The BBC, Hyperlocal News and VJs

The following comes to me from Alan Morrison in New Zealand – a very loyal correspondent.

In 2005 we built 5 hyperlocal news nodes for the BBC in and around Birmingham, England as a test pilot. Each node was manned by 5 VJs, and that was all.  The pilot worked quite well. So well in fact that we imported the model to the US, where we have successfully run the model here for almost two years.

Now, the BBC wants to expand the model nationally.  Both local newspapers and local TV stations are up in arms. The vastly reduced cost compounded with the greatly expanded coverage threatens to undermine their whole way of doing business. Good. It should.

I don’t normally do this, but I am reprinting Roy Greenslade’s blog in its entirety.

Roy Greenslade is something of a legend in British journalism. He was the former editor of The Daily Mirror as well as the managing editor of The Sunday Times.

At the beginning of the week I carried two postings – here and here – about the extension of the BBC’s “hyperlocal” websites. (You’ll see in a moment why I have apostrophised hyperlocal).

In response to my second posting on Tuesday, a commenter (Shuttleboy) annihilated my argument. Firstly, and crucially, he pointed out that it is wrong to regard the BBC’s proposal to increase staffing and coverage at its localised websites as hyperlocal.

He is right. Let’s nail this one. The BBC has 57 localised websites in the UK, attracting 4m unique users a week. For localised, read regionalised because they cover huge areas with populations averaging about 1m apiece. They typically cover counties or large cities. (If the proposals are agreed there will be three more sites, splitting up some of the over-large areas).

At a push, I suppose we could call these hyper-regional or ultra-regional sites. Those terms may sound like a joke but the failure to find an adequate description for these websites is one reason why they have been improperly described as both hyperlocal and ultra-local. (Clearly, we need to end this argument over semantics).

Anyway, in practice, it means that the BBC’s websites cover areas in which there are several, sometimes many, regional dailies and/or local weekly papers. When newspaper publishers talk of hyperlocal in their own industry they generally mean small-scale publications covering areas within their own circulation areas. So they know what the term really means.

At present, the BBC websites each have staffs of four people. The proposal is to increase staffing by five per site over a five-year period. These new employees will be video journalists (VJs) whose task, rather obviously, will be to increase the video content.

The BBC believes that the expense of these expanded websites, an extra £23m by 2013 or £350,000 per site, is justified because the corporation is fulfilling its public service remit. It is offering the people living in the nations and regions a news service that does not currently exist. (Anyway, it’s not new money being spent, simply a reallocation of resources because of savings made in the division).

One of the counter arguments advanced by regional paper publishers is that increasing video content will threaten the possible emergence of competing ultra-local television services and/or duplicate digital services already provided by local media companies. But ultra-local TV is virtually non-existent and few, if any, publishers have plans to introduce it.

As for video content on local paper websites, it has got better – much better in some cases – but it is patchy and one cannot be certain that the existence of the BBC’s regionalised video content will kill off all local video initiatives.

I agree it’s a moot point. One can well understand that at this time of increasing financial desperation for regional publishers, any encroachment on to their territory is unwelcome. At a time when they need to invest in innovation they are finding it difficult to maintain a commitment to multi-platform journalism.

Shuttleboy’s third complaint about my posting was my contention that the BBC relies (and will rely yet more) on filling its websites by plundering the content of newspaper websites. Evidently, there is no evidence to suggest that this happens (or will happen). I think this is an easy one to prove one way or the other. Where is the evidence?

On a wider point, which appears to have exercised the National Union of Journalists, is it right to oppose any investment in local journalism? Should we stand back and watch papers down-size and yet deny the rights of an alternative news-provider to step into the vacuum?

In fairness, the BBC is not competing for advertising. Nor, strictly speaking, is it competing directly for audiences, given that its website footprints are so different from those of the newspapers.

Doubtless, the public value tests being carried out by the BBC Trust will cast some light on this (though its chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, may regret having spoken out about the state of the regional press prior to announcing the trust’s response to the BBC’s proposals). As one insider told me, it has given him less room for manoeuvre.

That specific matter aside, the larger problem is the one about the increasingly fractious relationship between commerce and public service, between a profit-seeking press and a public service broadcaster. Working together could prove mutually beneficial. There has to be a way to overcome this long-running dispute to both side’s advantage

Posted by Roy Greenslade Friday October 31 2008 13.11 GMT


10 responses to “The BBC, Hyperlocal News and VJs

  1. I know you are not going to post this but anyway, what’s your point.

    “The pilot worked quite well. So well in fact that we imported the model to the US, where we have successfully run the model here for almost two years.”

    Is he talking about your hyperlocal in Washington or something else?

