News Media Association Chairman and CEO of Johnston Press, Ashley Highfield can’t see what all the fuss is about when the NUJ talks about a crisis in the newspaper industry.
That was the message he delivered as keynote speaker at the Westminster Media Forum seminar on the UK local media sector on April 21st.
In fact, newspapers are in fine fettle, says Ashley. “There’s currently 1,000 plus local newspapers and 1700 associated websites in the UK,” he pointed out. “Yes, a few titles, mostly free sheets, have closed, but nowhere near the grim numbers that were predicted a few years ago, thanks, in part, to publishers recognising the strength in industry collaboration.”
I think there are a fair amount of local communities which have seen their papers disappear – at least 97 in England since 2008 – or shrink from dailies to weeklies, or journalists who have seen their newsrooms shrink and colleagues disappear, who would take issue with that.
But Highfield was in optimistic mood. He continued: “I don’t believe the industry is in crisis, far from it, in fact our audiences have never been greater, around 40 million people now read local press in print or digital each week, but the migration to digital is a perilous journey and every day publishers are facing unnecessary distractions which are putting their businesses under even greater strain.”
The NMA’s discussions with the BBC was a key feature in his address most notably the bid to raid the BBC licence fee to fund the provision by the regional press to the BBC of a comprehensive public service reporting service which would primarily cover local authorities.
The National Union of Journalists, in it’s response to the government’s White Paper on the future of the BBC has challenged the top slicing of the licence fee to fund the activities of companies making huge profits whilst cutting its commitment to serve local communities.
Meanwhile, there were no doubt hyperlocal providers listening to Highfield, who would understandably be a little miffed that if public money is to be used in this way – and whether it should is questionable – the tone of the discussion seemed to point towards cutting out those hyperlocals which have shown the most commitment to their communities.
I jotted down a few thoughts on the subject, which was included in the seminar transcript, and at the forum I asked Highfield for some more detail on the deal and whether he thought hyperlocals were “tanks on his lawn”.
He said he didn’t want to go into details for fear of appearing to negotiate in in public and suggested I might get more out of David Holdsworth, controller of the BBC’s English Regions who also addressed the forum.
So I asked David whether hyperlocals could get anything out of the deal. He said: “I certainly don’t want to stand here and rule anybody out here, I am conscious that this is a bit of work that needs to be done by our sort of friends in both the legal and fair trading side. So I certainly would not rule anything out as I am standing here today, no definitely not.”
So that’s fairly emphatic. Nothing ruled out. I wonder why I’m still not convinced about a) the sincerity of a pledge to include “reputable hyperlocals” in these discussions and b) the case for using BBC licence money.
I’m all for public money funding community journalism, but I’m not convinced that it should be at the expense of BBC journalism. I’m still less convinced that it should go to the profit hungry Big Media companies who have ripped the guts out of a great many local newspapers.
In the case of a), maybe it’s because as a hyperlocal provider, but I have yet to receive my invitation to discuss this deal and I don’t know anyone who has.