Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield has reponded to a recent BBC report suggesting the corporation should expand its local news coverage by accusing it of “parking a tank” on the lawn of every local newspaper.
Last week’s report by head of news James Harding argued that the BBC would need to do more to provide local news amid what it called “the decline of the regional press.”
But ex-BBC man Ashley, left, hit out at his former employers saying they should back out of the “hyper-local” arena and help local newspapers by giving away a “great big bucket of content”, from video to weather forecasts, for free.
“When I first read the BBC’s Future of News report last week I’m not sure what depressed me most – the inflammatory language used, the misguided sentiment behind it, or the fact that the BBC intends parking a tank on every local lawn and offering its version of hyper local news controlled from London W1A,” he said.
Ashley’s comments came in an open letter to MediaGuardian, which can be read in full here.
In it he also leapt to the defence of Johnston Press titles implicitly criticised in the BBC report over their move from daily to weekly publication, such as the Scarborough News.
The Yorkshire seaside town was singled out as an area for concern over the lack of local news, with the report claiming there were “very few news boots” on the ground to cover a recent major hospital incident.
Said Ashley: “Where’s the supporting evidence for this rather damning statement? As many people are reading the Scarborough News now as they did when it was a daily – and we have many thousands of new digital readers across iPad, mobile apps and the website. The only ‘journalism that is failing people’ here is the BBC’s accuracy.”
He went on: “It is somewhat baffling that the BBC has become obsessed by the spoils of hyper-local news, particularly now, when their focus should be on everything but (with the small matter of the charter renewal to consider).”
“The BBC needs to focus on what it’s brilliant at – creating world-class content – and stop trying to be all things to all people. The BBC sets the standard for national and international news. They simply don’t have the resources to be brilliant at everything.”
“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.
“They can keep their regional brands – Look North, BBC North West et al, but close their underperforming local websites and work with us, rather than against us, as we become their local media distribution partner and fully utilise our own, highly trafficked, rapidly growing, hyper local sites.”
Last week’s report claimed that 5,000 jobs had disappeared in the local and regional press in the past decade.
It said: “The changes in the news industry mean that there are gaps in the coverage of our country and they are growing…The BBC is going to have to make the most of digital services, alongside radio and television, to ensure people have the information they need where they live and work.”
But Ashley said in his letter: “We’ve not folded a single paid-for title in the three years I’ve been at Johnston Press. Moving a title online is simply not the same as closure and this seems a disappointingly analogue view from the BBC.
“Moving a daily to a weekly does not signal an end to daily news and daily publishing.”