The Future of Local Media conference in Salford took place today, the same day that Ofcom released it’s response to a Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) consultation on delivering TV news in the nations and regions.
Ofcom also released a research report on Local and Regional Media in the UK.
Thus Stewart Purvis, Partner, Content & Standards at Ofcom, started proceedings with this presentation on Local and Regional Media in the UK: the view from Ofcom.
Quite correctly the report touches on different levels of localness, suggesting that audiences generally percieve a hierarchy that looks like this:
UK -> My Nation -> My Region -> My Local Area -> My Community.
I like this, although I might be tempted to take out ‘Local Area’ and replace with My City/Town or something more specific. The word ‘local’ is far too ambiguous to be a useful definition.
At least this hierarchy removes the awful terms ‘hyperlocal‘ or ‘ultra-local’ – ‘community is a term that is much easier to relate to my surroundings.
Apparently the research showed that there are 69 media websites covering the Salford and Greater Manchester area… wow!
When it comes to the crunch, declining revenues from the traditional advertising model, there are some overdue numbers on how specialist online sites are taking all important audience away from traditional newspaper earners – think rightmove for property, Auto Trader for cars and totaljobs for recruitment.
Then a statement that “Local journalism is important because it underpins democratic participation in the UK” and it does this using four key methods: Informing, representing, campaigning and interrogating.
Next up, a panel debate on the proposal for independently funded news consortia to take over ITV’s public service provision of regional news.
The basic story is that ITV are no longer required to provide regional news programmes from the point of digital switchover in 2012 and have said that, due to the cost, they will not continue.
Ofcom is keen on independent news consortia being formed to provide this news on channel three with funding being provided from… well, nobody is sure yet but that’s where the debate on top-slicing the BBC license fee starts.
Alex Connock, Chief Executive, Ten Alps – “We would take advertising slots on Northern Irish TV tomorrow if possible… without any news subsidy”.
Ruth Spratt, Managing Director, MEN Media, unconvincingly tried to explain why additional public money is required to supply a regional news programme on channel three given that their Channel m is currently fully operational on existing funding.
John Angeli, Head of Content, Press Association – “It’s not just about nightly news programmes, it’s about content on all platforms”.
The Press Association want to be suppliers of text, audio and video content for everyone to use across all platforms.
Helen Thomas, Head of BBC Yorkshire, talked about the success of the local content on the local television trial in Hull in 2001 and stated that, going forward, “The BBC is open for conversations on potential partnership discussions.”.
Michael Jermey, Director of News, Current Affairs and Sport at ITV then explained how ITV are intending to end their provision of regional news across the UK, thus saving them an estimated £68 million in production costs, but are intending to keep some ownership of the branding and look and feel of any regional news programme that takes that slot.
The current regional news time slot is estimated to be worth around £30 million in potential advertising revenue (totalled across all of the UK) which could be an incentive for independent consortia to come forward and produce a regional news programme for the channel 3 slot.
Oh, but Michael says ITV are intent on keeping any potential advertising revenue, saying that allowing independent news consortia to advertise in the slot and earn revenue would be the equivalent of top slicing ITV and this will not happen.
Michael Jermey, “We consider it our airtime, we keep the revenue”.
Thankfully lunch arrived to save us from a discussion that, frankly, belongs in the past and should not be a part of the future.
Taking stock over lunch there was one thought on my mind… this is supposed to be a conference on the future of local media, not a debate on how to maintain regional television for another 15 years.
The afternoon began in much brighter spirit with Will Perrin, founder of Talk About Local, finally turning the conversation around to the subject of local and the future.
Kings Cross Environment is where it all started for Will, 800 stories in an area about 1 x 1.5 miles allowing local people to campaign, interrogate, inform and represent their small part of the UK.
The Kington Blackboard demonstrates where Talk About Local is going, aiming to train 3,000 people across the UK in the next few years in the tools, methods and techniques to set up websites for their own local areas.
Pits ‘n’ Pots, a website for Stoke On Trent, was hailed by Will as a perfect example of holding local democracy to account.
Want a local TV station on the Internet… try local.me, a simple model that Will and others have set up to quickly demonstrate how easy, and cheap, it can be.
So onto another panel discussion.
Robert Hardie, Content Strategy Director at Northcliffe Media said that “The Internet provides a mechanism for those people that have a story and want it published. We need to find a business model to fund journalism that can dig out the stories that people don’t want published.”
Neil Benson, Editorial Director, Regionals, Trinity Mirror followed that by saying that Trinity Mirror wants to expand their websites from the core business of news and sport journalism into local hubs with a much broader range of information.
Their postcode based pilot in Teeside was hailed as a success with “200 bloggers writing for free“, although Neil later acknowledged that “we find it harder to work with community groups and small local organisations.”
Why? Because, he said, “we are hard to work with”.
So, Steve Barnett from the University of Westminster asked from the back of the room, do we need professional journalists working for newspapers and broadcasters to reveal the local equivalent of the mp expenses scandal, to uncover police corruption, find the dirty hospital wards, and so on.. or can very local community sites do this?
Those that provided an answer could see a future that is already starting to exist now, where sites like Birmingham: It’s Not Shit are starting to contribute to democracy in the UK, to inform, represent, campaign and interrogate.
Those that stayed silent were still trying to work out where they can find new sources of funding to prop up decades old business models that are about to die out.