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Where does your local BBC get its news?

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Tim Bishop Tim Bishop | 11:40 UK time, Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Newsagents' shops from Britain - by Steve Bowbrick

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


  • Comment number 1.

    Could we have an equally independent report (aka white-wash), please, telling us the role of the press and the BBC in the "Eurocrisis".

    It has come to peoples' attention, that the profits of Credit Default Swap holders, whose investments now dwarf the actual debt of the Eurocountries, are hidden from the public. The obcene amounts of money which could be made by speculators and hedge funds are never ever mentioned in case of a restructuring or default. Nevertheless, default and restructuring are often advocated in press and BBC alike.

    Is that because the BBC copies reports from the newspapers, too. Or is it the other way around here?

  • Comment number 2.

    Research you could drive a bus through... For one, there are more papers in Northamptonshire than the two dailies and one weekly the reasercher claims. There is another paid for weekly, The Brackley & Towcester Advertiser and three free-sheets, The Northampton Herald & Post, the Wellingborough Herald & Post and the Northants Mercury. Missing these surely skews the figures as does the fact BBC strike days are not included in the figures, but Sundays, when no papers publish, are and the fact the research seems to assume the BBC didn't pinch a story from a newspaper if they 'could have' got it themselves... That's probably why the BBC only lifted 11 stories.

  • Comment number 3.

    I would like to know where my local Radio Station (BBC Coventry and Warwickshire) gets its news because most of the time, they seem more bothered about the City of Coventry than the county of Warwickshire (yet the title deems it to be equal!)

    From News about some petty thing to the Sport dominated at the so called 'crisis at Coventry City! (Not everyone in the area mentioned support this Football Club!)

    I find it shocking that Warwickshire is let down every time on this crazy radio station, it needs to change but upon e-mailing the people there, they just want to stick fingers in their ears and go 'la,la,la'

  • Comment number 4.

    Jo’s right there are other papers in Northamptonshire. There have to be limits to any research. We agreed with the newspapers how we were going to do this and we monitored three radio stations, two TV channels, two daily newspapers and one weekly plus all the associated online material. That was pretty busy and felt a reasonable volume of material. By working with the managing director of the main newspaper group we had access to both newspaper news editors and the BBC news and sports team - which was essential to get beyond the published material. Without that level of access the counting has limited value. That was clearly seen as a fair way of doing things by representatives from the papers and the BBC, those limits are clear in the report which is a document agreed between us.

    You’re right monitoring the other weeklies you mention might have affected things but based on the weekly we did not monitor the effect would not have been great. The volume published in the daily papers across six days is so large that it tends to dominate the stats compared to a weekly paper, however content rich.

    Radio broadcasts on Sundays and the papers don't publish. We checked on Sundays to make sure we didn't miss any lifted material and we had versions of the figures that count the material both with and without the days the newspapers didn't publish. This version seemed the most complete but it makes little difference, the level of stories in radio bulletins on a Sunday are not huge, and would not transform the overall picture.

    The research did not make the assumption you suggest. We started by reading the papers and listening to the radio to work out the overlap. We then looked at the pattern of coverage and where items might have come from and then tested individual stories, and the ones that obviously might have been lifted. As one of the newspaper news editors said even by talking to them you can't be absolutely definitive - a newspaper reporter might have offered a story originally sparked by something heard on the radio or seen on the TV and the news editor might simply not know that. And the same applies in reverse but on lots of occasions we were able to chase an item back to what felt was its source.

    Both at the newspaper and BBC end of things we felt we got to a reasonable level of detail to draw some conclusions. I'm quite happy to keep on discussing the detailed method but the point here was that we worked together to try to come up with some actual evidence. It's certainly not exact, but both sides agreed the overall picture was so clear that there was no point in chasing down the details to the last percentage point, and while I'm also certain there is a margin for error the issues you are worrying at are marginal to the overall findings.

