I admit I’m struggling with the debate surrounding the BBC’s £68m plans to dramatically increase its online coverage of local news.

The proposal has, inevitably, met with criticism from regional newspaper groups who are unimpressed that the Beeb would use licence payers money to fund the significant expansion to a network of 65 local sites.

Ofcom has also announced it will investigate the proposals and the BBC Trust will make a statement about the idea at the end of November.

The big bosses of the main regional publishers have laid into the plans, so has The Newspaper Society.

Writing in his own newspaper, the editor of The Birmingham Post has now joined the chorus of disapproval.

Marc Reeves states a clear and concise case against the Beeb’s plans. But is it a convincing argument?

He states:

These moves would pitch the BBC in direct competition with local media such as the Birmingham Post, a newspaper which has been at the forefront of multimedia innovation in the regional press following heavy investment in new online and mobile platforms.

The BBC’s plans come at a critical time for local media companies.

Besides coping with declining advertising revenue, they are simultaneously having to reinvent themselves to survive in a digital age.

He is right in some respects. But although the Post has recently unveiled a radical relaunch and investment in new technology there are many who maintain regional publishers and titles are only crying foul because of their failure to recognise the need to change years ago.

They’ve stood still for far too long and are only now investigating the opportunities as a last resort.

As I’ve stated before, when I joined the Post in 2001 the need for a complete rethink and major changes was patently obvious. But by the time I left the paper in 2006 nothing of significance had been done to address the ever-changing environment so-called “old media” found itself operating in.

The Post needs to be applauded for the changes now introduced and the bold approach to embracing new technology and the opportunities it provides. And yet it is still playing catch-up and fighting hard to keep pace with the on-going developments impacting on the media and each and every one of us.

It isn’t often that I have agreed with the NUJ since becoming a member. But for once I find myself nodding in agreement with comments by Jeremy Dear, the NUJ’s general secretary, where he admits to being slightly bemused by the complaints levelled against the BBC.

He recently pointed out that the BBC’s expansion comes at a time when regional publishers once again begin to tighten their belts.

You have two very different beasts. Northcliffe have carried out a significant reduction in staffing, giving less resources to local news in order to maintain a 28 per cent profit level.

The only reason I can see why [regional newspapers] would object to it is if the BBC was taking all the advertising that they could get online. That’s not the case.

Indeed, despite the investment at the Post and other TrinityMirror titles in the Midlands, 65 jobs have still been lost. Meanwhile the publishers of the Express and Star in Wolverhampton last week announced 120 job losses as it sought to cut costs by £3m.

The relaunched Post in compact form does look good and still appears to carry the weight and authority it had in broadsheet form.

There are some elements of the new-look title that jar – I’m not convinced the toned down masthead has sufficient oomph, for example, and there appears to be quite a number of glitches with the website since it was changed to reflect the compact style of the paper.

But the real proof of the success of the changes will come in the next few months as the Post adapts to the new staffing structure. Can the paper maintain the quality and depth of coverage having let go so many experienced and talented journalists?

More importantly, how long has it got to iron out these issues in an age when brand loyalty to a particular media organisation seems to be diminishing rapidly?

There is also one other crucial point about the criticism of the Beeb I’m struggling with.

The changing nature of the media, both the way it is produced and consumed, has inevitably meant that competition has increased dramatically.

As consumers we now have instant access to all manner of news resources, whether they originate from our own doorstep or the other side of the world. Ultra-local news sites, individual bloggers, traditional regional newspapers, global news providers are often competing on a fairly level playing field depending on what information we are looking to gather. Also, the way these outlets present the information has changed forever.

Competition is good. Competition has proved healthy for consumers and for those producers who recognised a decade or so ago there was a pressing need to change, adapt, invest and continue to move forward.

As one of these new consumers, I want this level of competition to continue and I want to have the choice. I don’t necessarily want my choice restricted.

It is all about finding your niche these days. The Post has moved to a much more business-focused approach and has no real rivals in the Midlands (in any form) in terms of informed comment and detailed, knowledgeable daily coverage.

Personally, I think that if the BBC’s current regional news output is anything to go by then quality regional newspapers have absolutely nothing to fear from the Beeb’s proposed local sites.

I can’t help thinking the £68m the BBC is planning to spend would be better directed in improving its current and traditional news coverage.

The BBC’s 24-hours news channel is poor compared to its main rivals, whilst there must be something amiss when Newsround provides clearer and more relevant information than the info-tainment served up by the likes of BBC Breakfast.

So I’m not entirely convinced by the BBC’s plans for a new local news network.

But, equally, I’m less than impressed by the argument put forward by regional newspapers.

The only certainty is that everything is changing and will continue to change.

5 responses »

  1. Jo Ind says:

    I agree with everything you’ve said Paul. I don’t know how the BBC is going to be able to afford the staff to do very local news coverage. If it can’t, then regional papers have nothing to fear. If it can, then good luck to it.

