Regional newspapers' fury at BBC local web plan

The BBC has prompted a new rift with the regional press by planning a network of 60 ultra-local websites.

Previous plans for BBC ultra-local TV were dropped in October following a huge backlash from regional newspapers that feared the service would stifle their own multimedia online efforts.

Now Press Gazette has learned that the BBC is planning a new network of websites, using the latest online localisation and mapping technology.

Controller of BBC English Regions Andy Griffee told students at Coventry University that new service would involve text, audio and video news which could be navigated using a map of a specified region.

Ian Davies, development director of Archant, described the plans – which have yet to get the go ahead from the BBC Trust – as an ‘unprecedented attack”.

He said: ‘Geotagging, multi-local, mapping, local video. Sound familiar? It is what the regional press in the UK and the US has been building as the core to their websites for the past couple of years. Building at the speed that commercial investment levels will permit but building all the same.

‘The BBC, having offered a flimsy white flag of surrender in its ultra-local TV plans, has dyed the flag red and signalled an unprecedented assault on the regional press.

‘The new websites will have hyper-local capabilities using geo tagging of content and mapping interfaces. What the BBC gives with one hand, it takes away with a huge skip on the other.

‘What a strange approach to public service media. Look at what the community-leading local press is doing in reinventing itself to provide local content and ‘connectivity’ beyond print; then take a huge publicly funded stick and swing hard to cause as much damage as possible to this vital organ of local comment and democracy.

‘This is not competition. This is BBC, full-bodied, unfair, damaging to existing emerging services, competition. It seems that attempted demolition is the sincerest form of flattery.”

The prototype BBC site covers news, sport, travel and weather with symbols providing users with the main means of navigating between sections.

‘E-democracy’will also enable people to research politicians and political parties via more interactive and informative means.

Griffee said: ‘It is work in progress but I intend to go to the BBC Trust and seek its permission to launch it. Users can decide how local is important to them. It brings everything together in one place.”

User-generated content is understood to form a major part of the proposed new network – which could be narrowed down by the user to the level of a town.

In December, BBC director general Mark Thompson told a House of Lords committee that the BBC intends to expand local radio and will seek the approval of the BBC Trust this spring.

John Meehan, editor of the Hull Daily Mail and regional editorial director, Northcliffe North East, has previously criticised the BBC’s investment of £25m since 2002 in its facilities and services in East Yorkshire. That investment was the precursor for the BBC’s Local TV trial in the West Midlands.

Meehan said: ‘The BBC’s plans sound like Local TV in a new, more advanced and interactive guise.

‘I’m not at all surprised to hear that the BBC remains intent on building local services that duplicate those that are already provided, are in development or are likely to be developed by regional publishers such as Northcliffe.

‘The BBC should disclose its plans promptly and fully so that they can be subject to proper scrutiny. I’m sure the Newspaper Society and the major regional groups will wish to highlight how proposed developments of this kind will amount to unfair competition funded by the taxpayer.” 

No gap to fill
David Newell, director, Newspaper Society, said: ‘The local press has evolved into a successful multimedia industry in recent years, employing many thousands of journalists and news gatherers dedicated to providing local news and information to readers and viewers across a multitude of platforms – paid, free, print, online and broadcast.

‘As well as 1300 core regional and local newspapers, the industry has over 1100 websites, many with video streaming and online audiovisual services, plus a variety of online service and mobile telephone services, 750 magazines, 36 local radio stations and even two traditional television channels. The local market is well-served and there is no gap which the BBC needs to fill.

‘In withdrawing its plans for ultra-local television services on satellite, the BBC acknowledged that public money should not be spent on duplicating local news services already provided by existing local media companies. If it decides to develop BBC local news services online, these plans will be subject to approval by the BBC Trust, and will require a public value test including a market impact assessment by OFCOM and the BBC – in the same way as the ultra-local television services would have been.”

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