BBC regional – it’s all take and no give

July 3, 2009

There is a clear and strong need for the excellent national news the BBC provides. It’s indepth and more importantly it strives for neutrality. It’s excellent value for money.

But in my view, it’s regional coverage is anything but good value.

Far too often the BBC regional sites simply take stories from local newspapers, cut them right down and then pass them off as its own work. How is that a public service exactly? At best it’s a news aggregator of a county – at worse it’s taking audience away from other local news websites, many of which have more in depth and detailed stories.

Now I’m the first to admit that many regional paper websites are poor, some extremely so. But most aren’t as poor as the BBC’s.
 They are poor because they offers less news, less in-depth news, and more boring versions of stories.

Take BBC Cambridgeshire today – (this page may have changed by the time you’re reading this).
There are five stories on there, three of which are four line crime nibs. These have probably either come from police press releases or a phone call to the press office. Between them they would have taken ten minutes to write (and that’s being generous).

One of the stories is a decent enough local business story with a short video clip.

And the fifth is a blatant example of a newspaper story being ripped off.

The headline reads: “Historian ‘posed as a war hero’.” And underneath “A Cambridge-based military historian who posed as a war hero has been exposed as a fantasist, BBC Look East reveals.”

But further examination of the story and it’s not a Look East revelation at all – it’s a Cambridge News story (or rather Cambridge Evening News as the BBC wrongly refers to it). Worse, the story actually appeared in the daily paper last week.

Now it’s bad enough taking credit for ‘revealing’ a story already in the public domain, but to make it worse, the BBC has refused to share a video clip of an old interview with the ‘war hero’ with the paper.

So like the bully in the sandpit, it’s ok for the Beeb to steal from everyone else and pass work off as its own, but it wont share its own toys.

So I have to say, perhaps Alastair Stewart has a point. Let’s take a proper look at the many parts of the BBC and see if they really are all necessary.

My only concern is what happens when more regional papers go to the wall? If all we’ve got to fill the gap is the BBC regional then regional news is stuffed.

Inquiry into council newspapers

June 17, 2009

Just a short one but I’m delighted to see that the politicians are awake to the threat of council run newspapers.

According to holdthefrontpage: “The Digital Britain report said it would be “against the public interest” for local papers to be rendered unviable by the flight of paid-for advertising to local authority publications.”

I’ve said before that I have no problem with council newsletters. Indeed, I can see the strong value of informing tax payers of what their money is being spent on.

My issue has always been the council’s pursuit of advertising revenues and dressing council sheets up as proper newspapers.

I’ve addressed my arguments before here:

But I still haven’t heard a convincing argument as to why councils need newspapers rather than newsletters.

Aunty needs to look at herself

May 20, 2009

It’s good to see the BBC licence fee being debated again.

 This time it’s the Tories – no doubt keen to deflect some attention away from their own expense claims – suggesting that efficiencies can be made and that the fee be frozen.

Before I go on, I’ll admit to not being the BBC’s biggest fan. I believe it is too big, often goes too far in stepping on the toes of the independent media, and they once turned me down for a job (to be fair I did call one of the interviewers an elitist, posh school cunt).

More importantly, the BBC as an organisation, like our MPs, has taken the taxpayer for granted.

I do accept and strongly believe that parts of the BBC are very important and need protection. It’s news coverage is vital. Its original programming has clearly raised and kept the standards of our television high.

However, there are many other parts of the corporation which need to be trimmed.

I’d put money on there being a few expense scandals lurking in Aunty’s murky corridors.

Some of those we know already know about seem massively excessive to me.
* £33k a day on taxis.
* £120k on a Christmas party for 2,500 staff.
* £45k on a launch party for Merlin.

Then there are the salaries of its ‘stars’. Would you rather spend £2m a year for Jonathan Ross or support 200 well paid journalists? Ross may attract decent audience figures, but his shows could (and probably would have been) easily be provided by another channels without cost to the tax payer.

