In a new article for British Journalism Review, Steven Barnett and Roy Greenslade ask who gains more from the BBC’s funding of local reporters: the communities they serve, or profit-making newspaper groups? In the article, which can be read in full on the BJR website, they critique the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporter scheme which funds 150 journalists on local newspapers across the country. Barnett and Greenslade argue that although the schene is pitched as a measure to address the democratic deficit left by the closure of many local publishers, it in fact largely benefits the three wealthy regional corporations who should not be getting a subsidy from the BBC licence payer. The article calls for a complete overhaul of the scheme and far greater scrutiny of how licence payers’ money is being used.
Not the way to use our money
For more than a quarter of a century, media analysts have documented the steady, inexorable decline of newspaper journalism funded by advertising. They pointed to the dire effects on that business model caused by the digital revolution as readers and advertisers moved online. Early hopes that local, rather than national, journalism would beat the downward trend were dashed by the rise of social media. And then came Covid-19, with its dramatic consequences: a wholesale desertion by advertisers; the suspension of publications; and the closure of thousands of retailers. To satisfy their hunger for news, people turned instead to online and broadcasting outlets.
In the UK, their main choice, by an overwhelming margin, was the BBC. According to Ofcom’s figures, a quarter of the population were accessing news more than 20 times a day in the first week of lockdown. Asked to name their single most important source, nearly two-thirds named a broadcasting source (mostly BBC TV), while just 6 per cent named newspapers, either print or online. Unsurprising, perhaps, but this public trust in the BBC as a news organisation also needs to be viewed through the context of the corporation’s pre-pandemic relationship with the publishers of Britain’s local and regional newspapers.