Raymond Snoddy on media: Here - and there - is the local news

A battle is certain to break out between the BBC and the local newspaper industry over the Beeb's plan to launch local news services across 60 regions.

Most observers thought that the BBC's 'less-than-hoped-for' licence-fee settlement would end plans for local expansionism. Wrong. The wily corporation has found a way to do it by meeting the £23m a year cost from internal savings once the roll-out is complete.

It's impressive that in these hard times, the BBC is still able to squeeze such savings from its Nations and Regions budget to pay for what almost amounts to a new online service. Equally impressive, 250 to 300 video journalist jobs will be created over the next five years, if the scheme is improved.

The BBC is absolutely not doing a local satellite television service here, as originally planned. This is not, however, because of any self-denying abstinence. The economics of a satellite-delivered service simply didn't stack up, and would probably have been abandoned whatever happened.

It would also be wrong of critics to complain that this is the original 'ultra-local' service in fresh livery. It is merely local, as opposed to ultra-local, the BBC insists, and, actually, it barely amounts to anything at all - only an 'enhancement' of existing services.

An annual budget of £23m and up to 300 video journalists running around the country in search of stories, who will film, edit and script their own material sounds like a pretty significant 'enhancement' to me.

The BBC is making some concessions to its likely critics, or at least electing to include some self-imposed limitations. Talk to the man in charge of the project, David Holdsworth, deputy controller of BBC English Regions, and his attempts to reach an acceptable compromise seem genuine.

The proposal is to limit to 10 the number of videos shown each day on each site, which doesn't sound much like a restriction - are there really more than 10 top video stories a day crying out to be told in each area? More meaningfully, the agenda will be limited to news, sport, weather and travel, avoiding more commercial genres.

The service will be rolled out gradually up to 2013 - not much of a concession, as it couldn't be done overnight anyway.

Financial help has been stirred into the package, with a proposed pot to buy video material in from newspapers and provide links to their websites.

However carefully it is dressed up, the BBC plan is clearly an interference with the commercial market. Yet it is also probably an acceptable one, given that more video material is inevitably going to turn up on local sites over the next five years.

It would be perverse to say that the BBC alone, as a major news provider, should be unable to join this party.

It's probably time for the regional press to accept that next year the BBC will begin rolling out its enhanced local service. The lobbying will continue, but the papers would be well advised to use the time between now and the launch of the BBC services to enhance their own video offerings so that the corporation is not given a free ride. The BBC could even help to stimulate a market for local video news.

The practical reality is that you can be sure that the BBC Trust will approve this initiative. Sir Michael Lyons, its chairman, wants a less metropolitan BBC. This would offer local licence payers a better service, and anyway, the Trust has not been red-carding many proposed BBC developments.

The challenge for the regional newspaper industry is not just to compete, but to get the retaliation in first.

- Raymond Snoddy is a media journalist and presenter of BBC Television's Newswatch


- Among the services funded by the licence fee, the BBC operates 40 local radio stations across the UK.

- Its online offering includes 41 English regional sites based on counties or cities, one for the Isle of Man and two for the Channel Islands.

- For Scotland, as well as the main BBC Scotland site, which offers content including the news in Gaelic as well as English, it has six sites covering the country's regions.

- BBC Wales has sites for five regions, and a Welsh-language version of its main site, while the BBC Northern Ireland site links to the main BBC news and sport sites, and hosts regional content in English and Irish.

- Many of these regional sites offer news, features, sport, travel, weather and local webcam streams, provide links to BBC Local Radio services and local newspaper sites, include a range of community information and run local message boards.


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