Newspaper Society unmoved by claim that BBC TV pilot did not hurt local press

The Newspaper Society has criticised Professor Roger Laughton's report into the BBC's ultra-local TV proposals, saying it remains opposed to the corporation's plan to roll out 66 local stations.

Newspaper Society director David Newell said: "The Laughton Report sends out mixed messages… The Newspaper Society's position has not changed. It would be a wholly unjustified use of licence fee money for the BBC to replicate local news services that are increasingly being developed by the regional press. "The BBC's recent offer to pay regional newspapers for content serves to illustrate that the BBC is currently unable to produce the local content it would need for these services, and would have to turn to the main source of content for local news and information."

In his report — commissioned by the BBC — Laughton outlines the Newspaper Society's main criticisms of the local TV proposals. One is that the BBC's inability to match the local press's depth of journalistic resource built up over decades means that it will have to source stories from local papers.

He encouraged the need to form partnerships between the BBC and local papers, such as payment to newspapers by the BBC for content.

Laughton said: "The BBC has examined the willingness to examine new forms of partnership with local newspaper groups, and it would make sense to explore these now. There are likely to be mutual benefits to be had once the BBC's right to a presence in local video and television markets is defined and agreed."

Laughton's report followed a nine-month pilot launched in the West Midlands and a separate pilot in Hull before that.

The BBC has said that, given how long the approval process will take, the earliest the proposals could be brought into force is autumn 2007. After that, it would take four years to set up all 66 services.

The timescale, Laughton said, "has given other services a long lead time to plan their entry into these markets, if they choose."

Northcliffe's Hull Daily Mail believes the BBC is threatening its existence. It provided Laughton with independent Jicreg research which showed that, while Northcliffe's Hull papers were "turn to first" for local news in 2003 — scoring 69 per cent compared with local television's 13 per cent — by 2006, after the pilot had taken place, these figures changed to 52 per cent and 21 per cent respectively. This decline was more prominent in Hull than in other Northcliffe titles. Laughton found that over a 12-year period, from 1994 to 2006, the Mail's circulation declined more slowly than other evening papers on average and said competition would benefit consumers.

As a result of the nine-month pilot in the West Midlands, Laughton said there had been "no statistically significant impact on newspaper circulation figures in the region".

Laughton's report concluded: "Daily recorded 7-10 minute bulletins and on-demand news items and features are unlikely to have a significant impact on other players in local markets.

"However, the BBC's final plans will need to be open to scrutiny, communicated clearly and, if agreed, implemented with a sensitivity to local market conditions. The key should be to identify a strategy that maps both on to the BBC's existing public purposes and into its post-2014 strategic thinking. The timing of the introduction of new services will be important. "At the outset of this report, I suggested that local television and local video may need to be considered separately when the BBC decides the form of its final proposals.

"I consider the BBC has made the case for enhancement of its local news-gathering resources and for the delivery of on-demand news bulletins and items to broadband users in its local broadcasting areas, on screens wherever and whenever viewers can be reached.

"In my judgement, broadband delivery will become increasingly significant in the delivery of local news to households when IPTV becomes widespread."

Laughton added: "The introduction of enhanced video news services on the Where I Live sites should be considered immediately. "The pilot demonstrated that take-up of on-demand news items increased throughout the nine months of the experiment."

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