Emily Bell in yesterday’s Media Guardian wonders why the print media should expect to escape the present unpleasantness unscathed, what with banks falling around our ears and all that. She thinks it’s quite likely we’ll lose a handful of national papers: The Mirror and The Express both being vulnerable.
A conversation in a corridor here at the BBC’s Broadcast Centre got me thinking and suggests a way out for the struggling papers: nationalisation (public service-ification anway). With the BBC’s mission shifting from informing, educating and entertaining the British people on TV and radio to creating public value across multiple platforms and media, the BBC should make an experimental foray into newspaper ownership.
Waiting prudently until the share prices of the threatened rags have fallen to bargain levels the Trust should authorise the purchase of one paper from each part of the market: a broadsheet, a mid-market and a tabloid. An initial investment of no more than £100M (3% of the BBC’s annual income) should secure, say, The Independent, The Express and The Mirror at next year’s fire sale rates. Once acquired the papers should be radically retuned to meet their new public service goals.
Each paper should retain its identity and its position in the market and each should keep its own editorial function: although it would be difficult to deliver the BBC’s values via the papers’ jaded old-school editorial teams, the autonomy and diversity of voice they’d provide would be essential to the project. Production and distribution should be centralised, as should Internet and new media production. The papers should be moved to new regional bases: one each for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (London would still have plenty of papers of its own).
With the papers acquired and reengineered to deliver an updated public service mix of content and interaction the next phase would be very exciting: the new BBC papers should begin to pump out a democratic mix of quality content, innovative user-generated material and the kind of tools for democratic and civic engagement that could really kick-start a post-recession cultural boom.