The rejection of the BBC’s proposal to add video bulletins to its local sites is another ruling from a regulator all too keen to keep Auntie in her box – but it’s not a rescue rope for the troubled local newspaper business.
On the one hand, the BBC is asked to better connect with its grassroots audiences – as the trust noted even today, users want “better local and regional services” – but, having shot for the same target with an eye on younger, digital audiences, the broadcaster has been told instead to make more and better TV and radio… an ideological divide has opened between the corporation and its clamper-in-chief.
Whether it’s ordering the closure of education site BBC Jam with the loss of around 200 jobs or scaling back iPlayer series stacking, in the two years since its inception, the BBC Trust has gained a track record for restricting BBC innovation, mostly aiming to protect commercial media in a manner than makes the Beeb’s place in the pecking order plain – the broadcaster can only launch a substantive digital initiative if someone else hasn’t got there first.
Local publishers have undoubtedly dominated their domestic markets for many years – but, with younger audiences splintering either away or to the web, many have so far been unable to produce basic online text offerings with any real panache or profit. So why should they be expected to move in to video, the BBC‘s core territory but one alien to print hacks, with any greater success?
The trust struck against the BBC because its incursion in to print’s territory would have harmed native publishers at this precarious time. By the same argument, should ITV (LSE: ITV) – whose own regional TV news is crumbling – also feel threatened by newspaper websites’ emergence in to moving pictures? That the BBC is barred from continuing its core expertise, video, while local newspapers begin working out how to use a HD camera has a certain irony about it.
Note that this proposal was not for a new service but for an addition to a local service that has been publishing local text for about the last six years – should BBC Local, the former Where I Live, which competes more directly on newspapers’ key ground, now be disbanded altogether? There’s no mention of it.
Though Trinity Mirror (LSE: TNI) and others had lobbied hard against BBC Local, its curtailment far from assures local news media of their future. With some publishers only now truly reforming for the digital age, the economy is biting hard and, regardless of the BBC’s proposal, may yet kill off several titles all by itself. Trinity, Johnston, Newsquest, DMGT, INM and Illiffe have all announced either layoffs, restructures or pay freezes in the last few weeks. But, even if they can weather the gathering economic storm to emerge reformed and leaner for the online future, it’s unclear, when they return, whether they will find an audience of loyal local followers still hanging around or upwardly mobile web users who have long since left for fresh media pastures.
The BBC Trust and Ofcom could have looked at the local newspaper market through the prism of a likely market failure. They had an opportunity to respond to both the industry’s own structural deficiencies and the economic effects it is feeling, by encouraging the BBC to step in to a local media market that is slowly dissipating, using the public service to address and shore up a readership that’s fast changing…
They had the option of ordering each BBC Local site to syndicate their videos to online papers in their local market, for free – thereby absolving the publishers of multimedia investment costs, benefiting from the broadcaster’s core competency in audiovisual and making Auntie in to a production engine that enriches not just her viewers directly but also the commercial operators which the trust seeks to protect.
Instead, the local publishers are free of BBC expansionism but left to fend for themselves, still struggling regardless with the ongoing burden of both online investment and rapidly diminishing returns.