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 – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cambridgeshire/default.stm (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. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/jul/03/itn-alastair-stewart-bbc-beeching

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.” http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/news/090616digbritreact.shtml

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: https://monkeysandtypewriters.wordpress.com/2009/03/26/council-journalists-arent-best-value/

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


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.'”


Two tier regulation

March 12, 2009

It’s been another turbulent week in the unhappy world of journalism with more job cuts, pay freezes, forced unpaid holidays, strikes and Roy Greenslade suggesting most “freesheets” “have little worthwhile editorial content”.

But for me the most important story has been the ongoing media select committee hearings in the House of Commons.

Evidence has been given by Gerry McCann, Robert Murat and Max Moseley about how the press – largely the national, tabloid press – have stepped way over the line.

Now, I have no sympathy for Moseley, but the treatment of the McCanns and Murat  was pretty horrendous.

There is an argument that as the McCanns courted the media, they deserved what they get. I really can’t subscribe to this point of view. Nobody deserves to have lies printed about them so regularly, especially not people who have been through such a harrowing time as they have.

Now it’s naive to suggest that journalists should be impartial and balanced at all times, but we really should insist that accuracy is non-negotiable.
Of course we’ll get things wrong and while not inexcusable, we will also be misled at times. But when stories get exaggerated, twisted and even completely fabricated just to sell papers, then the whole industry is brought into disrepute.

The purpose of the select committee is to look at regulation of the press. I used to favour self-regulation, but I just don’t think it’s working properly.

The worst offenders – the national tabloids – can easily afford the fines handed out to them. In fact calculations are often made on whether they’ll be able to make up for a libel fine with the extra sales they’ll put on.

There’s something extremely rotten about that, as is the fact that most nats set aside a budget for libel payouts. In effect they know in advance how much per year they’re willing to pay out for not telling the truth. Deliberatly printing something you know to be untrue should be the biggest sin in journalism. Sadly it seems to be actively encouraged at some papers.

Take Jade Goody at the moment – it doesn’t matter what it’s about, every tabloid paper wants a certain number of Jade stories a week. That sort of approach can only breed dodgy articles.

Self-regulation works a bit better for the regional press, if only because they simply can’t afford to take risks in these days with the rise of no-win, no-fee and the ridiculous rules on paying court costs.
It still makes little sense to me that the penalities for the Sun or Mirror could ever be on a par with those faced by the Battle Observer (circ 3,000). It’s like Chelsea being handed a £100,000 fine. We scoff at it as it has no impact. But if the likes of Luton Town are ordered to pay the same fee, it could bankrupt them.

I am worried about just how much press freedom would be curtailed by outside regulation, particularly if from the Government, but carrying on as we are simply isn’t an option.

So why not make it a two tier system?

Keep self-regulation in some form for the regionals – most are already behaving responsibly – but introduce a tougher watchdog for the national papers.
They have more resources, more money and a bigger audience. They should be setting the example, not lowering the trust in journalism.