Ashley Highfield: ‘Genuinely Collaborative Partnership’ With BBC Still Possible

Ashley Highfield has written of his exasperation at last week’s BBC report on the future of news but he believes a “genuinely collaborative partnership” between the BBC and local press is still possible.  

Writing in the Guardian today (Thursday) , the Johnston Press chief executive said that he has been depressed by the “inflammatory language” and “inaccurate information” about the local press industry in BBC director of news and current affairs James Harding’s Future of News report published last week.  

When I first read the BBC’s Future of News report last week I’m not sure what depressed me most – the inflammatory language used, the misguided sentiment behind it, or the fact that the BBC intends parking a tank on every local lawn and offering its version of hyper local news controlled from London W1A.

“I immediately took to Twitter in utter dismay that the BBC vs local media spark had been reignited. Because I genuinely thought we were making headway.  I, like my colleagues, welcomed a healthy discussion with James Harding last year about the provision of local – truly local – news.

“I do still dare to believe that we can actually create a genuinely collaborative partnership – one which allows the BBC to play its role in the provision of local news but which still allows local media to thrive in the communities they have been serving for hundreds of years.

“Now that a few days have passed I remain exasperated that the BBC is peddling inaccurate information about an industry with enough challenges to fight. And we’re rising to those challenges. Digital revenues for local news brands rose by a quarter over the past year with digital display growing at 36 per cent – faster than the media industry average.  (Advertising Association)

“We’re not all closing newspapers – we’ve not folded a single paid for title in the three years I’ve been at Johnston Press. Moving a title online is simply not the same as closure and this seems a disappointingly analogue view from the BBC.

“And moving a daily to a weekly does not signal an end to daily news and daily publishing. According to ABC, traffic to local media websites grew by 57.6 per cent year on year. The Northampton Chronicle & Echo news desk still meets daily, and publishes not just daily but hourly to the web. Great journalism is great journalism. Copy doesn’t need to appear in a newspaper to touch local lives, champion local issues and hold those in power to account, locally.

“It now has a total weekly audience of close to a quarter of a million  – way beyond the numbers it had as a print only title. It’s profitable too. And, as part of a large publishing group, sustainable.  With the BBC’s own local websites underperforming, the report surprisingly doesn’t cover how this is to be addressed, but linking to local newspaper online content could be the solution.

“Future of News picks out one of Johnston Press’ titles for particular criticism – the Scarborough News. “Considering the town hit the national headlines earlier this month as its hospital declared a major incident, there were very few news boots on the ground to hold those responsible to account…”

“Where’s the supporting evidence for this rather damning statement I wonder? As many people are reading the Scarborough News now as they did when it was a daily  – and we have many thousands of new digital readers across iPad, mobile apps and the website. The only ‘journalism that is failing people’ here is the BBC’s accuracy.  And, by the way, the Scarborough News – which fosters hyper-local community conversation in a way the BBC never can – has been holding those responsible to account since 1882.

“It is also somewhat baffling that the BBC has become obsessed by the spoils of hyper-local news, particularly now, when their focus should be on everything but…(with the small matter of the Charter renewal to consider).

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the BBC needs to focus on what it’s brilliant at – creating world-class content – and stop trying to be all things to all people. The BBC sets the standard for national and international news.  They simply don’t have the resources to be brilliant at everything.

“Last year I suggested a way of working with the BBC that could increase public value by increasing the reach of BBC content if the BBC allows us to access it – all of it – from video content to weather – free of charge, and take it to market.

“Anything with a potential regional benefit should be made available, free, to regional publishers. A great big content bucket, properly tagged and indexed, that we (trusted, accredited, local publishers), can dip in to.

“They can keep their regional brands – Look North, BBC North West et al, but close their underperforming local websites and work with us, rather than against us, as we become their local media distribution partner and fully utilise our own, highly trafficked, rapidly growing, hyper local sites.  

“We’ll give proper attribution to that content, whichever medium we publish it in, whilst ensuring we keep our own local voice. This way, plurality of voice is maintained. In return the BBC can focus on being innovative whilst fulfilling its duty of delivering great education, information, and entertainment.

“And much like its regulated quota for the amount of content it commissions from independent TV production companies, it could be given specific content targets for how much content we use, by a beefed up regulator. The traffic this content gets on our platforms would count towards the BBC’s reach too – and be counted in any public value test when re-assessing a service licence.

“The report also questions the relevancy of local media. I would argue that in some ways our titles have never been more relevant. Local news brands reach 73 per cent of the UK each and every week. That wouldn’t be happening if they weren’t.

“User generated content, whilst not new, is actually increasing hyper-local content in our titles.  Our readers are engaging at a real grass-roots level by sending in details of events and groups that  matter to them. This allows our teams to focus on the bigger stories.  

“We genuinely want to work with the BBC –  and believe that the BBC can help, not hinder by providing content to us – and indeed commission (rather than borrow) content from us.  Fast forward to a digital world where there is not supply from a television and radio broadcaster to a print publisher, but a flow of digital content to and from a national media brand to hyper local titles.

“Local people, local businesses, local stories – that’s what we do. In fact, we – Johnston Press – have been doing it at a hyper-local level, for 300 years since the first Stamford Mercury was published. The BBC has been around since 1922.  Page 8 of Future of News is entitled The Misinformation Age.  Initially I wanted to retitle it The Misinformation Report. Now, I want to help create The Collaboration Report.”