The BBC should “work with” local media publishers and close down underperforming websites, says Johnston Press chief executive Ashley Highfield.

Speaking at the Newspaper Society AGM on Friday, Highfield urged the corporation – where he spent eight years as director of new media and technology – to “start looking at local press differently”.

In January, BBC News director James Harding said the decline of the local newspaper industry was “not the BBC’s fault” and that it was the BBC’s “obligation” to report local news.

But Highfield believes it should instead work with rather than against local media.

Ashley Highfield

Ashley Highfield

He said: “The BBC purports to support regional press, yet seems to be wishing for its demise by questioning – at what seems like every opportunity – whether local newspapers are already dead.

“I suggest now is the time for Auntie to put on some different spectacles and start looking at local press differently: as a genuine partner to take the BBC to a wider audience.

“Local newspapers and their associated web brands can actually bolster the BBC’s value if they stop viewing us as the competition and work with us to distribute their content.

“Put simply, we can provide more reach (and thus more public value) to BBC content through our websites, our papers, our routes to market, but still within a trusted, regulated environment, than they can through their sub-scale (or wherever) sites.

“The BBC is one of the country’s most important cultural institutions and the relationship it has with us as a nation is truly astounding. But it’s not the BBC which has a direct relationship with people in Pocklington, Peterborough or Portsmouth. It’s us – the local media operators.

“We can increase public value by increasing the reach of BBC content if the BBC allows us to access it – all of it – from video content to weather – free of charge, and take it to market.”

The publishing chief added that while the BBC should keep its broader regional brands, there was an opportunity to channel its local content through hyperlocal sites, such as those owned by Johnston Press.

“The BBC needs to stop trying to be all things to all people, and focus on what they are best at – creating world-class content.

“They can keep their regional brands – Look North, BBC North West et al, but close their underperforming local websites and work with us, rather than against us, as we become their local media distribution partner and fully utilise our own, highly trafficked, rapidly growing, hyperlocal sites.

“We’ll give proper attribution to that content, which ever medium we publish it in, whilst ensuring we keep our own local voice. This way, plurality of voice is maintained.

“In return the BBC can focus on being innovative whilst fulfilling its duty of delivering great education, information and entertainment.”

An edited version of Highfield’s speech to The Newspaper Society has been published in the Yorkshire Post.