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BBC local news boost will mean ‘fewer reporters’ in regional press, bosses claim

IanCarterEditorialDirectorKM (1)Industry bosses have warned a BBC online traffic boost will lead to “fewer reporters” in the commercial regional press.

The warning has been issued after the BBC announced that audience figures for its local news content in England increased by more than a fifth over the last three months, compared with the same period last year.

The increase comes after an investment in its regional journalism that coincided with cuts to its local radio services.

The announcement has sparked calls from commercial publishers for Ofcom to take action against what it called the BBC’s “expansionism” and has prompted one publisher to warn some groups will resort to “desperately chasing clicks” in order to compete.

Ofcom has said it is “monitoring” the situation but previously ruled the BBC’s investment in its local online services would not have a “significant adverse impact” on regional publishers, finding it would have a likely impact of less than 1pc on their total revenues.

The BBC has revealed that from July to September 2023, an average 14.8m unique browsers each week accessed BBC Local stories in England – up 2.6m on the same period in 2022 and 1.4m on the previous quarter.

The figures also show that an additional 745,000 unique browsers each day are accessing local stories on the BBC News website or app each day.

The BBC has credited “big local stories” for the increase, as well as “additional investment in local online journalism across the week and the more frequent updating of stories across many areas”.

The release of the figures comes just short of a year since the corporation revealed plans to create 131 new jobs as a result of planned investment in local news services across the country while at the same time axeing 179 jobs in local radio and TV services.

Responding to the latest announcement, Iliffe Media editorial director Ian Carter, pictured, wrote on X: “How can the rest of us experiment with monetisation models when a cash-rich BBC can simply follow up our stories and provide them on a free-to-access site?

“The outcome will be some publishers still desperately chasing clicks for ad revenue to at least try to compete on a desperately uneven playing field. That benefits nobody.”

In a personal blog, Ian added: “It’s no exaggeration to say the BBC’s actions will be an existential threat to some smaller publishers, whilst others will be unable to fully exploit the commercial opportunities from their hard-won audiences.

“That means an ever-present focus on costs, fewer reporters than we’d like to employ and fewer of those stories that may not generate the highest page views but are vital to keep the public informed and those in power on their toes.

“I don’t want to give the impression I hate the BBC, I really don’t. I think it does a lot of good and I have worked alongside some excellent people on the launch and continuing success of the ground-breaking Local Democracy Reporting Scheme.

“I’m also one of the few who left the regional press to join the Beeb then bounced back the other way again.

“But I do fiercely object to the way it throws its financial muscle around to stifle competition – nobody wins if the BBC is the only game in town – and its time regulator Ofcom fulfilled its duties and acted as a proper block to its expansionist tendencies.”

In its announcement, the BBC also revealed increased programme-sharing is now in place across 20 of its 39 local radio stations in England.

New schedules are set to launch in Humberside and Lincolnshire on Monday, with its stations in the East Midlands, South-East of England and Yorkshire to follow early in November.

Owen Meredith, chief executive of regional and national press rade body the News Media Association, said: “The rise in online audiences for BBC Local cynically trumpeted by the BBC this week is very worrying evidence of the effect of the BBC’s wrong-headed strategy of moving into an area already well served by commercial local providers.

“This shows audiences continue to be hungry for local news online, but the BBC is using the might of the licence fee to draw audiences away from commercial local news providers, depriving them of readers and the revenue to continue investment in trusted, professional, plural journalism, all at the expense of much-loved local radio services.

“The BBC Royal Charter is supposed to stop the BBC from impacting the commercial market in this way, Ofcom must take another look at this and put the brakes on the BBC’s expansionism.

“The long-term effect of this aggressive expansion into local news will be to eradicate plurality in the local news market, leaving us with the BBC as the only source of local news. We cannot allow that to happen.”

However, Ofcom has resisted the calls for immediate action following the figures’ release.

A spokesperson for the watchdog told HTFP: “We have committed to monitoring the progress of the BBC’s changes to its online local news offering and any impact this may have on other local news providers.

“We’re also conducting research into what audiences need and want from local media and will be publishing our initial research and next steps later this year.”

Jason Horton, director of production at BBC Local, said: “These figures are testament to the hard work and dedication of our news teams across BBC Local.

“We talk about delivering great local value for all and now we are really showing how we can deliver it.

“As we continue to roll out with new local story reams and our investigative teams the early signs of growth are really encouraging and there is more positive news to come.”

A BBC spokesperson added: “While we are encouraged by the audience response to our online developments locally, there is no evidence that the BBC is crowding out other digital publishers.

“We work collaboratively across the industry and our partnership with the NMA has transformed coverage of local democracy across the UK.”