Earlier this month, BBC came under fire from UK regional publishers because of its plans to expand local news services and create 131 new jobs.
Press trade body News Media Association (NMA) called on the broadcaster to 'be a better neighbour' and halt the expansion plan in a plea republished by dozens of regional titles across the UK.
Paul Sinker, head of communication at NMA, fears that boosting BBC local services will divert audiences and advertising revenues – "to the tune of millions of pounds" - away from independent local titles.
But Rhodri Talfan Davies, director at BBC Nations, writes that there is no evidence the BBC 'crowds out' local competition through its online activity.
"In fact," he writes, "successive studies and reviews over the last decade show it’s the internet - not the BBC - that has radically challenged the business models of local news operators across the world."
Talfan also says that the media regulator Ofcom has reviewed the BBC’s local online plans and determined it is unlikely they will significantly impact local providers, something that NMA disputes.
The reality is that this turf war benefits no one. While local news providers worry that BBC will steal their audiences’ eyeballs, the reality is that advertising revenue has been declining for years. Over-reliance on ad money puts local news organisations in a precarious position not only because they have to compete for audience attention with BBC but also with the Meta and Google duopoly.
There is also the problem of poor user experience with local news websites being so ad-heavy they are almost unusable. And while 'The one weird trick to make your belly fat melt' can bring in a few pounds, burying your stories in low-quality ads and clickbait is hardly a good journalistic practice that your readers will appreciate.
The main question is not really whether BBC should or should not expand, but how to finance commercial local media sustainably. And while there is no silver bullet, here are some ideas that local publishers have tried around the world to bring in some much-needed revenue.
One of the main grievances we hear from the public about their local news providers is that they often do not have visibility in and connection with the community.
Live events are a great way to meet local residents, hear about their problems and source stories, as well as bring in some money. US-based local news outlet Richland Source organises pre-election events where local residents can talk to mayoral candidates but also come together as a community. In the UK, Greater Govanhill organises a variety of events in their new Community Newsroom space.
Events are also an opportunity for sponsorship from local businesses, as well as ticket sales or fundraisers. While they do require time and resources to organise, the benefits of meeting the local residents go beyond revenue generation.
This is a tough one. UK readers already have the lowest propensity to pay for online news from all European countries and making more BBC regional news coverage available for free is unlikely to improve matters. Building a subscription model is even harder now as commercial publishers have been giving up their content for free since they launched their online editions.
If local news providers want to make their readers pay, they need to come up with more than just content.
One of the most oft-cited UK-based examples is the Manchester Mill, which launched as a paid-for Substack newsletter three years ago and is now breaking even.
Other indie titles like Brighton and Hove News got inspired by The Guardian’s donation model which is bringing in some much-needed revenue, although it is not enough to sustain the whole operation.
Journalists have many sought-after talents: copywriting, editing, photography, social media management, illustration etc. Business commissions can be very well paid and help finance journalistic work which is much harder to monetise directly.
Paraguayan news organisation El Surtidor uses its journalists’ standout visual journalism skills to produce content for commercial partners and finance journalism in a country where financial sustainability and independence are rare.
None of us are going to fix the sustainability and profitability issues in the journalism industry alone. Innovation and collaboration are more likely to help local news providers to survive and thrive.
Any other solutions? Let us know your thoughts today
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