    The reality is that making comparison with the BBC fools no one. They don’t need advertising money there, their revenue comes from a form of broadcasting mandatory fee, or you can call it a form of taxation. Here, as you have discovered, we need the public approval, if viewers don’t like it they click away to something else taking the advertisers and their money along with them, and there goes your revenue, as you have already discovered.

    I’ve been telling you for six years, the public doesn’t look at crappy programs when with a click on their remote they can watch something better.

    Isn’t like there’s a meter that charge them extra when they look for something better, it costs them the same to look at crap as it costs to look at good intelligent programs.

  2. Michael – given the unique position of the UK having the BBC, and the mere fact that there is nothing like it here in the U.S. – how does what’s happening there apply to those of us here?

    It seems to me that the U.S. is such a mish mash of corporate MSNM, which is more concerned about regurgitating the same stories shot the same way, that the very notion of an alternative visual journalism outlet is left without a place to ply its wares.

    What, if anything, can be learned by what’s happening there for us who see things differently – ie, would like to develop an alternative outlet for stories that aren’t dependent on the dying print news outlets, nor the pathetic excuse that is known as local broadcast news venues?

  3. Even though the BBC is not commercially driven it is very dependent up on ratings. The BBC’s charter and funding is renewed every 10 years, and the BBC must be responsive to the perceived needs of the viewers in order to keep the funding going. They cannot put on anything they like and expect that they will continue to have everyone fork over $400 a year. This is not a government tax, it is a separate license fee that is paid directly to the corporation, and it was designed in that way to make the corporation responsive to the needs and demands of its viewers.

    That having been said, the BBC provide a great testing ground for new ideas. Many US shows began at the BBC, where they were given room to experiment and fine tune – a chance US networks simply don’t offer. Shows like Supernanny, Wifeswap, The Office, Trading Spaces, Life on Mars and many many others began as BBC series before they were imported to the US. Survivor actually began as a Swedish show! None of these, by the way, were initially produced for a commercially driven audience.

    So I think the notion that the BBC models are transportable and convertable to revenue producers is a very valid idea.

  4. You’re joking right?

    “Even though the BBC is not commercially driven it is very dependent up on ratings. The BBC’s charter and funding is renewed every 10 years, and the BBC must be responsive to the perceived needs of the viewers in order to keep the funding going.”

    10 years? A bad show here is history overnight. How many TV show do you remember from the last decade. Comparing the BBC to US TV is not even comparing apple and oranges, is comparing apples and broccoli. People don’t have to watch bad TV and there’s nothing wrong with news like you and your followers would like to make everyone believe. The problem with news is that is not exclusive to TV anymore; there are more outlets and more competition, that’s a natural course of progress. The problem is that nobody is bringing news to the public that they can use, the only place to get in depth news is by reading the paper or by tuning in news channels. The public look at the news media to be informed and educated on current affairs that are affecting their lives, they are looking for directions. We have a disaster of an economy, over one million foreclosures, the banking and credit industry is in disarray, stock market along with people’s retirement accounts is down the toilet and we still have a war going on; these are just some of the concerns that the public would like to know from experts what’s going on; and do you know what the Newark Start Ledger has on their news videos? Let’s see,
    “Hawthorne Ave same sex classroom”, “New Jersey only home made pirate ship”, TV zombies protest Panasonic”, “Bat Rehab”, these are just the first few, then you wonder why people don’t watch those videos or why you can’t get advertisers on your Hyperlocal?

    The public have much better things to do with their valuable time than watching those jokes disguised as newsworthy videos.

  5. The BBC licence fee is $139 per household – averaging to around $40 per person – not $400. Even so 4 out of 5 people resent paying it – they do so only because the alternative is prison.

    The BBC’s plan to spend an additional 4 million pounds a year on regional video coverage? Let’s put that into perspective – it’s is 50% less than the 6 million pound annual salary paid to Johnathan Ross.

  6. 139 british pounds per household not $

  7. I’m not sure I agree with 4 out of 5 people resenting paying the licence fee. Have you got a source for that stat?

    I read recently a study which said most people think it’s very good value for money compared with commercial pay-tv.

    It’s also worth noting that a TV licence fee isn’t a peculiarly british thing. Most European countries have one. What is different in Britain is that the BBC use the money *instead* of taking advertising.

    Most countries take both.

    I’d say the alternative to not paying the licence fee is to not have a TV. A radio and the internet is mostly what I use.

  8. not quite Robert –

    do you ever watch BBC on your computer or mobile? No license? Hope you like porridge.

    The source of the info is The Daily Mail, according to AP – “The Finest Newspaper in the World”

  9. Pingback: Will BBC websites spell the end for local newspapers? « The Quickie

  10. Pingback: Is the BBC using licence fee payer’s money correctly? « The Quickie

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