Despite the BBC forecast, regional news is not dead

Future of News

The BBC has been making headlines this week after publishing a report into The Future of News, in which it analyses the possibilities of news-making, opportunity and the direction that news provision and consumption might take over the next decade.  It’s interesting  and insightful but not altogether original and, dare I say it, shockingly smug.

In fact, the self-satisfied tone of what’s been produced almost makes me want to stop paying my licence fee altogether. Within the document, which sets out the importance of mobile devices, data journalism and quality community reporting, the BBC sticks a great big knife into the back of regional newspapers… and then stands back to watch with glee while its suffering rival splutters for life on the floor. Take this patronising paragraph for instance;

“Devolution and the decline of the regional press are creating a real need for local news coverage: the BBC is going to have to do more to provide local news that properly serves all parts of the UK. And the BBC has always been an innovator in news. The opportunities of the New Journalism are plain to see – in data journalism, personalised news services and engaging our viewers, listeners and users so we have genuinely activated audiences – and it’s time to do so again. In the internet age, the BBC’s job is to be the place people come to for the real story.”

Gone is the charade of a potential partnership with regional newspapers it seems – after all, why would the Beeb want to bother with that when it could simply step into the still slightly warm shoes of all the dying newspapers it is now trampling across?

I don’t disagree when the report states that: “The economic issues facing the newspaper  business are not of the BBC’s making, nor will they be alleviated by the BBC standing aside.” The problems being faced by regional newspapers have little to do with Auntie; instead it’s a complex mix of digital technology, changing audience, lack of investment from publishing companies and devastating cuts – much of the decline of newspapers  is down to the management at the very top.

However, the BBC has too quickly written off regional newspapers, they are not quite dead yet. What the report has failed to address is the online work being done by the depleted regional newspaper teams; while many papers have gone weekly they are producing good quality, up-to-the-minute news on their websites. When the report says:

“In 2012 Johnston Press announced it was stopping daily publication of the Halifax Courier, Northampton Chronicle and Echo, Peterborough Evening Telegraph, Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph and Scarborough Evening News, a newspaper which started its daily reporting in 1882.
Today in Scarborough there is a small commercial radio station, no daily newspaper and perhaps surprisingly, very little local or community blogging about the news. Considering the town
hit the national headlines earlier this month as its hospital declared a major incident, there were very few news boots on the ground to hold those responsible to account. Where did local people go to find out what was happening at their hospital?” 

Erm, the Scarborough News website? Let’s have a look shall we…

Now I can’t go back in time, but a quick Google shows me the news surrounding the Scarborough Hospital major incident. Unsurprisingly the story was covered by several news outlets; the BBC and the Scarborough News being two of those.

Scarborough News major incident latest BBC major incident latest

While most of the nationals made it a major story once, both the BBC and the Scarborough News broke the story on the same day, returned to it the following day and then continued to revisit the story. While the BBC has since done an online feature about the situation at the hospital, the Scarborough News gave the most recent ‘news’ update; that an investigation was being held into what had happened. This demonstrates that the local ‘weekly’ paper did just as well as the BBC in covering the news as it happened, but also that it stayed with the story after the others had gone – continuing to inform the Scarborough readers of what was happening to their hospital. Just as you would expect a regional news provider to do.

So, thank goodness for the BBC, without it we would be living completely in the dark about what’s happening on our own doorsteps. Or perhaps not.

To explore the point further I went onto the BBC”s home page for Leeds  and West Yorkshire just after 10am today and then went to have a look at a couple of daily newspaper sites so see what comparisons could be made.

This was the BBC’s home page:

BBC home page Leeds West Yorks January 30

Of the three top stories on the page, none had been published or updated today. In fact, the most recent thing on there, ironically, was the twitter feed which displayed a story from weekly Johnston Press title the Pontefract and Castleford Express which had been tweeted at 10.13am.

Let’s look at two daily regional titles for West Yorkshire, what was on their home page at this point in time?

YEP home page January 30 Telegraph and Argus home page January 30

The Telegraph & Argus, covering Bradford, was packed with stories from the day – including which schools were closed due to snow and a story and video of a runaway van which had caused chaos  in part of the  city that morning.

And the Yorkshire Evening Post – covering Leeds and West Yorkshire – had three top stories, all of which had been broken or updated that morning, two of which had video accompanying the words. Laughably, the video on one of the stories was preceded by a paid-for video advert for the BBC’s iPlayer (see below).

