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Subsidise regional press says Guardian editor

Local and regional newspapers should receive state subsidies to enable them to carry on providing a service to local communities, a leading national newspaper editor said today.

The call by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger came as media executives gathered in Bristol to debate the industry’s future at the annual Society of Editors conference.

Mr Rusbridger said that the regional press was facing a “perfect storm” in the shape of the recession together with declining circulations and advertising revenues which could severely impact its ability to provide local news services.

He said there was no reason why it should not receive a share of public subsidies currently enjoyed by the BBC and Channel 4 to enable it to continue to keep people informed about their local communities.

“Falling circulations, the internet and the coming recession are uniting in a perfect storm that could severely impact on the ability of evening and weekly newspapers to carry on with the kind of journalism which once placed them at the heart of every community,” he said.

“Is there any reason why local newspapers shouldn’t compete with broadcasters for some form of subsidy in return for providing the public service of keeping a community informed about itself?

“Who is to say that Channel 4 is any more deserving of state funding than those responsible for the sometimes humdrum but essential task of keeping people informed about what their local councils, courts, police, health and fire services are up to?”

Mr Rusbridger added that it would be politically unacceptable to leave the BBC as the sole provider of local and regional news.

The future of the regional press loomed large in this morning’s discussion forum at the SoE conference on the theme of “digital challenges.”

Carolyn McCall, chief executive of Guardian Media Group, said regional newspapers should invest in local search engines as a means of surviving the gradual switchover from print to online.

“I think the regional press has got to do that. There’s an opportutnity for the local press to be very, very local. There has to be revenue around that,” she said.

But she described as “naive” a suggestion that the national and regional press could come together to create a search engine that could rival Google, which now takes 40pc of online advertising revenues.

Unsurprisingly there was widespread condemnation of the BBC’s plans to introduce video services on 65 of its local websites.

Martin Clarke, publisher of Mail Online, said: “It should be no business of the BBC to be competing head to head with free market newspapers that need to stand on their own two feet. It’s not good for democracy and it’s not good for journalism.”

But Pete Clifton, the BBC’s head of editorial development, said the corporation was simply seeking to address perceived shortcomings in its services to local audiences.

“We are not talking about a whole range of new local websites. It is about improving the quality of what we are doing on our local sites,” he said.

  • Regional publisher Northcliffe Media has also voiced alarm at the BBC Trust’s handling of the Corporation’s bid to launch a network of video-based local websites.

    Northcliffe said it had been denied answers to a series of questions it posed as part of the review process being conducted by the BBC Trust into the BBC’s proposals for local video services.

    The questions were first put to BBC Management almost four months ago but were re-directed to the BBC Trust. Despite repeated further requests, the BBC Trust has failed to provide the information or give credible reasons for not disclosing it.

    Northcliffe managing director Michael Pelosi said: “We are deeply disappointed and alarmed that the BBC Trust has denied us answers to a series of reasonable and relevant questions related to the BBC’s proposals.

    “The Trust claims it is conducting an ‘open and thorough’ process but our experience of it is nothing of the kind.

    “We have co-operated fully by providing comprehensive and detailed information on our business. In contrast, BBC Management and the BBC Trust have failed to provide even basic information about usage of the BBC’s local sites – the kind of data we have at our fingertips.”

    Comments

    Dan Depan (10/11/2008 12:43:53)
    Oh the irony of it all!!
    That the Guardian exists is all down to the work of the Scott Trust which, for 30 years, has pillaged, then squandered, the profits of the Manchester Evening News and the vibrant and profitable weekly newspapers in the area. Staffing has been slashed, offices closed, quality allowed to go by the window just to keep the Guardian and Observer in the manner to which they are accustomed.
    No wonder he wants the BBC to cough up to subsidise the local press, more truffles in his trough then – cheers and more fat cat bonuses all round at Rusbridger Twoers

    F. Johnston (10/11/2008 13:59:57)
    Subsidies to set up and run for small community-based news organisations,absolutely yes.
    Subsidies to prop up greedy corporations like Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press (who made £81m profit last year don’t forget) while they neglect the public service aspect of their businesses, no thanks.

    Barry Fry (10/11/2008 15:20:25)
    Actually I think this is a top idea. It would need proper checks to make sure the big owners are actually providing a quality service rather than just saying it, and with the cash they’d have to make guarantees to employ enough journalists.
    But basically regional papers already provide an important public service and our towns would be poorer without them. And it’s not just readers who want their local papers to survive, local businesses need to advertise too – they can’t do that on the BBC.
    I personally think this is a much better use of tax payers money rather than letting the BBC offer what will be a good looking, but more superficial service than what’s already on offer.
    The BBC’s plans can only be to the detriment of the local press.
    It is not a public service to put struggling bussinesses under further pressure.