What conclusions can we draw from this week’s select committee inquiry into the sustainability of local journalism?
The two sessions held in Cardiff heard initially from the largest publisher in the UK, Reach plc, as well as one of the smallest, Bedford Independent, with the panel also shared by the Media Reform Coalition. The afternoon was attended by the global behemoths of Meta (Facebook) and Google, and what many local commercial publishers questionably argue is their nemesis, the BBC.
My first conclusion is that misunderstanding of the media landscape and how it operates, which was apparent in the sessions, can be damaging to what opinions may form.
Myth One: We heard in the morning session that because publishers no longer had bricks and mortar offices in all of the towns and cities where they operate, they could not possibly understand and report on their local communities.
Myth buster: So long as you have journalists operating in their local communities, whether they be embedded in offices, coffee shops, local libraries, or in their own homes, then that connection is not broken. And it does not necessarily (a key qualifier here) mean that news becomes the regurgitation of press releases and a failure to report critically on public interest news.
Recommendation: For the inquiry to form a proper view, they should commission some research to find out if this claim can be substantiated.
Myth Two: The demise of local newspapers in print means there are media deserts in the country.
Myth Buster: Audiences are choosing to “consume” their news on digital platforms. Our children will probably never buy a newspaper, but they will certainly be connected to their news via digital channels that reach wider audiences than they ever have done.
Myth Three: The drive for ever bigger audiences has led to more clickbait and the major publishers are guilty of this.
Myth Buster: Most publishers have a laser focus on engagement metrics with their audiences – that is how many times a user comes back to their sites, how long they dwell on an article or page and what level of commenting or sharing takes place. None of that happens if the content is clickbait.
What did resonate strongly, though, is that the independent publishers want to have a greater slice of the cake. They feel they are excluded from opportunities because they are not one of the now big three publishers (following the swallowing up of Archant by Newsquest).
Paul Hutchinson, from Bedford Independent – founded by three partners to bring independent, local news to the people of the town, set out how they are starved of Government and local authority revenue because they do not have a print element to their operation.
He called for a review of distribution of revenues which he said would enable them to pay themselves a proper salary and to pay for at least one trainee journalist.
Giving Independents a fair crack of the whip for public notices revenue and Government advertising, is a fair call, based on digital numbers, given declining print circulations. However, they will probably find that based on digital audiences, they will still be the minnows at the table.
That is why the big publishers are so keen to find an online solution quickly for public notice information (with the support of Google funding by the way) to make sure they continue to hold on to that revenue.
It is fair to say that there are many titles, particularly those in London, who only survive now because of the level of Government and local council advertising they receive.
While I’m on the subject of funding:
Myth Four: The BBC Local Democracy Reporting Scheme – set up to provide free content to more than 850 partners across the UK – is a subsidy to the big publishers.
Myth Buster: Patently not true. Each contract has to be bid for along strict criteria in a fair and transparent process run by the BBC. The cost of running the contract sometimes exceeds the money attached to it, factoring in HR, management and content supervision; and thirdly, it is probably simpler for independents to receive the copy than to manage an additional member of staff, be monitored by the BBC, and be at the beck and call of other publishers wanting to direct how the local democracy reporter is deployed each day.
This brings me to the afternoon session and the role of the BBC and tech giants of Meta and Google.
Their arguments were highly polished, with an abundance of stats and figures, to make them look like the knights in shining armour for local publishers.
My question is this: If everything we heard from Google and Meta were to be taken at face value and believed, then why on earth are the commercial publishers, both large and small, so unhappy with them?
This is the challenge the DCMS inquiry into the sustainability of local journalism will have to get to grips with.
Tom Morrison-Bell, Government Affairs and Public Policy manager at Google, said that the revenue Google received from ads served on searches for news in the UK was less than £20m per year in the UK. Yet, the amount of traffic they sent back to local publishers was valued (by them) at £84m.
He also said that between 70p and 95p of every £1 of Google ad revenue is returned to local publishers.
John Severinson, Head of News Partner Development, Europe at Meta was equally at pains to say there was nothing to see in terms of unfairness. He said that their relatively new Facebook News tab in the US for example generated more than 90% of clicks that were incremental to US publishers’ traffic.
And they had signed deals with publishers big and small over here in the UK for this service. What he omitted to say, and this is something that the Digital Markets Bill really does need to look at, is that it is a take it or leave it deal. The publishers have no ability to negotiate a fair value for that content. I know, because I tried – and I was not the only publisher trying to do so.
One of the main cheerleaders for a fairer value exchange for commercial publishers, came from the BBC through Rhodri Talfan-Davies, Head of Nations. On repeated occasions he stressed that it was not the BBC that was to blame for the demise of the commercial publishing sector, and the route to a more sustainable future was through a fairer remuneration and value exchange based on the content Google and Facebook benefited from.
He called for regulation to be used to force a fairer value exchange for publishers big and small, citing that it was the publishers spending the money putting reporters on the ground to report on what is happening in their communities – and there is a need for “a levelling up” in terms of a fairer value exchange if a plurality of publishing is to be preserved.
Finishing up he said: “It is not beyond the wit of UK policy makers to find a balance that works for platforms and publishers.”
Bearing in mind that the call for evidence for this inquiry was heavily weighted at looking at what impact the BBC was having on sustainability of commercial publishers, it was probably not a surprise he was championing their cause.
But when questioned if the BBC could do more to support commercial publishers by providing more links back to their sites, he conceded that “was a live question”.
He robustly argued: “I don’t believe the BBC is the root cause of newspapers’ structural problems” and that its commitment to serving local news was part of their Charter requirements. To that end, he reiterated a reprioritisation of the local journalism network with a commitment to invest more journalists into the local online service – something which will frustrate (to put it mildly) the big publishers.
And so to my opening question – a long time ago – what conclusions can we draw from the inquiry?
For me, it is that Julian Knight who is chairing the DCMS inquiry, has his work cut out to cut through what is myth, data, misinformation and corroborated evidence to come up with any recommendations that differ from what has already been laid out by Dame Frances Cairncross.
The Digital Markets Bill will not be the panacea for the industry, but it is at least a starting point for regulation of the tech platforms that may lead to a fairer revenue share for publishers who pay to produce locally relevant and trusted content.
The BBC is not the cause of the demise of the commercial publishing sector (if indeed you subscribe to the fact that it is in demise) – but does have an important influence in its future and its ongoing challenges.
The Independent sector needs to have a stronger voice to be able to compete for revenues.
The tech platforms need to stop being in denial that they are a problem to the industry and be more transparent in the way they can offer support both monetary and through innovation – they are pivotal to this debate.
And the commercial sector needs to spend far less time blaming others and look to themselves about how they can work together and with the Independents to share ideas and innovation, while still accepting they compete in some territories, so that collectively they can improve the quality of local journalism provision.
Finally, the Government – if it is to help to ensure a continuing plurality of news in every local community – needs to forge a working coalition of all the players to find common ground.
It’s a tough challenge for Mr Knight and his inquiry team.
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