing the information
free (through the licence fee) then so could our revenues, particularly
as we invest and grow the combined newspaper/digital sites, which are
the future. The BBC is unfettered by such demands.

“That is why we support wholeheartedly the Newspaper Society submission to the Government.”

NORWICH

Ian Davis, development director for Archant, on behalf of the
Eastern Daily Press, said: “The impact of this will be huge. We have
migrated as an industry and part of that migration path is local
television. Before, there were problems with the costs and
transmission. But with broadband, the costs are really coming down now
and the opportunities are growing for us but we can’t do it until we
know that we can make money. The difference is that the BBC is under no
commercial constraint.

“Worst of all, I used to work in regional television and I know that
one of the major sources for gaining information is local newspapers –
it’s infuriating.

The potential for us is being severely
reduced. “Those in the regional press can campaign and ask the BBC
to look at ways to work with us. We should continue to campaign for
them to share the knowledge they have gained, but that will only take
us part of the way. They can slow down the roll-out or work it so that
things can be reversed.

“There is an interesting debate that they should make content and pictures available to us.

“But in its current state, I can see no benefits of this whatsoever, no positives at all.

TRINITY MIRROR REGIONALS

Neil Benson, Trinity Mirror’s editorial director, regionals, said:
“Providing local news and local information is the absolute core of our
regional publishing businesses – print and online.

“With our unique position in local communities, our resource levels
and the quality and quantity of our content we are confident that
no-one does it better than we do.

“We are not, therefore, worried
that the BBC will provide a better service than us. Neither do we
object to competition. What we do object to is unfair competition,
especially when it involves an unwarranted appropriation of public
money to expand into areas that are already well-served by existing
media.

“Our main concern is that the BBC’s plans for
‘ultra-local’ content provision, and specifically for the Midlands
pilot, have the potential not only to threaten our business, but also
to stifle competition, distort local markets and discourage potential
commercial innovation.

“This is clearly contrary to the interests
of media markets, consumers and local communities, and it is entirely
at odds with this Government’s principal communications policy of
encouraging an increasingly wide and diverse plurality of media voices
in the local market place.

“The enduring role of the BBC is to
serve the public interest, not to use its very privileged position to
make unfair and damaging inroads into commercial markets.”

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