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.

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