Johnston Press boss urges BBC to rethink its relationship with local media

The publisher of this newspaper and website has outlined a bold proposal that would see the BBC partner with local newspaper websites to share its regional content.

Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield spoke at The Newspaper Society’s annual meeting today (Friday, May 16) where he argued that the BBC should drop its local websites and explore ‘a more positive, symbiotic relationship with regional publishers.’

Former BBC man Ashley was addressing the issue of the broadcaster’s future as the Government looks at what the service should offer in return for another ten-year Royal Charter.

He said: “Local newspapers and their associated web brands can actually bolster the BBC’s value if they stop viewing us as the competition and work with us to distribute their content.

“The BBC is one of the country’s most important cultural institutions and the relationship it has with us as a nation is truly astounding. But it’s not the BBC which has a direct relationship with people in Pocklington, Peterborough or Portsmouth. It’s us – the local media operators.”

Ashley said it was a myth that the BBC needs to own all of its own distribution.

“Put simply, we can provide more reach (and thus more public value) to BBC content through our websites, our papers, our routes to market, but still within a trusted, regulated environment, than they can through their sub-scale (or wherever) sites.”

He said the idea was not a fantasy and pilots are already being worked on at the BBC.

“Anything with a potential regional benefit should be made available, free, to regional publishers. A great big content bucket, properly tagged and indexed, that we (trusted, accredited, local publishers), can dip in to.

“The BBC needs to stop trying to be all things to all people, and focus on what they are best at – creating world-class content.”

Ashley said such a partnership would help safeguard regional news titles – and the 10,000 journalists they employ.

“Take the BBC weather app, for example. This isn’t even BBC content as it was commissioned from an independent. It directly takes eyeballs away from local and regional media offerings. The public value generated could be just as high, if not higher, had the BBC chosen to syndicate the functionality to regional publishers. The public would get its local weather (alongside its local traffic updates, news, and information that we provide), and the BBC would get the credit. They’d deliver public value, and we’d keep the commercial value, and thus commercial viability.”

Ashley ended his address with a message to the broadcaster: “Plant your content offerings on our lawns. We’ll look after them and water them, and bring new and increased audiences to them. And vice-versa, if you want to take our content on to your regional radio services or national channels, fine, but credit us, pay us (perhaps by an extension of the mechanism already put in place for the local TV channels), and we’ll find a thousand flowers will bloom.

“We, the regional press and publishers, will help you, the BBC, fulfil your charter objective ‘to truly serve and reflect the nations, regions and communities that make up the UK’ and we might actually be pretty good at it!”