...local newspaper owners and editors fear the BBC is about to muscle in on their territory, with the kind of budgets they can only dream of, snuffing out their ability to transform themselves (albeit rather belatedly in some cases) from print businesses to multimedia news providers.
Is there anything that can be done, rather urgently, to stem this confluence of bad luck, rotten timing and inexorable technical change - with all its devastating consequences for local news?
Bad luck? Rotten timing? Or just unfair?
The interesting thing here is a very basic question, far beyond the many arguments for saving the regional press: why does any community need to be informed about itself? The "sometimes humdrum" news does not interest the Google Generation. Perhaps the local news about a gig, a restaurant opening, a rugby league match, or surfing conditions might - but these types of news come straight to the cell phone, if not now, then very soon. They come from citizen journalists and listing companies, Yahoo & Google.
What is it that we need to know? The content of London Lite (a free daily local newspaper) suggests we need to know about Mayfair nightclubs, celebrity divorces, sports stories (but no scoops, they're all online), and holiday destinations - TV listings, music reviews and diets. Is this the knowledge product we want to save?
The web changes our relationship to space, the spatial, and time - and the very process of information seeking. A news story from Capetown is - if it is presented and told well - as interesting as one from, say, Leeds. The web is "viewed" as much as it is read. Is it local news we should fight for, or - say - investigative reporting? Or a new kind of more transparent political reporting? In education terms should we be subsidizing translations of other countries' news? Shouldn't we be learning how others see us?
And if the shift in print journalism is anyway from exclusive story to angled analysis do we want state-subsidized regional columnists?
Is there any reason why local newspapers - whether in print, on broadband or broadcast - shouldn't compete with the broadcasters for some form of subsidy in return for providing the public service of keeping a community informed about itself?
If you had asked that question a year or two ago most editors and owners would have been united in dismissing it out of hand. They would have argued that the press in Britain has been free of any kind of state subsidy for the best part of 200 years or more. They would have swiftly rejected the kind of regulatory strings that might be attached to a requirement to produce so-called public service content.
But now? Who is to say that Channel 4 (not to mention some aspects of the BBC output) is any more deserving of state funding than those responsible for the sometimes humdrum, but essential, task of keeping people informed about what their local councils, courts, police, health and fire services are up to? If there's going to be a digital switchover surplus shouldn't local newspapers be in with a shout, rather than shuffling the money around a limited pool of broadcasters - who are, in any event, rather urgently re-inventing themselves as digital content providers?
From the Society of Editors conference.