Memorandum from The Press Association

 

Executive summary

 

The Press Association is the national news agency of the UK and Ireland and the UK's leading multimedia news and information provider. Through our relationships with local and regional print, TV, radio and online media outlets, we are acutely aware of the issues being faced by the industry during this period of structural change and cyclical downturn.

 

Drawing on our experiences at the heart of the news industry, we would like to make the following recommendations to the committee:

 

The Press Association strongly supports Ofcom's proposals for independently funded news consortia which could play an important role in supporting the development of multimedia newsrooms in the nations and regions.

 

We believe that free content sharing by the BBC would distort the market for news provision. An alternative solution for maintaining plurality would be to encourage the BBC to outsource a percentage of its newsgathering to commercial providers.

 

Collaborative working and knowledge sharing between the BBC and the commercial news industry would provide value to the local and regional media.

 

There are growing concerns that coverage of public service institutions and the democratic process is being eroded by the pressures in the news industry. We recommend the setting up of a review body to assess the scale of the problem and investigate possible solutions, including public funding.

 

The changes being experienced by the media industry will require major re-skilling of regional and local print journalists which could be supported by Government incentives.

 

The Press Association - a multimedia agency for a digital Britain

 

1. Founded in 1868, the Press Association was established with the principle of co-operation and partnership at its core. Our shareholders comprise a diverse selection of key media companies, including News International, the Daily Mail and General Trust, Trinity Mirror, the Guardian Media Group, United Business Media, The Telegraph Group, Johnston Press, Archant, DC Thomson, Midland News Association and Thomas Crosbie & Co.

2. From our central position in the media market, we provide a range of scalable, high-quality, cost-effective news and information services that benefit UK citizens as well as news providers. We deliver continuous feeds of text, pictures, video and data into newsrooms which are relied on by journalists around the country as a trusted source of news. As an institution, we share many of the commitments and values of the UK's public service broadcasters, reporting the news fairly, accurately and impartially and developing innovative products and services to meet the needs and demands of audiences, advertisers and media owners. We also have a well-established and trusted relationship with key institutions and event holders in the UK.

3. The organisation has invested heavily in its capabilities as a multimedia agency over the past five years, including developing a fast and flexible approach to quality video newsgathering on a cost base suited to next generation provision. We have also established a new 'digital pool' with Downing Street, Whitehall, Buckingham Palace and the UK's major political parties to ensure that industry participants and their audiences gain access to national news events in video. This sits outside the current broadcast pool and affords access to a range of newspaper and digital-only clients, and their audiences, previously excluded by existing broadcast arrangements.

4. We have a long-established relationship with, and understanding of, the requirements of local and national news providers. Our delivery system links to every daily newspaper, broadcast newsroom and most digital news providers in the UK, supplying a flexible, high-quality communications network and distribution infrastructure.

 

The market context

5. The news media are strongly interconnected, with local and regional news providers reporting at a local level and investing in local newsgathering and journalism training. National media outlets rely upon the contributions made by these providers, with many stories originating locally before being picked up by national media and many journalists at national outlets coming through from the regions. The local and regional media provide a trusted source of public service information and accountability for local communities and it is vital that this role continues.

6. The news market is currently experiencing a period of structural change and cyclical downturn, with local and regional television, print and radio facing significant commercial pressures and seeking to realign their cost bases with a more challenging market environment. As well as dealing with the pressures felt by their traditional markets, these news outlets face the challenge of investing in multimedia to meet audience need for content on new platforms. New forms of news provision such as digital media aggregators and blogs are evolving rapidly, but many of these rely on existing news providers and, in general, do not themselves invest in local newsgathering or journalism.

7. In light of these challenges, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry is timely. Through our relationships with print, TV, radio and online media outlets, the Press Association is acutely aware of the issues being faced by the industry. We would like to make recommendations to the committee in the following areas: independently funded news consortia; BBC partnership proposals; local democracy and public service reporting; and training.

Independently funded news consortia

 

8. The Press Association strongly supports Ofcom's proposals for independently funded news consortia to provide regional news on ITV or any new commercially funded public service institution.

 

9. As Ofcom has made clear, it is essential that any proposed solution for the future of regional and local television news should not focus only on broadcast news programming, but on delivering local and regional news content on all platforms. Proposals should take into account the complex interplays between news services in a converged multimedia and increasingly interconnected market.

