Where does your local BBC get its news?

Head of Regional and Local Programmes at BBC East

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For many in the newspaper industry, and in particular the local press, the suspicion is that the BBC's Deep Throat is picking up a copy of the local paper.

It's a suggestion repeated fairly frequently and usually without much challenge. So what's the actual evidence?

Six months ago, the BBC and the Newspaper Society, the body that represents regional publishers, decided to work together to find out. The agreed method was simple. Monitor news in one area for a month then look at the stories that overlapped and trace them back to their source. Northamptonshire was chosen. It has two strong evening papers and a weekly run by Johnston Press. The BBC is not unusually well-resourced there.

This was a joint project, but I did most of the evidence gathering. Allowing for that and the fact there is bound to be some margin for error the picture we found was so clear that both the BBC and the newspaper managing director, who represented the Newspaper Society, agreed that the devil was not in the detail. What did we find? Local newspapers remain overwhelmingly the major publisher of local news and information.

Every day the two daily newspapers in Northamptonshire each publish more than four times as many stories as the BBC local radio station. Every day each paper publishes more stories than BBC Look East did in the entire month long period. Online, newspapers are also the volume provider with the two daily papers publishing 435 news stories and the BBC delivering 73.

Radio carried the vast bulk of BBC material, there were around 400 stories broadcast by BBC Radio Northampton in this period. Of those around 250 overlapped with those carried by the papers. Some overlap is inevitable. Snow and Remembrance Day events generated programmes on radio and reams of newspaper coverage. Media overlap, but on its own that tells you nothing about the source.

Publishing a story first is also not automatically the answer. A story about a poppy seller being spat at ran first on BBC Radio Northampton after he walked into the office. It was the front page lead in the paper next day and was extensively followed by national papers during the next week. But it wasn't lifted from the radio, he talked to everyone.

Around 20-30 stories looked like they might have originated from the papers. After checking that figure came down to 11. So from around 4,000 stories in the papers and around 400 on the radio just 11 stories were sourced by reading the paper. All those stories were then checked out by the BBC. Just five were hard news - job losses the paper heard about first, that sort of thing. The papers' news editors were clear, they listen to the radio and would have chased anything significant they had missed.

But if volume is not the issue, what about agenda setting? The front page seemed the obvious place to look. The two daily papers had 44 front-page leads, the BBC didn't carry 24 of them. In 22 relevant Evening Telegraph editions, 6 leads were also covered by the BBC. Two reflected bad weather and three were clearly diary or items from publicly available meetings.

The subject of the Northampton Chronicle & Echo front-page lead was aired on the BBC on 14 occasions. Seven of those would have been on all newsrooms diaries and a further five were from some form of press release. Only one was clearly a newspaper exclusive. If the BBC is devoted to following the papers' news agenda it's not doing it very well.

Simply counting stories also ignores significant differences in treatments. Holding the county's key public bodies to account or reporting on what they do gets greater prominence proportionately on the BBC in the way you might expect from a public service broadcaster.

There were also important differences in the nature and treatment of stories that a simple total of items conceals. The BBC station has a broader county remit and tends to be more interested in regional stories. That also reflects the broader editorial view that the station believes is right for its audience whilst the newspapers focused on being hyper-local by BBC standards.

In all the arguments about the BBC's impact in local markets it's easy to forget that the BBC's role can also be positive. The BBC supported on-air and participated in a key Evening Chronicle campaign in this period - 'Strictly Chron Dancing'

Beginning to transform all of this is the sheer amount of material on various forms of social media. The Northampton Chronicle's Daniel Owens writes a cracking column about how news works. He's clear what a difference social media is making, charting five to six stories a week which are picked up from social networking sites, available to all online users.

To sum up. Newspaper journalists listen to the radio and would not hesitate to follow up a story they had missed. Radio journalists read newspapers. This one month period probably favoured the BBC because it coincided with an editorially ambitious BBC initiative across England 'Living Longer' which aimed to really understand the issues facing an increasingly elderly population.

But forget the actual figures. Double, treble, quadruple them. The key thing we found is that neither side is dependent on the other.

Many stories do the rounds citing who lifts what from whom and there are some examples from both broadcast and print media of material being lifted and used unchecked and uncredited, but what this survey shows is that there's a lot less of it around than anecdotal evidence suggests.

Papers and radio co-exist and even work together. There's another England here, often fiercely proud of the place we live, generous to charity, supportive of each other, still shocked by the sort of crime that Midsomer would not blink at.

In the end somewhere is local to all of us. For the overwhelming majority it's a better place, too often hidden behind the national headlines. These are really strong content rich local papers, facing a multitude of threats to their revenue and therefore to their robust local journalism. But where you live is also a better place because of the strength and diversity of the local media. Without it we are all the poorer.

Tim Bishop is Head of Regional and Local Programmes at BBC East. He has been an evening newspaper editor, as well as a television and radio editor

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