The brutal economics of digital are pointing to a future of fewer local news originators, more copying and shorter and shorter content. In an age of political devolution, when Britain needs more local media for accountability can the BBC add more to the news ecosystem by opening up its local news content under a creative commons licence for commercial and non-commercial reuse? Put simply, can the BBC give away its local news content, both in real time and its local archive for other local media to reuse in newspapers, blogs, twitter, TV, radio etc. for free with proper attribution? Will the net benefits for society outweigh any costs?
I floated this notion at the BBC ‘Revivial of Local Journalism’ (their spelling not mine) event at Salford on 25 June. And was encouraged that James Harding (BBC director of news and current affairs) and David Holdsworth (Controller Nations and Regions) agreed in a polite, non-specific way that this was ‘the sort of thing we would look at’. I was also surprised that I wasn’t cornered by the commercial local media, who in days of yore would have cried ‘crowding out’. I was in a minority who wasn’t convinced by the good-natured rosiness about the state of local journalism at the event.
Roy Greenslade wrote in the Guardian of the hollowing out of editorial staff on newspapers instead of the wholesale closure of titles. This is hard to evidence but no one is disputing what seems to industry insiders to be true and has a business logic – don’t sacrifice advertising territory by closures, just reduce the costs of production. This has the effect of reducing the number of people available to produce original, time consuming content.
As a long term user and content originator in social media I observe an acceleration of lifting, ripping off, copying or ‘social media sharing’ as it is known. I have had my own website’s feed ripped off wholesale by ad-selling aggregators a couple of times. And the level of sharing ‘news’ of dubious provenance on social media is remarkable. Practice and it seems law is evolving in this area, but the recent allegations against the Daily Mail in Australia seem to take it to a whole new and worrying level. Love or hate them, the Mail are the best out there online in an awful way and where they lead others will follow. Practice might ebb and flow with court cases, but it seems unlikely that this trend will fully reverse – especially as it is largely civil offences in this area, not criminal ones.
Labour’s Jon Cruddas has set out an eloquent and compelling case for devolution of decision making to a much more local level. The coalition government has also been devolving in fits and starts. This creates an even greater need for scrutiny at a local level and transmission of information about local services.
These three factors – reduction in news producers at a local level, increased ‘sharing/lifting’ and a need for greater scrutiny – call for some new approaches to increase the supply of original, well sourced news at a local level.
The BBC spends about £200million a year in its nations and regions activities, much of which must go on local news and information – the BBC won’t say how much, nor where nor on what. The BBC has a huge archive of local news and information that just sits there 99% unused. I am one of many people who have criticised BBC’s local work for being too ‘regional’, not local enough and at times a bit old fashioned, but it is a huge national asset of great importance in the context of the changes above. I’ve also spent a lot of time in meetings with BBC people trying to encourage them to open up and work collaboratively.
I’d like the BBC to explore and experiment with making its local public service output available for free under a creative commons licence for people to reuse commercially and non-commercially. This would add to the stock and flow of credible, well sourced local journalism in the local media ecosystem, freely and legitimately sharable. It could provide high quality ballast content for local commercial media outlets (rather than press releases) and ensure greater reach for the BBC’s publicly funded output in a fragmented audience. It would allow local commercial journalists to add more colour to the BBC’s assiduously balanced, but often dry output. And entrepreneurs and creatives would have fascinating raw material to remix into new products. The BBC would be following the lead of other great media owners such as the British Library, the Smithsonian and, to some extent, Getty images in making material available for reuse.
But of course it isn’t that simple. Local media is a contested market, with substantial state intervention and a long history of bitterness and mistrust of between major players.
There’s a long list of issues to consider, here’s a few:
What content to release – start with all local news output, broadcast on TV and radio and content written to the web. Made available on publication or at end of programme transmission. And also archive material.
Which licence – CC BY or CC BY-SA. Creativity would be maximised if people were able to remix BBC content.
Crowding out in general – would the appearance of BBC content in the market for free have deleterious effects on competition by crowding out or ‘dumping’? The BBC content is already available for free in the market – it just can’t be re-used. The BBC coverage areas are not on the whole co-terminous with newspapers, it covers much bigger patches with the exception of one or two cities and, due to the overhead of broadcast-led production much less content per unit of time than a paper. And the BBC Local web product was savagely criticised by the BBC’s own viewers panel so isn’t all that threatening.
Market impact – the BBC needs to have a good faith, open conversation in the round with commercial and non-commercial news producers about the impact on their business, learning from previous disastrous encounters such as their local video discussions some years ago.
Societal impact – the objective is to improve the availability of original material for others to reshape legitimately into news and information products, growing the market. This needs testing with real experimentation and modelling. One twitter commentator has already chimed in suggesting that the commercial newspapers would use this as an excuse to lay off more staff.
Radio news – requires careful examination – there is a market in supplying a radio news service to commercial radio and dumping BBC news product into it could be distortion-ary, but it’s possible OFCOM could resolve this easily.
Regulatory regime – the local plurality regime is downright weird and shows its age. Would this in fact increase or diminish the number of voices? By providing a base load of content for web operations, this could encourage market entry, rather than just managing exit which is all the current regime does.
Quality of journalism – extending Greenslade’s thesis, which anecdotally seems correct but is lacking in proof, the density of journalists per square mile is falling faster than productivity increases, leading to a net loss in the ability to cover news on any given square mile. For readers it might inject quality journalism into a local paper that can’t afford it. It might be an excuse however for the businessmen than own and run papers to cut more editorial staff as someone has pointed out on Twitter already.
Loss of revenue to the BBC – I don’t know of course how much the BBC makes from sale of its local news products to others. Maybe the number is published, but I couldn’t find it in the annual report of BBC Worldwide nor the BBC. But I’d hazard a guess that it isn’t much.
Residuals and rights – my understanding is that this archive area has relatively low issues with negotiating rights as the BBC historically produced it in house and owns it.
There’s loads more that could be said and it would be great to see the BBC run an open, transparent process to discuss this and all the other interesting titbits they mentioned at the Salford conference. If the future of local journalism is about a co-operative ecosystem then the BBC has a great opportunity to lead by example.
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