How well is the BBC's local online resource being managed now?
Updated: May 13
The objective for the current BBC local plan is understandable. However much we love radio and can wax lyrically about its beautiful benefits, we know from our own lives that it’s not the place most folk hear the news first these days.
This has long been recognised by Auntie. Indeed, the former head of BBC local radio, David Holdsworth wrote to staff in Sept 2016 about a full review to achieve cost savings and ‘re-shaping our offer for a digital age’. That study lasted ages and took much management time. To be clear – that was seven years ago.
It evidently went nowhere. Apart from DG Tony Hall standing up a year later and surprising even station Editors by announcing: “a 10 million pounds savings proposal didn’t feel right to me” and creating a fund to spend even more on extra local programmes. He also announced the funding for local democracy reporters.
Now - here we are again. Things are moving, but the BBC has taken the wrong turning.
Prodded and informed by many of those on the inside, I struggle to understand why the existing healthy BBC online resource is not already paying more dividends.
I’ve darted briefly into this before – but it warrants further investigation. If the below is true, the entire resource shift from local radio makes even less sense.
The BBC already has significant online resource.
To take a random example - the BBC South East region had ten staff on duty in various online/social duties on a single day this week. I imagine there is similar resource regionally elsewhere from what I am told. To be clear, that’s a hefty incremental ‘newsroom’ – bearing in mind it does not include the radio and TV resource in the local patches.
What are they all doing?
Let’s start with the perspective of the consumer - that of the licence-fee payer in each local area.
They may get their BBC online local news by being directed via social media, from the BBC website or the BBC app.
If they do a Google search for BBC news and their area– they’d get the below – and be led to a page for an area.
The BBC app at present invites them, if desired, to select their area – and then it throws up much the same as the local bbc.co.uk/(area) website page below. There are stories at the top – and a timeline at the foot which draws up stories in chronological order.
Example above from Cambridge - three news stories and one sports story published today
Whilst we all recognise that huge traffic can emerge from social media links, whatever one carefully chooses to sit on any site's front page, the BBC is keen I gather to make its own site/app sovereign - putting local content in front of the right people just as it does for national news.
There’s value in that. The BBC can control its editorial integrity on there, whereas social media can choose to – or the algorithm chooses to - amplify or diminish whatever it wishes.
So – as a citizen, what do I see online in my area for my licence fee from this existing mighty team?
Across the week, I found these stories online in the BBC South East region. There may have been more of relevance, but if there was, it wasn’t sufficiently well tagged to make it to their news page that I, and other normal people, would have seen.
BBC online stories on the relevant website each day. 6/7th was a weekend and 8th a bank holiday
If one does the maths, I doubt I'd be proud of the above if cited in my next appraisal. Certainly when compared with the hourly bulletins from the radio newsrooms plus all the programme content which generates news-lines.
How reassuring that absolutely nothing of note seemed to happen to the 1.2m inhabitants of dear leafy Surrey between just before 4.00 on Tuesday afternoon (1543 9th May) until a lucky Police appeal two days afterwards (0934 11th May).
There may have been more of relevance, but if there was, it wasn’t sufficiently well tagged to make it to their news page.
Do let me know if I am missing anything appreciable here.
There was extra material on Twitter but, as above, if there were news value in a Twitter post, you’d imagine the story would also be deemed by the online team to be worthy of their hallowed pages. I gather others beyond the online team also post to Twitter – some drawing logically on clips or material sourced from on-air.
And, anyway, over two thirds (67%) of 16+ don’t look at Twitter and 80% of those aged over 50. (Ofcom 2023).
It seems to me the existing BBC online resource is not effectively deployed.
How to improve local online
What would you do if you were in charge – and had the objective of making sure BBC local online had the right resource for consumer habits for this age?
First, you’d look at the staffing and you’d look at the outputs. You’d pull off all the online stats of what’s being posted and how many people are viewing it. You’d work out which regions are doing better than others. You’d have a quiet sit down with a few people you trust on the ground to inform your thinking.
You’d then assemble all the heads of online, deliver your vision and lead them to your objectives. You'd share headlines from your review - and gently but firmly lead them to the conclusion that it could be a lot better.
You’d ask them what was getting in the way of more stories; and you’d address it. And you'd make sure you were seen to have addressed it.
You’d establish how best to work with colleagues in radio and TV, many of whom have been in touch with me to suggest how anxious they are to get stuff online. Angles from radio interviews readily make news angles for bulletins, but don’t so readily emerge online. The sports teams seem refreshingly good at penetrating the barriers.
Radio has a value in original news creation. Interviewees drop their guard in long form interviews. And local citizens tell their stories to radio – and the best stories can come from simply talking to people. Yet there appears to be, on some sites, a cultural gulf and lack of trust between the radio and online teams. The BBC values for staff include: ONE BBC - we collaborate, learn and grow together. No you don't.
You’d soon establish who amongst your online team is truly dedicated to public service and who is not. You’d manage out quickly any managers not fit for purpose. My experience generally at the BBC, however, was that poor performance (and absence) are simply not well-managed – and that is noticed and resented by the staff who keep the show on the road.
You’d promote those who really get it and give them responsibility for delivery with measurable outcomes.
At that stage, you’d identify any genuine deficit in resource to achieve your vision and make a case for it. I gently suggest it would not be of the scale suggested by the proposed plan.
This logical process does not appear to have been followed.
Staff posts in online, including managers, have not been at risk of redundancy. Owing to the nature of the ill-devised new strategy, they would legitimately not have been in the pools. I’m pleased that is the case for those who are working hard online - but I’m sure those same hard-workers and their colleagues across the BBC may pray for a bit of a shake-up.
As ever, this is not criticism of people at their desks, whether at home or in offices. I’d suggest you are poorly-led and managed.
I get multi-media, but if that is the ambition, why do your internal systems mitigate against even working together at present? Sort that, and you’d be way further forward. And where a manager seems over-protective against the greater good after sufficient formal reminders - move them on. That sorts it.
The BBC needs to make sure its existing online effort is well-run before it spends more money and demolishes local radio in the UK forever.
It must check its assertion that lots more people sitting at their desks or at home in a regional newsroom can generate better local news for areas they don’t know intimately. As one staffer says: “It’s done by (Regional centre elsewhere)- and that is often the problem because local stories from (local area) don’t make it on there”.
And – I repeat – that is not to say local radio/audio is itself perfect. Across the country, that does need re-inventing. It can be done more efficiently – more in line with today’s audio consumption habits – and become more, not less, local. Covid could have been the catalyst for that positive change. Real reinvention.
Dear BBC – you have chosen the wrong road. I would hate to have to unpick this mess, but you really must.
The people involved in this local plan’s design and implementation must honourably tender their resignations.