    What I do think is the effect of listening to the radio or reading the paper is greater than any one story. The Daily Telegraph paid for all the MPs’ expenses data and got the exclusive but all other media then covered the story in depth and at length. So there is more value in that one story than any counting would show up. But the point made again recently on the Today programme was that local radio "gets" its content from the local papers. Even if these figures are wrong by some amazing factor, neither I nor the newspaper representatives involve believe they are, what was clear in both the counting and the day to day reading and listening is that the radio station is simply not dependent on picking up the paper each morning.
    Tim Bishop, Head of Region, BBC East

  • Comment number 5.

    i work on the newcastle evening chronicle and journal. the local tv and radio do nothing but lift our stories!!! you can hear them turning the pages on radio newcastle in the morning!!! bbc look north uses our stuff every day and hardly ever breaks it own stories. when they do break a story it could be the most mundane thing in the world but it goes to the top of the news list! we regard them as a joke, gone are the days when we used to listen to and watch their output to see if theyd come up with anything new. bbc look north is always a day behind with the news, are their journalists lazy or incompetent or both?
    if we ever went to the wall, this lot would be really in the mire. i object paying part of my licence fee to a bunch of plagiarisers!

  • Comment number 6.

    Hmm. So Radio and TV journalists "do nothing" but lift newspaper stories, and while despite that they do break stories, they only break "mundane" ones. I've no doubt those views are widely held in newspaper newsrooms but the uncomfortable truth is that these days for every anecdote about the pages of the newspaper being turned on the radio I can give you a pile of quotes lifted off the BBC uncredited into newspapers. With newspaper staffing under serious pressure in lots of areas things have moved on. Beware of what everyone "knows" I was always told, by a newspaper news editor, many years ago. The point of this project, run jointly with Newspaper Society representatives, was to try to look beyond what everyone believes to look for some facts.

    To give you just some examples of things we found that might be relevant:

    - A lot of "your stuff" that the TV runs comes their way directly, far more often than you will know. Some of your contacts are likely to be very familiar in the BBC Radio Newcastle newsroom who feed ideas to BBC Look North. At the start of this research the front page lead in the paper on the Monday looked like an original story that then went national. But the story had run first on the radio, early on the Sunday morning. And the truth is the man involved was a contact of both newsrooms and had talked separately to both of them so no-one had lifted anything from anyone else. In checking stories back to their source that turned out to be true more often than you might think, sight unseen by the journalists involved.

    - TV and radio journalists are neither lazy nor incompetent, they simply do a different job. You can sit in the office, make some phone calls and run a story. If your newsroom is typical you spend more time doing that than ever. TV journalists have to go out and film the story and then edit it before it can be transmitted. The way that is done has been transformed in recent years but it still takes much more effort and time for every story. What about radio? On the first day of this project a major civic centre opened in Corby. The whole radio breakfast show came from there live. Because of ever earlier newspaper deadlines it only made Page Four of the next day's paper. That doesn't make them lazy, it's just the difference in the way the different media work.

    - You cover a concentrated area, Look North covers a much wider area across into Cumbria. So in this research an equivalent evening paper covered 2000 or so stories largely concentrated around one urban area in one part of the county. In the same period the regional TV programme BBC Look East covered the whole county with around 60 stories. They are regional, you are hyper local by BBC standards. Hardly surprising you do more stuff about the area you cover, the simple fact is you are bound to.

    - It was absolutely clear that newspapers and radio were often carrying many of the same stories but it was also very clear that the vast majority were being accessed by each outlet independent of the other. Go back to the example above. Radio happened to be first but just because something is first does not mean it automatically caused the other.

    - We ran this research in an area chosen partly because of the relative strength of the newspapers and I suspect if we had done the same thing where you live you would have got some surprises. I've been lucky enough to work in newspapers, radio and TV. Everyone works hard, when you see what they do in detail you end up respecting all of them. And there have been huge changes in media. When local radio started it played music in breakfast, over the years it's become ever more focused on daily news, shifting its resources accordingly. At the same time many newspapers, not these ones in Northamptonshire, have run down their front line reporting teams. The balance has shifted and that really matters. The BBC has been busy investing in a new generation of local political reporters. In the project it's clear that is making a real difference.

    - Lots of things would be lost if your newspaper closed but it was quite clear to all sides in this project that a BBC local newsroom in today's world does not need to rely on the local paper being delivered. Tim Bishop, Head of Region, BBC East


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