Local media performs numerous functions in society. It scrutinises and holds to account local authorities and institutions, it informs people of news and events in their communities, and it forms part of the local identity of an area.
We were aware of reports from within local media that there were significant challenges being faced by the industry, brought about by structural changes and the impact of a global recession. Therefore we decided to launch an inquiry to examine the local media landscape in the UK at this time. In this Report we discuss the importance and relevance of local media in the UK at the moment, as well as the challenges it is currently facing.
Our inquiry examined local newspapers, radio, television news and internet based media. We look at what constitutes 'local' and 'regional', and what level of 'localness' is necessary and appropriate for different forms of media. We also discuss the importance of plurality in local media - that is, the number of different media 'voices' in an area or on a media platform (the particular media format).
We comment on the changing local media landscape and the impact of the internet on more traditional forms of media. While we highlight areas where the Government or other public bodies can implement changes that could help the local media industry, we conclude that many of the solutions lie with the media groups themselves.
Regional and local newspapers
We note the impact that structural and cyclical factors have had on local newspapers. The economic downturn is beginning to show signs of recovery, but the impact of the growth and popularity of the internet on local newspaper purchasing and advertising revenues does not look set to reverse. We conclude that in order to maintain the independence of local media it is not appropriate for the state to subsidise it. It is therefore vital for local newspaper publishers to innovate to survive, for instance by continuing to develop websites and utilise internet technologies.
We acknowledge the concerns of local newspaper publishers about the current merger regime. Publishers have told us that the current system prevents consolidation, which they argue is necessary for their survival. We conclude that the current regime does need to be re-examined by the Government.
We note with concern the growing number of local authority publications that are competing with commercial local newspapers. We also find that some are misleading in nature and do not make it clear that they are council publications. We also comment on evidence of political bias in some local authority news sheets. We therefore recommend that the Department for Communities and Local Government should amend its guidance for local authorities producing publications making it mandatory that such publications should clearly state that they are published by a local authority on their front page. We also recommend that the Office of Fair Trading should conduct a review into the impact of local authority publications on local commercial newspapers.
Finally, we welcome the Press Association's proposals for public service reporting, as we believe it could alleviate some of the pressure in local newspapers, and could be a solution to the gap that has emerged as local newspapers are increasingly too under-resourced to report on public institutions and local democracy. We take note of the Press Associations concerns about the exclusivity of the 'broadcast pool' (video content of news events that are only allowed to be covered by a single camera, and is then shared between the BBC, ITN and Sky) and conclude that it is no longer appropriate to distinguish between broadcast and non-broadcast media when newspapers are increasingly using video on their websites. We therefore recommend that the broadcast pool arrangements should be clarified, and if the broadcast pool members are not prepared to share the content with the Press Association at a reasonable cost, Press Association cameras should also be admitted to single-camera events.
Regional news on television
In this chapter we discuss the popularity of regional news on television and the economic difficulties it is facing. We examine regional news on Channel 3 and Government proposals for independently funded news consortia (IFNCs), along with proposals made by the BBC to make some of their resources available to either ITV or the replacement IFNCs. We also discuss the dispute between ITV and the Scottish television company, STV, regarding the Channel 3 schedule.
We are concerned about ITV's reports that they may not be able to continue to provide regional news on Channel 3, and believe the situation is in danger of reaching a crisis point that could jeopardise the plurality of regional television news. If it is not financially viable for existing Channel 3 licensees to continue to provide regional television news then we recommend that other, non-regional, public service broadcasting obligations should be suspended, using powers contained in the Digital Economy Bill, to alleviate the financial burden on the licensees and allow regional news to continue.
We support the IFNC pilots being established in Wales, Scotland and the Tyne Tees and Borders regions.
We conclude that the plurality of regional news provision is vital in a democracy. Therefore we restate our support for the principle of public funding, and note the Government's existing suggestion that this could be met from that part of the income of the licence fee that is currently allocated to the digital switchover help scheme.
Local news, weather and travel are the most listened to content on local radio. As well these services local radio offers content such as chat shows, phone-ins and discussion programmes which offer listeners an interactive local service that is very popular. We discuss the importance of local radio and the impact it has on the identity of local communities. We comment on the large increase in the number of local and community radio stations in the past 20 years and discuss what level of localness is sustainable for local radio.
We support Ofcom's proposals for deregulation of cross-media ownership, and we agree with local radio groups that the localness of radio should be determined by its output rather than location.
We also welcome Ofcom's encouragement of community radio and we believe this will become an increasingly important part of the local media landscape.
Local media online
We note the concerns local newspaper publishers have about news aggregation websites, such as Google News, which provide the consumer with a list of news headlines and links from numerous news sources. We do not think it is acceptable that the local newspaper industry is prevented from taking any collective action on this by competition laws, and therefore recommend that the Office of Fair Trading should re-examine this issue.
We conclude that Google has achieved a dominant position through successful innovation and that some of the criticisms of Google from local newspaper publishers lack focus. We note that local newspaper groups can opt out of both Google web search and Google News if they wish.
However, we welcome recent changes to Google News, designed to support local newspaper websites, and urge Google to be continually aware of the impact which their products can have on local newspapers and remain sensitive to the need for plurality in news provision.
We are encouraged by developments that could help local news publishers become multi-platform news providers. We believe IFNCs could offer a shared skill and resource base to help local newspapers make the transition to becoming online publishers as well as print publishers. We also note that some publishers are experimenting with different business models for the provision of online content.
Finally, we consider whether it is local journalism, rather than local newspapers, that needs saving. We conclude that local printed newspapers are still relevant, not least because of the number of people who do not have access to the internet. However, newspapers must innovate and adapt to the digital world if they are to survive.