WHILE the main rumours circulating about the BBC’s future have been about the salaries of celebrity presenters and whether Strictly clashes with the X-Factor, there are more important issues buried in the paperwork — including whether the regional press is holding councils and quangos to account.
As a journalist and academic, I’ve been a member of the working group into the relationship between the BBC and the regional press since it was set up in June 2014. The group’s discussions fed into the white paper published today.
It’s pretty much guaranteed that if you raised the issue, over a pint in the pub, of whether the regional media has declined/failed/is dead, you’d get a tidal wave of negativity from people who claim never to read a paper anymore.
They wouldn’t understand that most of the information about their local team/school/hospital they get is still investigated and reported by the local media — but published online.
If they were not so overwhelmed by the demands of constant deadlines to feed their organisation’s websites, the journalists might be in the pub to point this out themselves, but those days are long gone. You’re far more likely to see a local reporter, be they from a paper, local radio or TV, in a Starbucks or McDonald’s car park, balancing a laptop and a phone on their knee while simultaneously trying to upload images and write the story straight on to pages via erratic free Wi-Fi.
“I don’t buy a papers, I get my news from Twitter and Facebook,” is a line guaranteed to bait the most unflappable of journalists. No. You don’t get news from social media, not the full story anyway. What you get is a headline, a tease, and you then click through to — guess what? — the newspapers and broadcasters you think you don’t read. Social media is simply a noisy vendor; a billboard, a town crier directing you to find out what’s going on. It’s rarely the actual story, except, of course, when it is eyewitnesses Tweeting live from an unfolding disaster, or a Facebook fundraiser for a poorly child. Even those live events will see readers looking for validation; for authority and confirmation, by checking what the established news providers are saying.
There is no doubt, regardless of how much the owners and managers of regional papers and broadcasters will tell you otherwise, that the number of journalists in the regions has rapidly decreased. Newspapers have closed high street offices and moved production into ‘hubs,’ often on industrial estates with no physical contact with the public, producing dozens of papers that may be many miles away. Reporters, if they’re lucky, may still be out on their ‘patch’, but instead of returning to an office to file their story, they do it from the aforementioned car park — wi-fi and phone signal permitting. Office-based staff are having to produce more copy faster than ever before, because they are now also writing all the ‘non-news’ text — the property edit, the what’s ons, the sports results — that used to be someone else’s job.
This is not confined to the newspapers, as both the commercial and BBC local TV reporters also have to cover larger and larger areas and often don’t have the time to attend, interview and edit for same-day broadcast deadlines. And yet the regions have a much larger audience than all the nationals put together.
The decline in print is not simply down to fewer people buying papers because they can get the same content via their smartphones. Newspapers never made their money through the cover price, they make it through advertising, and in the pre-internet years, that advertising was almost exclusively purchased in print. If you wanted to get a job, buy a house or sell a car, you bought a local paper. If you wanted to get eyes on these areas as a business, advertising in the local paper was the only, and often expensive, way to attract customers.
News and feature pages were essential to attract in those readers who might also want to buy a car, or a house, or whatever: the news media is a healthy business if you can make people pay for it, and if the cost of printing had not gone through the roof.
However much reporters want to be the messenger of truth between The Establishment and The People, bringing news is a business, and in print, those numbers just didn’t make the profits the ever-larger publishers wanted, and the online revenue has been slow in coming.
Even back in the most recent heyday, management were tasked with making savings, by reducing the number of editions, or making one reporter cover the job of two, by making expenses claims such a long-winded process that reporters simply stopped doing anything that required claiming. But it was unquestionably better staffed than today.
A big regional daily like the Yorkshire Post, Birmingham Mail or Manchester Evening News will still have a good number of ‘portfolioed’ reporters — like an education correspondent, court reporter and most likely a politics editor, covering council and the various authorities and quangos. The big papers will be making sure that issues like planning, schools, pub licensing, health, transport, leisure facilities and local councillors’ expenses are brought to the public’s attention. But on a weekly paper in a small town like Northampton? Maybe not.
Here you’re unlikely to find a reporter able to give their attention and expertise to one area like the council. They’re likely to be half the entire reporting staff on a given day, assuming no-one ever takes annual leave.
Council agendas (have a go at reading one, they’re online) take time to read and analyse. Meetings are usually in the evenings, and if you’ve been the only reporter on the day shift, it’s unlikely you’ll be awake enough to do the late shift too, and that’s assuming you have no life and responsibilities outside of the office.
And those ex-journalists who took redundancy in the last round of cuts, are now in council press offices, writing handy news-style, pro-council press releases, which are just so easy to slip into that gaping hole in your paper or website. They’ve done the hard work for you, haven’t they? The public can even watch the meeting on a council-run webcam.
So what has all this got to do with the BBC White Paper?
The BBC’s current Royal Charter — the agreement which sets the broadcaster’s rules and purpose — expires at the end of December and a public consultation into its future was launched last year.
Tory Culture Secretary John Whittingdale, who oversees charter renewal, has published detailed government proposals for the BBC’s TV licence-fee-funded future in this White Paper.