Earlier this month we had the startling revelation that news reader Carrie Grace earns £92,000 a year for reading out loud. Ok, she’s an award-winning interviewer (although she handled that expenses one appallingly), but I don’t think it’s a stretch for the Beeb to find some equally talented for half that wage.
Afterall, there are (or were) thousands of talented journalists out there, including huge numbers working for less than £25k or even £20k in the regional press.

The digital channels – do we really need to spend so much on so many when the audience share is so low?

Do we really need regional news websites which steal most of its content from the regional press before cutting them down to a very superficial summary?

And then my real pet hate – the regional BBC radio stations. They offer very similar products to what’s already available commercially. How is it a pubic service to repeat what is already being provided by a non-state funded company?
All they do is take business away from non-state funded companies and deny local firms a platform to advertise.

So particularly in these trying times – the Beeb needs to take a long hard look at how it is spending its money.

But the bits of the BBC which provide genuine public service – in particular its journalism – need protection.

A free press/media is vital to a successful democracy, and it’s incredibly important to have news and issues debated by news organisations with differing political slants. Where we’re lucky in this country is that in the BBC, we have a service which reflects the news agenda from a neutral perspective very well.
It tries incredibly hard to present the facts and various points of views without taking sides and letting the reader make up its own mind, free from the bias of owners or market forces.

So before any cuts are made of the licence fee, the money it spends on its (national) news coverage needs to be secured.

Just put your lips together and blow…

May 14, 2009

The one story from the MPs expenses that has really annoyed me – and there are plenty – was the story about police being called in to investigate “the mole” who sold the details to The Telegraph.

Now, I’d rather that person had simply leaked the document, but there’s no arguing as to the importance of the information he gave to the press.

So it infuriated me that another whistleblower is probably going to be punished for revealing a story of vital interest to the public.

We’re supposed to be living in a society which supports a free press – but the heavy handed punishments and harrasment of whistleblowers flies in the face of this.

I was on the newsdesk of the Gloucestershire Echo when the Katherine Gunn case broke.

She was the GCHQ worker who leaked an email to from the NSA requesting British help to bug offices and homes of UN diplomats from countries whose support would be vital to win a resolution authorising the invasion of Iraq.

This was an incredibly important story. But what Katherine Gunn went through afterwards was scandalous.

Then of course there was David Kelly – the man hounded to suicide for leaking the ‘dodgier dossier’.

I also had conversations with Sally Murrer, the journalist arrested and detained for 48 hours for having an off the record chat with a whistleblowing police officer.

In the last couple of months we’ve seen a teacher sacked for filming incredible examples of poor behaviour in schools and a nurse struck off for filming the terrible conditions of a hospital – something she only did after her complaints were ignored by her bosses.

So it came as no surprise to me to hear that The Times is going to be punished for daring to point problems with our legal system.  The paper ran a piece from a foreman of a jury who showed how a controversial decision was reached in a manslaughter trial.

All journalists know that the jury is out of bounds when reporting on court cases. And most of us also know that the jury system is absurdly flawed.

 Having served on a jury, I’ve seen first hand how ludicrous a system it can be. In my case, one of the jurors stated, after just the prosecution’s opening statement, that he didn’t care about the evidence. He said that he trusted the police and as the man had been arrested, he had to have done something. He also believed that as it was a drugs case and the man was of a certain age and class, he was definitely guilty.

In the end, two days of arguments were settled by tiredness – the not guilty dissenters backed down because they wanted to go home.

The man was clearly guilty in my eyes, and the verdict reflected that, but the way it was settled was incredibly worrying.

So I think it is an incredible injustice that The Times and the foreman are going to be done for contempt of court for having the balls to say something. They’ve probably done the legal system a great service.

Too many whistleblowers are being punished for bringing important truths to light, and until they get greater protection, a free press will never be fully realised.

Dream a little dream…

May 6, 2009

Today I’m taking a quick trip to Cloud Cuckoo Land as I’ve decided that I’m going to win the £110 million Euro Lottery jackpot on Friday.

