The end of BBC local news plans?
A couple of days ago, the BBC Trust announced that it was vetoing a £68 million plan to provide a network of 65 hyper-local news sites providing video news content. On the face of it, it seems that any possibility of Cheshire's licence-fee payers finally getting some dedicated content have been abandoned. However, closer examination of the Trust's statement reveals that the money must be returned to central funds and may be used only with the Trust's agreement. So, the cash has been ring-fenced - at least temporarily. The statement also makes it clear that the BBC needs to look again at existing regional news provision and find other ways of addressing the gaps, and it has been invited to put forward new proposals to the Trust.
We await new developments with interest, as the Trust's announcement does not mean that there will be no Cheshire news site on BBC.co.uk at all, only that there will be no video news service.
Journalist Dave Lee points out that the real losers are the viewers and listeners, and notes that the regional media needs to up its game.
Regional newspapers are , as expected, heaving a huge sigh of relief. It's understandable as the BBC's video news proposals would undoubtedly have had an impact on local news provision. However, they should not feel threatened by the addition of one single web page to Aunty's sprawler of a site. They now have an opportunity to get their act together. If they are so worried about the BBC muscling to provide local news, then they need to provide it themselves in a more consumable form than they currently do. Robert Andrews has also raised some interesting ideas about how the BBC could offer local content in a manner that would enable the regional media and BBC to work together to offer useful content.
The biggest problem the regional press in Cheshire needs to resolve is frequency of delivery. In a large, mainly rural county most local papers are weekly and those that have websites tend to update them only weekly, instead of when news breaks. Coupled with many local FM radio stations that buy in their news feed from London and thus offer no localised bulletin, it is clear that the media Cheshire has a massive service gap to fill.
If they want to stay ahead of the BBC, those newspaper websites need to be updated daily to offer a genuinely local service to readers. Dave Lee has identified some of the major problems regional news websites need to tackle. Newsquest and Trinity Mirror should, I sincerely hope, being closely examining the issue of differentiation. It's understandable that these huge local media conglomerates want to push a brand identity but it should never be at the expense of their end-users, who want local news round the clock in a useable format.
The regional media and the BBC are probably never going to sit comfortably together, but there is a real opportunity now for both to do what they can to improve localised news provision.
In the meantime, the campaign will be asking the BBC if the axing of the local video proposals affects the proposal to offer Cheshire licence-fee payers equality of service on the website.