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?
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.