Meredith: Delay To DMU Legislation Could Result In Closure Of Local News Titles

Further delay to the crucial legislation underpinning the Digital Markets Unit to level the playing field between news publishers and the platforms could result in the closure of local news media titles, News Media Association chief executive Owen Meredith said today.  

Giving evidence to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee for its inquiry into the sustainability of local journalism, Owen said it was important for the new regime to include a collective bargaining mechanism enabling smaller publishers to negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook and other platforms.

Giving evidence alongside Local TV Network chair David Powell and UK Community Radio Network co-founder Martin Steers, Owen said there was a new “air of confidence” in the local news media sector which was investing in front line journalism, launching new titles and experiencing audience growth.

“That is a great success and testament to not only the quality of that journalism, and the way that people are reporting, but how vital that journalism is to communities particularly at times of crisis,” Owen said.

But, Owen said, tackling the unfair relationship between news publishers and the tech platforms was a top priority to ensure a sustainable future for local journalism, alongside curbing the local expansion of the BBC’s local news services, and keeping public notices in printed local papers.

“We need to tackle that imbalance so that publishers can properly negotiate with the likes of Facebook and Google in order to get a fair deal so that investment can flow back through to local journalism,” he added. 

Speaking about local news media to presenter Matt Chorley on Times Radio this morning, Owen said: “If you look at audience data there has been huge growth. Obviously digital, over the last decade and more, has been a huge opportunity for publishers and local journalists to reach a wider audience.    

He added: “There has undoubtedly been significant challenge as in the digital environment it’s much harder for people to monetise that quality journalism in the same way. But I think the industry broadly is optimistic – people in society recognise the importance of quality journalism and, in a world of misinformation and disinformation online, never has it been more important that we support our local papers.”   

During the DCMS committee session on Tuesday, Owen called for the expansion of the NMA BBC Local News Partnership, saying it was a good example of how the BBC and commercial local news media sector could work together. 

Asked by Damian Green MP how he regarded the BBC’s local output and competition with NMA members, Owen responded: “I think the BBC can be a great force for good and clearly the BBC does some excellent journalism.

But, he added, there was a problem with the BBC’s ambitions to expand its local news operations. He said: “We have a huge problem here in terms of how the BBC news operation online does interact with the commercial sector and I think by negotiation and discussion we can come up with a much better model.”

Dr Rupa Huq MP asked what provisions the witnesses would like to see in the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill to ensure a level playing field between content creators and the platforms.

Owen said Cambridge University professor of economics at Matt Elliott’s ‘Value of News to Digital Platforms in the UK’ paper – which shows that news content created by British publishers generates approximately £1 billion in UK revenues for Google and Facebook every year – demonstrated the urgent need for the DMU to tackle the problem.

“But one of the important things and lessons we need to learn from the likes of Australia where other mechanisms have been in put in place is that we need to have a collective bargaining mechanism so that smaller independent publishers have the ability to join together and negotiate collectively with Google and Facebook and other platforms.”

Owen added: “Without that the smallest news publishers and independent newsrooms will be left out.” 

Asked by chair of the committee Julian Knight MP if government should “get cracking” with the legislation rather than delaying further, Owen said: “I would very much like to see that Bill published as soon as possible. “

The UK has led the world in terms of the studies, particularly the Competition and Markets Authority study into the online advertising market, but the time for consultation was over, Owen said. 

He added: “My fear is the consequence of delay and not getting a level playing field and the ability of publishers to negotiate is, sadly, the closure of more local titles. So, I think it’s a very urgent matter that needs to be addressed by Parliament as soon as possible.”

Jane Stevenson MP asked whether it was important to keep public notices in printed local newspapers. Owen said the revenue was vital for supporting local journalism, adding that the NMA was working to build a new digital portal for public notices to harness the reach of local media online, enabling even more people to access the notices.   

“So there is innovation happening in that space as well as the importance of keeping it in print,” Owen added.