The upcoming charter review provides the ideal opportunity to extend the BBC’s long-established and highly successful outsourcing model to local news gathering.
At a time when more power is being devolved to the regions, it is essential that there is a long-term commitment to media coverage of institutions – courts, health trusts, education authorities, social services and other public bodies – to ensure full accountability.
The House of Commons culture, media and sport select committee recommended earlier this year that the BBC should support local media by extending the independent quota to local news, emphasising that “local newspapers are a vital component of our democracy”.
In our submission to the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), Local World argues that by deploying a small proportion of its budget to independent suppliers, the BBC would be strengthening its remit of providing a public service.
Structural change in media and the emergence of global players, such as Facebook and Google, has greatly diminished traditional sources of revenue for newspapers which fund journalism.
However, consumer appetite for professional reporting of news and information remains undiminished and the opportunity for trusted independent news brands to engage a local audience is evidenced in the strong growth in our visitor numbers. Local World’s titles cover 23 per cent of the UK and now attract an audience online of more than 24m users every month, an increase of more than 300 per cent in the last 3 years.
Despite the challenging economics, we have launched titles in print and digital, invested heavily in deploying technology and developing new business models and continue to do so, as we believe there is strong demand for local content and an increasing supply deficit.
However, the commercial market cannot plug this supply deficit alone. The BBC is in a position to both co-operate and underpin its public service remit and breadth and depth of news supply, through extending the independent quota system beyond entertainment to local news supply.
To be clear, we do not seek any sort of subsidy or direct funding. In recent evidence to the select committee, we and our industry peers stressed that regional media groups are – and wish to remain – independent organisations.
We believe an indie quota mechanism that enables the BBC to deploy some of its news and current affairs budget to commission independent, qualifying, local news agencies to cover professional reporting of courts and local government and make that available to local newspapers, as well as the BBC, is an imaginative step. It is our belief that this will lead to greater coverage, support for the training and development of journalists and value for licence fee payers.
Once we have seen this strong demonstration of how the BBC is fulfilling its public service remit in local news provision through outsourcing, the BBC could extend this model into areas of Britain’s rich cultural life currently neglected by broadcasters.