At the tail end of last year Home Secretary Theresa May called on the BBC to cut back on its local news reporting. She claimed that because the Beeb was using licence fees in order to subsidise online news reporting “This makes it enormously difficult for local newspapers to compete … It is destroying local newspapers and it could eventually happen to national newspapers as well.”
May said she wanted the BBC to change of its own accord, rather than facing a “ban” on certain activities or the prospect of legislation.
This week James Harding, the BBC’s head of news hit back. He said that the BBC had nothing to do with the demise of local newspapers, which he blamed on Facebook, Google and ebay.
So what are the facts?
Newspapers have a simple business model. Their income comes from two streams: the money you pay for the paper and advertising. The more people buy a paper the more it charges for advertising.
Regional newspapers used to be hugely profitable and successful. However for decades they have been under assault for their advertising revenues, first from print rivals that stripped away property and car and recruitment ads, and latterly by online rivals that have destroyed their classified advertising base.
The papers have responded by making massive cuts. The Press Gazette has reported that 242 local papers shut between 2005 and 2012. Thousands have been made redundant. It has been calculated that a staggering 40 per cent of jobs in the UK regional press have gone in the course of five years.
At the same time circulations are falling across the board. Journalists have been badly affected by the cuts. This has meant smaller newsrooms offering less original stories, and this compounded by the growth of online news and the rise of the “citizen journalist” means that they are in deep crisis.
The reality is that they are trapped. News is as popular as it ever was. The trouble is that we don’t have to pay for it online, and advertising revenues for newspaper sites do not go near replacing lost revenues elsewhere.
Sadly it is a broken model and radical new ideas are required to save the regional newspaper industry. The trouble is nobody has come up with anything viable as yet.
Which brings us to the BBC. Because we pay for that service it will never need to charge for local news online or generate advertising and so, the argument goes, is driving papers out of business because they can’t compete with a publicly-funded rival – and crushing the once-vibrant local press hardly comes under the remit of “public service broadcasting”.
That sounds fair enough until you remember that the demise of newspapers is not confined to the UK. In the USA, where incidentally the last evening newspaper closed decades ago, 42,000 jobs have been lost in the industry since 2007.
In that context it seems absurd to be attempting to curb BBC reporting which is both fair and authoritative, but does not have the depth of coverage a local newspaper can provide.
And in any event there is no evidence to suggest that pay walls are an answer to the problem. They have been tried elsewhere with very mixed results, We all know from our own experiences of the internet that the harder you make it for people to visit a site the less likely they are to look at it.
The reality is that there is no quick fix. It is going to be a long hard road back for local newspapers, and only those prepared to embrace radical change will survive. They have two vital assets: they are trusted, and they have deep roots in the communities they serve. Herein lies the key to future success.
The answer has to be in a complete reversal of mindset. Bloggers, lifestyle sites and the like should be partnered with, not treated as rivals. My vision of a successful local newspaper is the creation of a local hub site powered by the paper, which helps to generate a lot of site visits. It will publish a wide range of additional content from bloggers and the like which in turn will help to make the site more vibrant, active and truly representative of the community. In the USA several newspapers have started on this journey and results are encouraging.
For far too long local newspapers have been battling against the inevitable like so many King Canutes, instead of fully embracing the digital age.
Trying to ban the BBC from covering local events is the latest example of this. It would achieve nothing, further weakening the media, and serve only to accelerate their own decline.