BBC online expansion would be calamitous for local news

As if falling revenues and job cuts were not bad enough, the BBC Trust wants to heap more problems on the regional press.

It is demanding that BBC Online beefs up its local and regional coverage.

It says its audience councils (advisory groups of independent volunteers who represent the BBC’s viewers, listeners and readers) say the organisation’s local news is not as strong as its UK and international news.

Local websites are also based on regions or counties that are too large to be locally relevant.

Now most journalists would say this is a statement of the blindingly obvious.

Local BBC news websites are, indeed, poor. Though thanks to the BBC’s extraordinary technical resources they are extremely well-presented.

The important question is do they need to be better?

The BBC’s audience councils might innocently say so. But in spurring the corporation’s big wigs to reprise their grandiose plans for national online domination they may be condemning to oblivion the entire regional news industry.

Communities are already provided with a first-rate news service by local newspapers and their websites, which must, of course, operate without the luxury of licence-payer funding.

But they would be simply unable to compete with the levels of investment into digital products that the BBC could marshal.

It is not even as if the corporation’s reach in the regions is marginal as things stand.

BBC News reached 20.3m unique browsers a week in the UK in December 2012.

This compares with a weekly online reach for the UK’s biggest newspaper website, Mail Online, of four million readers in the UK, according to the National Readership Survey figure for 2012.

To make matters worse, the latest trust report contradicts conclusions reached in a review of the BBC strategy in 2010 which said “in the current market, the BBC should not launch new services that are any more local than its current offerings, particularly now that it is committed to offer support to any future commercial providers of local television news.”

The Newspaper Society, which represents regional publishers, says those the BBC consulted for the latest report did not necessarily suggest that local news was an area appropriate to the corporation, and that it could improve its local news and local coverage if its local radio websites included links to newspaper sites, as the society and its member publishers have consistently demanded and the BBC has yet to fully achieve.

The BBC is a marvellous institution, and the quality and depth of content of BBC Online is without parallel in the world.

But the supply of regional news is best left to regional newspapers and their journalists. They have served their communities well for decades and have earned the right to find their place in the digital economy without facing the hurdle of unfair competition from a state behemoth.

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About John Wilson

Editor of Hereford Times, Ludlow Advertiser, Stroud News and Journal, Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard and Gloucestershire Gazette series. Journalist for more than 30 years.
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