Here’s the news: the BBC wants us to share it

BBC local news websites will soon be promoting the work of 'rival' newspapers and hyperlocals
BBC local news websites will soon be promoting the work of ‘rival’ newspapers and hyperlocals

VIEW FROM THE PRESSBOX: BBC local news sites want to trial “content sharing”, where they get to “share” newspaper content. STEVEN DOWNES suggests it could be something worth trying for sports pages and websites, too

It came out of the blue, and was a very polite invitation, as you’d expect from the BBC. Did I want to come along to a meeting to discuss “an improved method for linking to the best stories provided by local newspapers and hyperlocal sites”?

I’d never imagined that I would form a vital cog in the machine of Charter renewal, but when the Beeb calls, I normally manage to find an opening in my diary.

To me, the BBC is one of those cherished British institutions which, somewhat like the NHS, is under serious threat for its existence. In the case of the BBC, the daily assaults usually come from those other media outlets which, not unreasonably, feel that their commercial territory, on newsprint and over the airwaves as well as online, is being encroached upon by the licence fee-funded corporation.

I have not yet seen a satisfactory solution to the dilemma: with the BBC receiving £3.73 billion a year, they have massive resources for news-gathering and programme-making, and they are giving their end-product away, for nothing, to anyone with a radio or television set or a tablet or smart phone. Which somewhat undermines the advertising model of every newspaper group with any ambition of making the web pay. It has also had the unforeseen effect of making what most of us do as our trade, journalism, considerably less valuable.

John Whittingdale: Something Must Be Done
John Whittingdale: Something Must Be Done

Local newspaper groups, in the face of rapidly diminishing sales, have been particularly animated by all this and active in lobbying the government. In John Whittingdale, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, they appear to have found a willing ally, and the minister has told the BBC that Something Must Be Done. And there’s a BBC Charter renewal coming up, to concentrate minds.

A suggestion of the BBC hiring 100 “community” journalists to somehow undertake reporting work for the thousands of local papers across the country was aired, and other forms of collaboration also promised.

Hence the meeting.

There were nearly 20 assorted people gathered in a too-small-a-space for the meeting. There were a couple of suits from a local free newspaper groups, one or two editors of small circulation monthly community papers, someone from a Friends group of a local common (who didn’t appear to know what the interweb is) and others, like me, who have been running local news websites.

The BBC people explained that London is among the next areas to be identified “for content sharing”. In the sense of the BBC would be taking our content, and sharing it.

“What’s in it for me?” was the obvious question from one website editor who, before his redundancy, had been the Father of Chapel on a national newspaper.

The BBC has already been running pilots in West Yorkshire and the north-east, where local newspapers send a link to their strongest stories, which are then featured on the BBC News website on its local live streams.

“The project is one part of the BBC’s commitment to contribute to a healthy local journalism sector and a working party made up of representatives of many local news organisations has discussed a number of cross-industry initiatives,” we were told.

“I’m a bit disappointed to be frank,” said one of the newspaper executives at my meeting. “I know when I go back to my office, they’re going to ask me what cost-saving opportunities this offers us. And there’s none.”

Many local reporters have suspected that the BBC on their patch has practised “content sharing” by routinely nicking their best stories. It’s been nearly 10 years since BBC London, who have a radio station as well as daily TV news bulletins to fill, got rid of the their beat reporter dedicated to my patch of south London. Maybe it’s just not newsworthy enough, although the BBC website has always managed to have a couple of stories about it, from somewhere.

At the meeting, what was effectively on offer was the BBC asking our permission and co-operation to publish links to our own stories, potentially driving traffic to ad-carrying sites. For those who get paid per click, this could be a significant traffic-driver.

Content aggregators are very Web 1.0, and would not usually be something that the BBC – rightly wary of its reputation and responsibility for third-party websites – would seek to do automatically. Under this proposal, it would have staff sifting through the links they were sent, picking the ones they liked the look of.

And if they are doing it for local news today, what’s to stop BBC Sport, before it is further reduced by the next round of cuts, looking to run a similar scheme online for specialist sports websites? Print journos have long resented on-screen reporters from all broadcasters, who without any embarrassment tell the rolling camera of the latest transfer story or doping revelation, “According to my sources…”, when those “sources” are most likely that morning’s papers. This way, the sites who are generating the stories might at least derive some small benefit with an up-tick in their traffic figures.

It’s a far from perfect solution, but then we inhabit a far from perfect industry, at a time of constant and rapid change. I’m certain that this trial alone won’t be anywhere near enough to satisfy Whittingdale, but it could be one step towards finding a way to co-habit cyberspace with the BBC.

  • Steven Downes is the Secretary of the SJA. He is the former deputy editor of, and has been working in digital journalism for nearly 20 years
  • Next week in View From The Pressbox: David Walker, the SJA Chairman
  • As with all authored pieces on, the views expressed here do not represent the views or policy of the SJA. Readers are always welcome to post their comments on the content of this column and the rest of the site