Included was a section on “Supporting and invigorating local news provision across the UK”, which included a commitment to provide 150 extra
BBC-funded journalists nationwide, who will be based in newspaper offices but share content to all local providers, as “a Local Public Sector Reporting Service — investing in a service to report on local institutions.”
The White Paper continues: “… a service that sees the BBC providing some funding for local journalists to provide reporting for use by the BBC and other news providers. These proposals could provide a positive contribution to the diversity and quality of local news provision. The government welcomes the BBC’s commitment to continue to work with the industry to develop and implement these plans and its commitment to provide funding for 150 journalists from 2017, given the public interest in a plurality of local and regional news provision. This number could rise to 200…”
Hang on, why has the BBC got to prop up the staff of local (commercial) papers at a cost of £8million of BBC license-fee coffers?
Is it just to make friends? To stop criticism by the press that the liberally state-funded BBC killed local journalism with its early regional websites? (Press Gazette, 2007)
Going back to the original set-up of the working group by new BBC news chief James Harding in 2014, and further back still, there has always been ‘tension’ between the state-funded BBC journalists and everyone else.
Newspapers still think the BBC ‘steals’ their stories and simply reads them out on air, however vociferously BBC newsrooms will argue that they don’t, and that news is rarely exclusive.
A generation of current print editors will remember how they started their career on a paper on £7,000, while their fellow trainee reporters slithered into the BBC on £18,000 for doing the same job. They claimed it was impossible for commercial news providers to compete with well-staffed, state-funded newsrooms whose reporters were only writing-up one story a day, while their own staff covered half-a-dozen or more, only to see them ‘stolen’ by the BBC. They’ll say that the newspapers, both regional and national, do all the legwork on an investigation and the broadcasters will just mop up the headline and conclusion. This was still being claimed at the Revival of Local Journalism conference two years ago that sparked Harding’s working party.
I’ve been to every one of the meetings over the two years and made several observations: the most notable being that for all their efforts, the tensions between the BBC and the regional newspapers, and the Press Association, and hyperlocal independent publishers, the commercial regional TV stations, all represented on the panel, are still there.
Some are further evolved than others, and have joined schemes that see newspaper website stories cross-promoted on BBC regional sites (the data on whether this helps the newspapers is still to come). There have, as detailed in the White Paper, been ideas about sharing the vast BBC archive, creating a shared data unit and distributing video to regional publications to use online. This could easily happen if the technology allows.
Meanwhile, some editors will struggle to even contemplate liaising with their local BBC, who they view as their competition, along with whatever other rivals they may have in print.
The idea of the BBC funding ‘extra’ reporters was originally thrown into the mix at an early working party meeting, as a way of covering not council, but court. Many around the table thought court reporting was being neglected in all but the cities, but subsequent enquiries saw this idea discarded.
Then it appeared again last September in an announcement by BBC DG Tony Hall, this time as a potential way for the BBC to be seen to be spreading some of their funds to report on courts and council matters. The announcement came as a surprise to the working party who had previously been told it wasn’t a cost-effective idea, because all areas of the UK, even those where council was already adequately covered by larger papers, would have to be included. That’s before you even consider the logistics of where to put a BBC-paid reporter who wasn’t to be based in a BBC office and who would have to share content between rival newsgroups, much like a rota reporter on a royal visit.
The idea was again rubbished, especially by Ashley Highfield, head of newspaper publisher Johnston Press, and Vice Chair of the News Media Association (formerly the Newspaper Society). He accused the BBC of ‘recruitment of more BBC journalists through the back door.”
But away from the working party, meetings were arranged between Harding of the BBC, and regional newspaper bosses including Highfield, with presumably his JP hat on top of his NMA one, to thrash out an idea of the BBC funding journalists who would work within the newspaper groups, which is pretty much what was revealed today.
Two major questions:
If the BBC funds new reporters to cover council and quango matters for the newspapers, what’s to stop the newspaper groups getting rid of their existing reporting staff? I asked this at the last working party meeting and remain unconvinced that it will be prevented from happening by ‘editorial gatekeepers.’
If there are 150, or even 200 new reporters funded by the BBC in the regions, which everyone would welcome, newspapers would be able to ‘bid’ to have one. Why would happen if, say, the Chronicle & Echo ‘got’ a BBC-funded council reporter, and they were expected to share their brilliant council story (at exactly the same moment) with BBC Northampton and the Herald & Post? Anyone who knows journalists will know the idea of sharing is never as attractive as beating the opposition to a fat exclusive. And newspapers have high targets for reader ‘hits’ just as they do for maintaining high print circulation. A good exclusive will not be given up easily.
Will the 150 reporters ever materialize? If the time it’s taken to get this far is anything to go by, I wouldn’t hold my breath. But I might cross my fingers, and meanwhile try and support my local papers by advertising, clicking through to pages online and picking up the print papers whenever possible. You might not think you need them but you’ll certainly miss them if they go, when the BBC could be the last man standing.