YEP third story January 30

Now, coming from a weekly and daily newspaper background I know I could be a little over-sensitive to its content, but I also can’t help feel like the BBC is not only smug in its assessment, but also just downright wrong. Rather than kicking regional newspapers when they are down, perhaps more acknowledgement and credit should have been given to the good work that is being done and that could be complimented by better provision from the BBC in the future. Competition is healthy and good. Monopoly – even if it is dressed up as ‘saving the  day’ – is not.

This report was about the future of news – and with the licence-fee not going away anytime soon, despite people using their televisions, laptops, smartphones and more to access news from myriad places – often NOT the BBC –  and many paying subscriptions to other content providers as well,  the corporation is perhaps being a little complacent in its ‘vision’.

We are paying for the BBC’s future whether we like it or not. But the future of newspapers is not as cut and dry; the revenue stream is still not nailed on, print circulations are declining and it’s likely many more will close in coming years. But some of the regional newspapers that exist today will continue to provide local content in new ways, reaching a growing audience through various platforms and continuing to try, despite the difficulties, to provide the best service possible. And I for one know they will continue to give the BBC the run for its money that it deserves.

Board will strengthen the voice of newspapers – now time to start work on diversity

 

The New York Times newsroom 1942

Above: The New York Times newsroom of 1942 – not a woman in sight.

Have you ever watched a TV drama in which an unscrupulous journalist has done just about everything possible to get THE story? The tired portrayal of a hard-nosed hack is trotted out by many a scriptwriter, cementing the image of a person who would quite happily sell their own grandmother in exchange for a crumb of a story which would make a front page. I remember watching an episode of Doctor’s once (I was off sick, although that’s no excuse, I know) in which a rookie reporter desperate for the tale stuck their foot in the front door frame of a grieving mother’s home in order to be let into the property. On being shoved back out of the house the reporter then proceeded to shout threats through the letterbox before going on to publish a pack of lies on the front page of their local paper. Note to non-newsroom readers, this is NOT what happens in real life. In real life most reporters (not all, admittedly) follow a code based on law and ethics which would have seen them politely ask if the grieving woman wanted to pay tribute in the paper. If she said no the reporter would then leave and not return. They would not go on to print a lot of made up stuff in order to get revenge for the lack of story, but instead might file nothing, or might report the basic facts provided by the police or coroner. But sadly, due to some unscrupulous journos, some unimaginative scriptwriters and one very long Leveson Inquiry (which put all journalists on a par with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, bankers and expense-fiddling MPs) the reputation of journalism and the industry has become very shaky indeed.

So, in my mind it is excellent news that the Newspaper Society – which represents local and regional press – and the Newspaper Publishers Association, which acts on behalf of national press providers,  is to merge to form a ‘united voice’ for the industry, as reported today on Hold the Front Page.

In an ever changing world in which news is being accessed by a growing audience in myriad ways it makes sense to tackle issues that challenge all newspapers as a united front. Leveson may have barely touched upon regional news provision during the inquiry, but the fallout of the hearing was strongly felt in newsrooms up and down the country. I felt it keenly as the editor of a weekly newspaper at the time; despite working hard as a campaigning newspaper, celebrating the community we served and supporting businesses, charities and good causes, I was regularly quizzed about my thoughts on ethics, my team and their reporting methods. One occasion (when a trainee reporter had failed to adequately cover a charity raffle story) I was told all I cared about was selling papers and asked quite aggressively asked ‘how can you sleep at night?’ (I did point out this was a bit of an overreaction and the accuser did apologise, but it stung all the same).

I do think things have improved. Time is a great healer and most editors work hard to make sure their teams behave in an ethical way which reflects well on them as individuals and on the newspapers they work for as well. I don’t think a unified board at the time of Leveson would have stopped the perception of journalism being a crooked practice, but it would have strengthened the voice, experience, values and opinions being provided by  the industry as the counter balance. It would have allowed regional news providers to seek support and fellowship during difficult times and it would have shown the vast extent of the ‘good’ journalists against the handful of ‘bad’ who had so damaged the industry’s name.

I do have to say though there are still huge mountains to be climbed in the industry. It is a real shame and quite indicitive that in representing an industry of thousands, there is only one female board member. Local World’s Lisa Gordon sticks out on the list of white men in suits like a sore thumb. Jeremy Spooner is correct in saying ‘the news media industry is a diverse and vibrant sector’ but while the new board represents the bredth of publishers in terms of  ‘family-owned local newspapers alongside large national titles’ it is also sadly representative of the inbalance of men to women running these companies. Let’s hope that the board recognises the mirror it holds up to the industry and works to implement change in order to bring more diversity into newspapers’ workforce and senior management structures.

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