BBC – where’s the local news?

As the BBC’s friends and foes wait with baited breath for the next update from Director-General Tony Hall about the future of the organisation in the run up to charter renewal in 2016, it’s maybe worth taking a closer look at the implications for licence-fee payers in the North West (and the rest of the English regions) rather than just concentrate on the network centre in London.

So how might things take shape when the corporation’s plans for the future are announced later this year?

Work has been going on behind the scenes for the past few months to find ways in which the BBC’s regional and local news gatherers (ie those based in England but not working directly to network tv and radio) can improve their digital offer …production teams have been discussing options designed to improve the online news content, as more audiences switch to hand-held devices for their news, while assessing what impact this momentum will have on the traditional news teams in local radio and regional television.
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So in the North West that’s Radio Merseyside, Lancashire and Manchester and North West Tonight and the local news websites.

Wot more staff?

Lord Hall (‘call me Tony’) of Birkenhead has already voiced a desire to create 100 new “public service reporters” in the regions, funded from the licence fee, whose work would also benefit designated local newspapers. He’s hoping that the advantages of such a news-sharing scheme (ie free content) will head off the criticism by newspapers that the BBC has its digital tanks on “their” lawns. It will of course also improve the BBC’s coverage as more civic power is devolved to the regions by Westminster.

Whether that will be enough to pacify the beleaguered barons remains to be seen and it’s certainly a long-overdue start – although the devil will as ever be in the detail.

Sharing news stories and video might be attractive to the regional newspaper websites but will it be enough to satisfy them? It’s an offer that maybe the newspapers will think that they’d be mad to ignore, even if this particular gift horse has been a long time coming.

What is less clear is the level of impact this policy will have on the BBC’s traditional tv and radio news gatherers and which departments will have to pay for the reporters,albeit indirectly. A quick fag packet calculation points to a total cost of £2-3 million, when the contract goes out to tender which of course the big groups like Trinity Mirror will be able to bid for.

One thing is pretty much certain (although I will happily eat my crystal ball if this is not the case)…I can’t see the BBC creating 100 additional reporters without there being some kind of financial clawback from the regions. In my experience the BBC just doesn’t work like that, certainly not in local broadcasting.

Having implemented, and been at the receiving end of, some ‘big’ restructuring decisions in the past I think that regional tv newsrooms will be affected only slightly in terms of a reduction in service or staffing as part of the clawback.

The BBC’s tv newsgathering operations rely on the regional newsrooms for content so unless the regions reduce the number of bulletins or cut back on the 6.30 regional programmes, it’s difficult to see where the axe would fall. They may of course require tv staff to create more online content although something would need to give and I’m not sure if that’s a sacrifice policy-makers would want to make. TV’s more time-consuming to make than radio and some would argue more valued by the policy-makers, certainly in the regions.

Local radio’s position seems to be much less secure than tv with rumours afoot that the BBC are planning to axe or merge stations while boosting online news content both via the “Happy 100” reporters and by making radio journalists creating more online content …..probably at the expense of local radio news coverage.

As a former radio station boss I hope those fears are unfounded but I fear that cuts in local radio will pay, at least in part, for the online news expansion.

Although cuts to BBC local have not been a savage as local newspapers they have been harsh in places and one wonders if stations can continue to serve their communities with a much-depleted staff particularly after the last lot of cuts three years ago.

Mystic Mick’s predictions….

My crystal ball may now be a little misty having left BBC Radio Merseyside in 2012 but, except for a few years in the Greg Dyke era, I can’t recall a time when local radio provision was increased without there being a corresponding ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’ action. That’s not a whinge, it’s just the way it was.MysticMick

They say that timing is everything in the media but whoever set the celestial clocks for this one has a strange sense of humour as far as local radio is concerned. Particularly when you consider that when the last round of big efficiencies were announced in 2011 audiences had actually risen across the piste yet there were still cuts of 15% or more at many stations.

Local radio now costs £150 million a year to run and attracts about 7 million listeners among 40 stations. The BBC Trust is currently undertaking a review into its news coverage with publication of the report early next year.

I suspect that for older members of the parish like myself (50+) it’s often not an either/or choice ; we want our news on radio and tv as well as on the internet but, unless there’s a cash windfall (yeah) something’s got to give.

And that’s just part of the local and regional picture…. one aspect of a huge jigsaw and I haven’t even mentioned BBC Two, BBC Four, the BBC’s 6 (six) orchestras, the World Service, the Asian Network, BBC Learning, BBC Worldwide….

Tony Hall has already said that more than 1,000 more jobs will go and despite repeated promises over the years for a big management cutbacks many staff remain to be convinced (to put it mildly) that this has been tackled as forcefully as it might have been.

It’s a matter of conjecture right now as to exactly how deep the management cuts might be.

The next hint may come from Hall himself at the Royal Television Society this week.

Whatever is or isn’t mentioned in Cambridge, it promises to be lively year for our main public service broadcaster.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes the accountants and the senior managers continue to work out plans to take the corporation into 2016, appease the politicians AND keep the licence fee and the charter in tact…at least for a few more years.

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