'Newspapers must stand up to BBC digital challenge'

By Colin Crummy

The BBC’s impact on regional and local newspapers is "frightening" and a "major concern", according to media commentator Roy Greenslade.

Speaking at the opening of the conference in Manchester on Monday, Greenslade said that the BBC’s investment in online journalism, with a department of more than 800 dedicated internet journalists, meant the broadcaster "is gradually in the process of creating electronic newspapers, offering free advertising to customers who normally use our newspapers".

Greenslade said: "It’s [the BBC] devoting huge publicly financed resources to journalism. I note that the Newspaper Society is concerned about the BBC’s online activity threatening the profitability and viability of the industry because it’s running free entertainment information."

Greenslade said that newspaper owners had themselves to blame for not "locking out the BBC earlier". He said: "A publicly funded organisation is threatening your commercial health, but I would be a little more sympathetic to the Newspaper Society’s argument if owners had been quicker to fill that vacuum themselves; if owners had sacrificed some of their profits by innovating with screen-based products linked to their newspaper brands some years ago."

Greenslade added that "despite the BBC’s intentions", it wasn’t too late to challenge it in the digital field. The former Daily Mirror editor’s speech focused on the digital revolution and the fact that publishers now needed a strategy to deal with it. "We have to convince everyone — the investing community, advertising community and most importantly, the reading community — that we have a strategy of some kind, that we’re doing all we possibly can to engage with all the huge changes brought by the net and digital technology," he said. "None of us can deny that the only game in town now is multi-platform journalism combined with multi-platform advertising."

Greenslade highlighted seven other challenges that the newspaper industry needed to act upon. It should embrace the internet; it should be "preaching the reach" or telling advertisers, investors and readers alike, just who is receiving the content; and it should recognise that content is crucial. "Here’s the irony — if newspapers are to have any hope of surviving, they have to embrace the inventions that are threatening to destroy them, we have to respond to the demand by providing our audiences with all manner of value-added features," he said.

He added that the industry must use the newspaper brand as an umbrella for its multi-platform approach; that resources must be allocated sensibly in the multi-platform environment; journalists trained up on these platforms; and that the regional press had "a real opportunity" to engage with citizen journalism.

"The revolution sweeps all before it regardless of the consequences," said Greenslade. "This is probably the most important point: none of the revolutionaries are ever in control of their destinies. We, the followers, whether reluctant or enthusiastic, turn our backs or avert our eyes, or whether we embrace it with open arms, we’re being swept along too."

■ Greenslade, who resigned from The Daily Telegraph after it pulled his media column, is thought to be starting a new regular column at the Evening Standard.

He is also understood to be working on a secret web project for The Guardian’s media section.

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