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