In My Opinion: Jim Chisholm: The BBC Charter review and the regional press; what should we Scots make of it all?

TWO big events re the future of news should be concerning Scots at the moment.

The first was the recent announcement (here) that Trinity Mirror have acquired regional publisher, Local World. Of little interest in Scotland, perhaps, but such a merger of two major UK players can only signal further consolidation, which could have significant impact in Scotland.

The second is next week’s ‘Tomorrow’s BBC – Your Say’ event in Glasgow, part of the Corporation’s consultation process regarding the BBC Charter renewal. Within this, local news provision has become an issue.

The intersection between the two would, in the past, have been insignificant but times have changed.

The plight of the regional press is being utilised by players within the medium and beyond, as an argument for muzzling the BBC’s local news services. They are being encouraged, in part by the conspirators against the BBC, in government and beyond.

In Scotland, the issue is both more complex and more critical.

The inevitable debate regarding the extent of Scotland’s own Public Service Broadcasting provision is a good thing. Should we have our own Scottish Broadcasting Corporation? Is there a viable market for another Scottish independent station, void of UK and global content?

International comparison certainly suggests there is room for more variety.

Alongside this is the fact that such a high proportion of the Scottish press is owned and controlled outside Scotland, some from London, much by proprietors who are domiciled outside the UK. This is highly unusual.

And then there is the murky issue of whether a deal should be struck between the BBC and the publishers as to who provides citizens with their news and information.

The big debate has to be what is best for Scotland, Scots, news employees and participants, and the economy which relies on a healthy advertising multiplier. In addition, the local economy relies on a healthy multiplier, that regional press delivers.

So what if the next step in the consolidation of the UK regional press is the much-rumoured acquisition of Johnston Press by Gannett’s Newsquest? This would involve The Scotsman being taken over by The Herald. Small beer in the UK context, perhaps, but a keg of complexity here in Scotland.

There are a number of strong signs that such a merger could happen.

First up, is the regularly propounded views of Bob Dickey, the president and CEO of Gannett, the ultimate parent of The Herald, who was quoted, in July, by The Wall Street Journal, as saying: “We are aggressively pursuing all the opportunities in front of us.”

He was further quoted, saying: “We are looking for markets that provide good synergies for us, but we are also open and are having discussions about looking at other markets where we don’t necessarily have geographic synergies.”

Since Dickey took over, a year ago, the Gannet share price has risen by 52 per cent.

Meanwhile, the Johnston Press share price at the time of writing is 42 pence, compared with 166 pence a year ago. In its latest trading update, issued a fortnight ago – here – it reported that its underlying total revenues for the 17-week period to October 31 had fallen by 8.8 per cent, year-on-year, having fallen 7.6 per cent during the second quarter.

In fact, if all the regional press came under an umbrella, not dissimilar to ITV, then the combined local press business would be significantly smaller than ITV in terms of sales and reach, and a fraction of its market value. Sky is another league, again.

All of this puts any suggestion that BBC News should be either muzzled or required to source, for a fee, its local news from local publishers in context.

Consolidation of what effectively are already local news monopolies into a strong group able to exploit synergies that provides an improved and sustainable local news service funded by a stronger united competitive position for advertising makes sense.

The idea that this should be the sole provider of local news to the state-owned broadcaster, would be unacceptable in terms of plurality, stretching press freedom in any market. In Scotland, it would be completely inconceivable.

As I see it, there seems to be a strong belief among regional press publishers that the BBC is somehow to blame for its difficulties. The UK is no different to other European countries, or the USA, where PSB is far from as popular as that of the BBC.

A recent survey, undertaken by DJS Research and commissioned by the BBC, found that “95 per cent of the public believe that it is important that the BBC carry on publishing news content on its apps and website”.

Reports The Drum media and marketing magazine (here): “A further 75 per cent said that the Corporation should continue to do so even if it makes print newspapers struggle to make money and draw in readership.

“Just six per cent said they believed that the negative impact that online journalism has on print media means that the BBC should stop publishing their news content online.”

Meanwhile, another detailed analysis – this time by KPMG, commissioned by the BBC Trust – found (as noted here) “.. that there is no clear evidence, from the available data, that any increase (decrease) in the level of BBC activity has resulted in a decline (increase) in commercial broadcasters’ viewer hours or revenues, or local newspapers’ readership or revenues.”

In addition, KPMG found that “there is little evidence of other Public Service Broadcasters across the world crowding out private sector activity”.

So, let’s accept that the suggestion that the BBC has or is damaging the local newspaper industry is demonstrably untrue. To argue otherwise is simply to transfer blame for bad performance.

Both should be left to deal with what is becoming a far wider and rougher news environment, where Google, Facebook, et al, are all nurturing their own versions of a news service, and pouring millions into their ventures in the UK and beyond.

Twenty years after the lure of the internet first presented itself, a number of UK publishers are realising the opportunities of the digital age.

Further consolidation between publishers is inevitable, and can be a good thing for society.

But meanwhile, its protagonists should look within to identify their challenges, rather than trying to blame and muzzle what is the best PSB service in the world.

Jim Chisholm has advised news media organisations in over 40 countries.