After treating myself a nice little mansion (complete with an indoor five-a-side football pitch) and a swanky pair of leather trousers (always a good look for a 30-something chubster), I’m going to use the change to buy myself a fair sized regional newspaper.

But this wont be a rich man’s folly (ok, maybe it will be a bit), as I honestly believe my newspaper will make healthy money. And if doesn’t, then at least I’ll still be doing something worthwhile with my not-very-hard-earned cash.

Yes, I’ve read all the blogs, articles and listened to the poisonous pundits predicting the inevitable demise of the regional newspaper. And I’ve seen the depressing financial statements of the big players.
I’m also a paid up member of the adapt-to-new-technology-or-die school.
But I think the reason many newspapers will cease to be is not because the newspaper is a dying platform.

It’s purely down to greed.

If the big companies could accept that the 30% profit margins of five and ten years ago will soon be about 10% to 15%, and that that the £180million of 2005 could fall as low as £80million in the 2010, then they’d have a chance at survival.

It wont happen of course. The shareholders are still demanding unrealistic dividends so the bosses will keep making cuts to try and meet them. They’ll do so until the last remaning journalist dies of exhaustion or it dawns on the final reader that he’s simply being fed rewritten press releases.

But I still believe in newspapers as a medium. TV didn’t kill the cinema or radio, and the internet didn’t kill books. Audiences fell, but they remained viable.
The smarter among you will point out that newspaper audiences are falling at a more alarming rate than those, but I think the figures will eventually bottom out.

And if you marry the remaining audiences to other platforms, then the product might still work.

So, how would my newspaper work? Well, basically as a not-for-profit venture.
I’m already stupidly wealthy remember and I’m pretty sure I could live with just the one hoveryacht.

I’m well aware that a stand-alone product probably wouldn’t cut it, but as I’ve not completed the internet yet, I’d employ smarter people than myself to play around with the multi-platform diversification malarky.

My goal is simple – a newspaper (or news product) which can sustain local journalism. While I wont care about increasing my profits every year, I’m not completely stupid and I’d want it to at the very least break even, rather than eating into the tens of millions of pounds sitting in my Barclays Super Saver account.

In very simplistic terms, the paper I work for currently can pay all its staff and overheads for the year in about six or seven months. Everything else is money in the bank (or rather subsidises other parts of the business and keeps the shareholders in hand cream). And this is in the middle of a recession.
Things would have to get a lot worse for it to start losing money.

My last post but one explains a bit about how my current paper is making money so I wont bore you too much here. Basically it’s by not being (as much of) a slave to rigid corporate policies and not giving away adverts so cheaply it harms the product.

So with the profit I think I can make, I can strengthen the business by reinvestment, putting cash aside for bleaker times and even sharing some of it about with those who helped to make it – either with genuinely fair salaries or, God forbid, bonuses.

As for staff, I’ve already got a mental list of the most talented individuals I’ve worked with for the more plum positions.

It’s a dream and a very flawed, naïve dream. But maybe one of us die-hard news types will strike it lucky and give something like this a go.

In the meantime I better get back to doing three people’s jobs.

Council ‘propaganda’

April 23, 2009

Just a quick one stolen from Roy Greenslade, about the council newspaper debate.

Roy quotes from Jon Slattery’s blog:

“When I interviewed the editor of a local council paper for a piece on town halls and the local press in The Journalist he told me:

‘Some council papers are trying to ape the look and feel of a local paper, but what we do is propaganda. When I report the council’s budget proposals I look for positive stories and don’t mention the £6m worth of cuts. If I reported that I would be sacked. I don’t tell lies, but I always look for positive stories.'”

Now for some good news

April 15, 2009

At a rather frustrating distribution meeting last week, I was pleased to get some good news about how well my paper is doing commercially.


It is now the third most profitable free weekly paper in the group. That may sound like a small thing, but to me it’s a massive milestone.


