Regional newspapers, the BBC and holding authority to account, thanks to the taxpayers and…a bit of flatulence

The BBC is to pay £8m to provide reporters who will cover local councils.

The BBC is to use £8m of taxpayers’ cash to provide reporters who will cover local councils for regional newspapers as well as the Beeb.

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand, I still believe in that brand of journalism we call Fourth Estate, or holding authority to account.

So for the BBC to hand out £8m to pay for 150 journalists to ensure this happens can only be good news for the regional press, can’t it?

But I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about the deal. I’m all for journalists covering local councils, but feel uneasy that this is happening as many newspaper groups continue to cut editorial staff.

Even as we speak, Trinity Mirror is cutting jobs as part of its £12m synergies after the takeover of Local World.

The problem I have is that these newspaper groups, such as Johnston Press and Trinity Mirror continue to make a healthy sum of cash.

However, despite this, they are still in many cases unwilling to cover local authorities. One reason is due to the fact that there are simply not enough staff and the second reason is that editors, even reluctantly, are making the decision not to cover this type of news.

This is because they are constantly looking over their shoulders as they attempt to hit their unique users/page views targets.

The reality is, that rarely do council stories interest the online audience in large numbers. So as an editor, if you are faced with getting the audience with a story about toilet habits which will get big hits or send to a council meeting, the hits are coming out on top.

We all accept the need to grab a slice of readers, so writing about farts being healthy, yes farts, as the Plymouth Herald recently did may just be the way forward because it would have attracted a huge audience.

As an aside, this story has one of the greatest apologises I have seen…under the story (see link above) it read: ‘This story was edited on May 5, 2016. The story originally stated that sniffing farts is good for you and helps you live longer. The Herald is happy to make clear that the research in question has not found that to be the case.’

I bet there was a riot in the newsroom as this carefully crafted apology was put together.

Right…so back to the main plot. I guess what I’m saying is that many newspapers are choosing not to write about councils and would rather right about something else.

If this is the case, why should the taxpayer pick up a bill to pay for reporters when the companies they serve already earn a decent amount?

Also, there are concerns that newspapers will take the ‘BBC’ paid reporter and then slice a job somewhere else.

Inevitably, there has also been an uneasy relationship between the BBC and the regional press. I attended a meeting last year and there was discussion over a pilot scheme where regional newspapers and the BBC were meant to be sharing content.

It was certainly more than an awkward conversation and smacked of an inability for them to work successfully together.

So, the dilemma, or is it a dilemma? The newspapers companies have certainly done well here. They get a reporter for free and the BBC picks up the tab.

I hope it works, but who is going to be out there counting the increase in local council coverage or will it be a case of gone with the wind…???

By the way, I have mentioned that I have an interesting tale about a newspaper skills audit process which will make your toes curl, that’s on its way soon.

Should Trinity Mirror have invested in regional newspapers rather than cost-cutting and creating the doomed New Day?

Trinity Mirror's New Day has closed after nine weeks.

Trinity Mirror’s New Day has closed after nine weeks.

I feel no joy over the closure of Trinity Mirror’s New Day. Like any journalist, in these difficult days for newspapers, the opening of the paper, in the shadow of the closure of The Independent, was a little ray of sunshine.

But we all knew, didn’t we? All of us cynics felt it would never work. I was optimistic and privately said it would close after six months, so for it to fold after nine weeks even left me for dead.

In my blog discussing the launch of the New Day I said that I couldn’t understand why the paper was being opened.

There was some bizarre talk of a gap in the market and the chance to sell 200,000 copies. I said at the time was it just a case of sour grapes after TM failed to buy the i?

Who really knows what were the thoughts behind opening the paper? There have been mumblings about trying to encourage people who don’t buy a newspaper to buy this one.

How or why the great powers of Trinity Mirror thought this would work is unsure.

Figures suggest there are 4.5 billion users of mobile phones. These people are not going to spend 50p to buy their news when they can get it for free on their phone at their convenience.

What is for sure, the move to set-up a newspaper without a web site flew in the face of TM’s digital first strategy.

Of course, if it had been a success, TM chief executive Simon Fox would have been heralded, but in the cool light of day success was never on the agenda.

Some commentators have said that you have to praise innovation and at least TM tried. I agree with this philosophy but I can’t get over the fact that failure was just too obvious.

So TM splashed out £5m to advertise the new product, the campaign was poor to say the least with no-one really understanding what the product was about.

It was meant to be ‘politically neutral’ and the news agenda different to the rest of the national market, but it failed.

The design of the paper and the journalism just didn’t break new ground, watching the adverts left you scratching your head wondering who the paper was really targeting?

It is no coincidence that the closure came as the TM share price hit a three-year low on Tuesday at around 113p and ‘bounced’ back on the announcement of the closure by seven per cent, still a long way below last year’s 180p.

The National Union of Journalists has been asking for all the costs involved in the set-up and failure of the newspaper.

It also expresses concern over what will happen to the 25 editorial staff?

What we do know, as I said earlier, is that £5m was spent on advertising the New Day, so you can add on a few millions of extra cost.

At the AGM yesterday, TM bosses were shouting about the £12m ‘synergy savings’ or integration with the former Local World newspapers.

This is code for a load of staff cuts sweeping across the old Local World titles. This made me think.

Rather than spending millions on the dead duck New Day, what if that cash had been used to pour back into the local newspapers, an investment in the future rather than just slicing off costs?

Surely it would have been better to use money to help established businesses rather than create something that was always going to fail?

I maybe naïve, but it is worth a thought and it fits into the innovative, creative thinking arena as opposed to the slash and burn.

Talking of redundancies, a friend of mine rung to talk about how he was booted out of a local newspaper based on the good old skills audit.

Now the skills audit is meant to be fair…but only in fairy tales. More of that little horror story another time.