 

10. Independently funded news consortia could play an important role in supporting the development of multimedia newsrooms in the nations and regions, helping local and regional news providers to invest in new forms of newsgathering and journalism. This approach will help to ensure the provision of an alternative source of news to the BBC in the devolved nations and English regions - essential for plurality.

 

11. We agree with Ofcom that this will require funding from Government - which could play an important role in supporting the wider market and help to build new skills and capabilities.

12. While the proposals will not solve all the issues currently faced by the local and regional media, they will provide a level of support and encouragement for organisations to diversify into multi-platform providers.

13. Through the digital network we already have in place with every print, broadcast and online newsroom, the Press Association can play a central role in coordinating shared resources with news consortia across the regions. This would provide a networked infrastructure for the delivery of multimedia content.

14. The Press Association is ideally positioned to play a key role in video newsgathering for the consortia. In addition to existing news video services, we recently launched a 'video wire' providing raw footage of the day's main diary stories and non-exclusive events. Supplied as an end-to-end digital service, the wire provides high quality video without the costs usually associated with broadcast newsgathering. Working with an agency video gathering service would allow consortia members and others to focus their resources on distinctive journalism and enable plurality. For regional newspapers, we have offered the video wire service free on a six-month trial basis to help stimulate development of multimedia services.

BBC partnership proposals

 

15. The Press Association is concerned that free content sharing - or "dumping" - by the BBC could distort the market and have very damaging implications for commercial news provision.

 

16. The news market would see a reduction in diversity and greater homogeneity, with providers only having access to BBC content which they are unable to monetise. Content sharing will set the BBC up as an agency provider of video news, a role currently fulfilled by the Press Association.

 

17. The BBC has already conceded, through its MOU with ITV, that video content around core diary and non-exclusive events does not need to be gathered by more than one news organisation. The Press Association agrees that duplication of newsgathering around these stories soaks up precious resources that could be applied elsewhere to help differentiate news output. The BBC could support plurality by outsourcing a percentage of its newsgathering operation to commercial providers. This model could see the BBC contributing to core video newsgathering by an agency, which also supplies video content to local and regional media companies, providing better value to the BBC and licence fee payers.

 

18. However, we believe there are many ways in which the BBC could work with the industry to provide value to local and regional media. Proposals for knowledge sharing and collaborative working could include:

 

Sharing audience and usability research

Sharing online usage data

Developing solutions on technical infrastructure

Developing common standards for metadata and tagging

 

As news providers enter a new era of newsgathering and provision, the Press Association would welcome the opportunity to work with the BBC and others on industry standards which will allow the free flow of information between providers and audiences.

 

Local democracy and public service reporting

 

19. The Press Association recognises that there are growing concerns around the coverage of fundamental issues of public interest, such as the administration of local justice, scrutiny of local decision-making and community engagement. As news organisations face unprecedented change, there is anecdotal evidence that this key function of the news media is being eroded, leaving a deficit in reporting of the function of public institutions and the democratic process.

20. If council-run newspapers were to become the only source of information on local authority issues in some parts of the country this has worrying implications for holding public institutions to account.

21. We are not aware of any comprehensive research into the extent of the issue. We would recommend the setting up of a review body to assess the scale of the problem and investigate possible solutions. A review should consider provision of public service reporting in a digital Britain - what information is relevant to the public in a multi-platform, digital environment. This should include data as well as news reporting.

22. One possible solution could be contestable public funding for central news and information gathering from the courts and other institutions. Supplying news organisations and information providers with this core reporting and data would allow them to continue to inform and engage the public as well as focus on delivering plural and creative market solutions. The format for this information would be informed by the review body - a thorough assessment of the situation is essential before public funding on a UK-wide basis could be considered.

Training

23. The structural change being experienced by the news industry and the emergence of independently funded news consortia will require major re-skilling of regional and local print journalists to give them the skills to operate in multi-platform businesses. The Press Association's journalism training arm has already trained 500 journalists from print media outlets in multimedia skills. All our training is currently provided at full cost to our clients with no direct support from Government, brokerages such as Train to Gain, or the Learning and Skills Council. The Government could support the efforts of local and regional news providers to invest in training and in the development of new skills and capabilities by creating incentives such as tax credits.

May 2009