  2. Marc Reeves says:

    As ever, a better argued case than most put forward by the beeb itself, and I’m happy to concede a couple of points to you.
    First, has the regional press come late to the digital party? Absolutely. But it is also catching up rapidly, as evidenced not just by the Post, but the Birmingham Mail and hundreds of other papers across the country. I don’t see how the BBC is justified in spending my money and yours on initiatives that could effectively strangle these intitiatives at birth. Sure, the BBC has a public service remit at a local level as much as it does nationally, but wouldn’t that be better deployed on a level playing field once the rest of the market is established?
    You say competition is good: of course it is. But the BBC proposals aren’t competition: they amount to a cartel.
    You support jeremy Dear’s contention that the BBC can’t compete with regional papers because they don’t take advertising. If only it were that simple! The only raw commodity I have to offer advertisers is audience. No audience = no advertisers = no revenue = no business. It really is that stark, and believe me – the days of 28% margins for groups like Northcliffe are gone forever.
    Finally, in the context of the BBC’s wider remit, and the other component parts of its public service, you’re right to raise questions about the corporation’s relative priorities.
    It’s not just recent events that have revealed serious shortcomings in its services and governance. Anyone who has the misfortune to watch more than a minute of BBC Breakfast will testify to that.

  3. hemminac2 says:

    Personally speaking, CONTENT has been the problem, not how it’s delivered. Although I’m only a news consumer, so what would I know?! I keep being told that I want news via video and mobile phones…. But I don’t remember ever asking for that. Give me content that I can’t get elsewhere…and you’ve got my custom, however you deliver it!

    I like the Birmingham Post, I’m a born and bred brummie, so regard it as Birmingham’s own, with Trinity Mirror just looking after it for us. However, I stopped buying the Birmingham Post so regularly because of THE CONTENT. People I know stopped buying the Birmingham Post BECAUSE OF THE CONTENT.

    If local newspapers use their talents to source, break and analyse local news better than anyone else – and they must surely have the talented journalists to do so – then there’s still a product worth buying into. In terms of the Post, yes I can get news from all around the globe on my desktop – but the best place for regional business news is the Post – it’s the unique selling point that no blogger or other website has yet cracked.

    For me, adding resource to tackle the ‘delivery of content’ problem is resource in the wrong place. I’d much rather have more journalists on the ground sourcing stories than “tv studios” to produce video content. If anything the Post has moved into the BBC’s patch by wanting to produce video content.

    I don’t understand why the Post has invested in a TV studio to produce video content at the same time as apparently dumping journalists on the dole queue. It’s not fixing the problem I was experiencing – if anything, it’ll spread things around even more thinly and make it even worse. Thin content is thin on paper, the web or via video.

    I’m not interested in videos, toys etc, etc. On a busy day, that nice little bundle of paper joy, with news I can’t get anywhere else, is just what I need. A paper is more preferable on the commute than little words on a tiny phone screen, a paper is my preference at lunchtime when I want a break from the screen – and a paper is much better for a few moments quiet time at home after escaping rush hour.

    BBC competition will be good – it should act a rocket to get everyone out there to source the best stories. Not that I’ll ever have the time or will to log on and watch the BBCs videos…..come on Brum Post….you CAN still provide us with something nobody else can regardless…and that IS worth paying for……or if you really insist, visiting your website for.

    But please…the problem for me as a news consumer is quality of content, not the delivery of it. There’s plenty of good people at the Post – so what are they afraid of?! There’s a nice new format and some people with real drive at the controls….so who cares about the beeb?!

  4. Paul Groves says:

    Jo: We must stop agreeing like this.

    Marc: Thanks for stopping by. I can’t agree with the cartel argument, but we do seem to be on the same wavelength regarding the BBC’s spending priorities.
    I believe (and hope) the Post is now in a lot stronger position to play to its strengths. It has no direct rival for informed, authoritative, agenda-setting coverage in the Midlands and it would be great to see the paper kick on from here and punch above its weight. I think every other regional paper needs to adopt a similar approach – it can’t be all things to all people because we all want so many different things these days. But it can identify its strengths, find its niche and plunder the opportunities that undoubtedly exist. My big criticism of the BBC’s plans is that it is trying to be all things to all people and does not have the resources t- despite the £68m of our money – to pull it off. And what it is producing is consistently not good enough. I’m not sure anyone can pull of the trick of being all things to all people these days. I tend to agree with Andrew’s comment regarding content – its is undoubtedly the case, still, that content is king but how it is presented and where it is available is also crucial.

    Andrew: An old editor of mine used to have two words for the so-called competition offered by the regional BBC and ITV operations – “f**k ’em”. He said if we didn’t have the self-confidence to just deliver what we were capable of, then we should simply give up and walk away. I think the Post in particular has found a lucrative niche and now needs to concentrate on delivering. Let’s face it, there ain’t much in the way of competition from the likes of Midlands Today and ITV Central’s offerings. Content is king, but delivering it with self-confidence is also important.

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