Will BBC Digital Content Deal Save A Dying Local Media Industry?

MPs have a point -- a very good one. While all the attention is focused on Rupert Murdoch's proposed purchase of the part of Sky he doesn't already own, the burning issue in British media is the state of local newspapers, both in print and online. To be honest, I suspect most people already assumed Murdoch owned Sky in its entirety, anyway.

Local newspapers are in a dire state. The Press Gazette reveals that a debate by MPs showed that after 200 titles having closed since 2005, there are now only around 1000 left. Helen Goodman, MP, and Chair of the National Union of Journalists, used the debate to accuse greedy owners of wanting too high a return. Those papers that can't provide large profits are closed, she said, while calling for a government enquiry into the state of local media.

Given the high volume of Brexit-related work regarding government right now, I'd have to say it's unlikely her request will be taken too seriously. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It comes in highly unusual form of the BBC.

For those who don't know, the local newspaper companies and the BBC have been locking horns for years. Regional papers, quite rightly, point out that there is little they can do online to attract people away from the BBC's local news coverage. Why would readers navigate away from the ad-free section of the BBC News site to read news, accompanied by ads, on a local paper's site?

But two months ago came the news that the local newspapers could only have dreamed about a couple of years ago. The BBC has the green light to fund a new project staffed by 150 journalists whose stories are to be shared with commercial local news outlets. There is talk of a data hub for better data analysis, plus there is auditing of crossovers of interest and effort that may influence the project further down the line.

An additional extra that will definitely appeal is a new News Bank. This will make BBC material available to local news sources shortly after it has appeared with the BBC. There is no time limit given for this, but at least it would appear the sharing will, by definition, be free. So we have content shared with local newspapers and 150 journalists -- or local democracy journalists as they have been called -- who will be producing content for local media.

I have to say, I think this will achieve more than a call for an enquiry into the state of the industry. The answer to that is pretty clear. People buy papers less frequently than in the past, and so there has been a shift online. Here the BBC holds the majority of the country's news attention, and so there has been no need to seek out local news from a commercial outlet. Sharing the content that has been paid for by the state seems like a sensible way to resolve the cost issues of the shift toward digital and the corresponding fall in print circulations.

What it can't do, however, is make up for the fact the BBC does a great job and is ad-free. It's where our attention already is. Getting great quality content on to local newspapers' sites, for free, is a grand gesture -- but it's only half of the job.

If the eyeballs are already elsewhere, at the BBC, where that content is also available and without the ads, you still have the same issue.

Ultimately, local newspapers have to press home the advantage that they are a lot more local and "on the ground" than the BBC. They have to know more about road closures, planning applications and those things that matter to people as well as the big headline news they can get at the BBC as well as a commercial site. 

So the content sharing and the 150 new journalist jobs are a welcome shot in the arm for the local media, but they are not the whole answer. They offer a more level playing field on content, and take the cost out of producing some of that content. However, as far as the public's media attention being focussed on the BBC and not their local paper goes, sharing content will not make much of an impact.

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