Alex Aiken: TV bidding comes during regional comms crunch time

The news that media companies are showing a keen interest in acquiring licences to run local TV services in 21 towns and cities across the UK could not come at a more significant moment for the PR industry.

Alex Aiken: An 'atomic winter' has hung over the local news landscape
Alex Aiken: An 'atomic winter' has hung over the local news landscape

Local government communicators too have lived through the atomic winter that has hung over the local news landscape.

Consider that in 2011, more than 30 weekly papers shut and several well-established dailies became telescoped into weekly editions – the Exeter Express and Echo and the Liverpool Post among them.

That trend continues relentlessly. Regional publishers that once regarded their provincial titles as classified advertising cash cows continue to retrench and amalgamate (Johnston Press has just announced it is cutting a further three weekly editors as I write this).

Reporters work for ever increasing numbers of titles now often subbed in remote ‘hubs’ by editors who, however well meaning, may have little knowledge of the local issues involved.

It was into this gap in the market that council comms expanded. Council communicators produced magazines and newspapers that sought to correct some of the myths meddled by some local papers and inform their publics about what people got for their council tax.

Despite the restrictions on quantity, it’s local authorities - through publications and increasingly digital comms - that keep the community informed about what’s going on in their area.

The result is that the news ecology is now wildly out of kilter. As regional news groups progressively withdraw from local reporting, there are fewer journalists gathering news at the coalface.

Television and radio – traditionally heavily reliant upon local papers for story leads - have fewer items to lift. News agencies based in provincial big cities – whose typical role is to do much of the legwork for London-based national newspapers – remain one of the few newsgathering operations with a regional presence.

So it is an intriguing development that major companies are bidding to work in the troubled world of local media. These are serious players with names such as ITN, Press Association, the London Evening Standard and STV throwing their hats into the ring.

The pill is sugared by the fact the Government will fund some of the infrastructure costs of setting these stations up (via the licence fee), but these commercial groups are interested because they see a return on their investment through local advertising.

Of course, those with longer memories will recall that local ‘big city’ TV has been tried before. Both Associated Newspapers and Mirror Group TV dabbled in these waters in the mid-1990s, with Channel One and Live TV respectively.

Live TV, under the helm of former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie, went down in journalistic lore for giving the nation topless darts and the weather dwarf – a diminutive presenter who bounced on a trampoline to the area of the country being referred to (legend has it the unfortunate weatherman hit the gantry lights when outlining the prospects in Scotland).

The media landscape has entirely changed since those pioneering efforts. Britain has now embraced all things digital (Ofcom’s recent report, The Communications Market Report: United Kingdom reveals we now text more than we actually speak on the phone). Set-top boxes are blurring the distinction between computer and TV content and this trend towards convergence will only increase.

The key issue for local Government communicators is whether a new network of local TV operators will lead to a meaningful increase in grassroots newsgathering.

The London Evening Standard has already said it will use its 120 journalists to form the basis of a bid. But will the areas of the country where regional print journalism has effectively withered see an influx of local TV journalists digging up local scoops?

The issue is a serious one for journalism and local authority public relations alike. The press benches in council chambers up and down the country are frequently deserted, and this situation does nobody any favours.

The job of a strong local paper is to scrutinise a council. We know that when trusted local newspapers carry items on the positive work we do, those reports register clearly with the leadership.

I hope that local television does create a meaningful platform for councils to speak to local people. While we are witnessing a seismic shift in how people consume media, the fact is that council communicators have the eternal task of explaining what their councils are doing and why. If local broadcasting can provide the medium, we’ll provide the message.

Alex Aiken is director of comms and strategy at Westminster City Council.

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