It’s important to note that although my rag is a free paper, it’s still a proper newspaper with 30 pages of news, two pages of letters, six pages of ents and five pages of sport. Pretty much all of which is original, local content.

It’s also worth mentioning that one of the more profitable frees is recycled content from the daily with virtually no overheads attached to it.


This post may sound rather self-congratulatory, but its point is to show how far my paper has come. And more importantly, how a little bit of leeway from the non-editorial bigwigs has helped the paper blossomed.


Those who know me will be aware that this is my first editorship. I’ve been in the chair for two years now, but six months ago I was terrified that my short career as the big man was about to come to an abrupt end.


The paper was losing money, pagination had plummeted and the editorial space was constantly being squeezed.


The paper in itself wasn’t too bad and it was the second biggest in a market of three free papers.

But more and more the obsession with margins and targets started pushing the importance of its editorial content way down the list of priorities.


The advertising ratio targets in particular became the bane of my life. 65% of all space had to be filled by ads. The target was set during a time when the paper had 20 full pages of property advertising. This had fallen to just four pages by the time I took over.

But the bean counters were adamant that these targets had to be met. Arguments that we could get a higher yield per ad with a better news product fell on deaf ears.

And as I was only allowed to bring the paper up or down by eight pages at a time, I was spending more time sitting with the advertising manager, calculater in hand, to try and meet these ridiculous goals than I was sorting out the editorial content of the paper.

The paper got steadily smaller and tighter, and while the we actually increased the number of ads, we were making much less per page than ever before.


I was also working without any full-time reporters as both my talented young hacks had moved on and weren’t replaced. We survived for six months with myself, my deputy, a two-day-a-week reporter and one freelancer a week. I was lucky to find exceptional freelancers at various stages (and only the one turkey), and the paper was surprisingly not actually that bad.


But with the industry making drastic cuts across the board, I could feel the axeman not just breathing but hyperventilating down my neck.


Worse, I had bought my first house just a few months before the credit crunch kicked in and my wife was expecting our first child.


So when I was called in during a week of annual leave to meet the MD, I was mentally rewriting my CV and praying for a not-too-souless PR job.


Instead I was shocked to be told that the paper had been sold to one of my rival papers – and a smaller paper at that.

Bizarrely, I was not best pleased with this at first. I had spent months trying to best these guys and they had become if not quite an Arsenal, then a West Ham to my beloved Spurs.


But my initial reaction was wrong, once the papers had merged, with myself and my deputy keeping our jobs, life and the paper got better. I now have two full time reporters again and I can also take county-wide copy from the daily title. For the first time in years, my paper is also covering court stories again.


The best thing about the merger was how much emphasis was put on the editorial side of the paper.

The thinking was to create a good quality, open newspaper, and then to try to make it work financially.

News was put before profit, even if it was just while the paper bedded in.

It was expected that it wouldn’t even make money to start with, but the profits would grow along with the paper’s reputation. In actual fact the paper made a small profit straight away.


The first edition looked superb (despite a few minor irritations), with twice as many pages as before and more open pages. More importantly the advertisers were prepared to pay proper rates for as their ads were not competing with five or six others on a page.

Our weekly revenues are now twice that of my old paper, and this is in the middle of a recession.


It’s not all been plain sailing and for the first few weeks I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with the longer commute and extended hours. But my week is now perfectly manageable, and more importantly I’m proud of what I’m doing again.


The paper is a long way from being perfect – another reporter would vastly improve things – but we’re holding the local authorities to account better; we’re getting good debates going in our letters page; feedback has been largely positive and I feel like an editor once more rather than a manager, a firefighter or a ‘news facilitor’.


So with all the doom and gloom about at the moment, I still have some faith papers can survive, but only if their editorial content is treated with respect.

The days of the 30 % profits margins have gone, and yes, that £180m profit is now just £120m.

But the fact is profits can still be had, and good profits at that.