Amanda Andrews on Media: Time to side with local news media

Amanda Andrews
Amanda Andrews

The government must offer incentives to the regional news industry to ensure it stays competitive

Strong regional and local news sources, be they print, broadcast or online, are vital for advertisers as well as the community. They provide an opportunity for targeted advertising, give those who would otherwise advertise only on Google or in the Yellow Pages another outlet and offer a more cost-effective solution than the national press.

Having the BBC as the only UK source of local news is a depressing, yet possible, situation that could occur within 10 years if action is not taken to protect Britain's regional news groups.

Trinity Mirror chief executive Sly Bailey and her rivals at Johnston Press and Daily Mail & General Trust spent months campaigning to change the rules governing local media mergers.

A review from the Office of Fair Trading (OFT), announced alongside the Digital Britain report, suggested some relaxation and an inquiry into council-produced free sheets.

However, like most aspects of the Digital Britain report - dubbed the 'Digital Dithering' report by some - the OFT failed to provide any certainty that it would permit a large-scale regional press tie-up.

Whatever the case, merger activity will not be enough to save the regional press from its downhill struggle.

While the advertising market will eventually recover, there are structural issues that the leading groups will have to tackle. The rise of Google is the most prominent.

Bailey has complained that people discover stories on Google, read them on her sites and click away before learning that the stories originated at her websites. It is partly the responsibility of the regional news industry to work collectively on this concern. The industry is no doubt hesitant to add pay walls to their sites, as internet users always have the option of going elsewhere. The BBC is an obvious first port of call.

The successful creation of a joint online offering between the local and regional news players to rival BBC Local would provide advertisers with a one-stop shop for individual communities, as well as a much bigger, recognisable platform than they are used to.

However, this sort of plan requires a significant investment - particularly the cost of marketing the brand and producing high-quality online video. Many regional newspaper groups do not have these funds, and are battling to keep titles open as they tackle big debts or pension deficits.

It is time for the government to step in and assist. Its joint announcement with the OFT on a probable relaxation of mergers went some way, but it is by no means enough.

The government needs to show more flexibility. It must provide regional news groups with incentives to grow, as well as ideas and regulatory intervention, if necessary, on tackling Google.

The Conservative Party made a sensible suggestion last week in a report written by media executive Roger Parry. It states that regional newspaper companies could step in to produce local and regional television on ITV. This would abandon the government's policy to top-slice the BBC licence fee and produce a revenue stream for struggling regional titles.

The Conservatives believe this would bring local news to more areas at a lower cost. As many as 81 local stations would be created under the plan. In addition, having a single online channel for regional news groups, which would serve to guide users to high-quality sites from their individual titles would increase traffic and, when the advertising market recovers, improve revenue streams.

Amanda Andrews is media editor at The Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and telegraph.co.uk

30 seconds on local and regional press

  • There are more than 1250 local and regional newspapers in the UK, produced by 87 publishers.
  • The combined weekly circulation of these publications, which include paid and free daily and weekly titles, is more than 61m.
  • Trinity Mirror is the biggest publisher in this category by weekly circulation, with 164 titles, boasting a combined circulation of 11.6m. The second biggest publisher is Newsquest Media Group, which has 205 titles and a combined circulation of 8.9m.
  • In June, the biggest spenders on regional press advertising were DFS and Lidl, which increased their outlay year on year by 107% and 86% respectively. The third biggest spender was the COI, with a 63% increase, according to Nielsen Media Research.
  • Last year, advertisers spent £2.3bn on regional press, accounting for 14.3% of all ad revenue.
  • Forays into digital include Northcliffe Media's Local People network in the South West, hosting user-generated content, such as blogs and videos, and debate.

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