Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Getting into bed with Auntie

SO FAR this year we’ve had Facebook trumpeting their £4.5 million Community News Project and Google handing out £13 million for the Digital News Initiative. Now, step forward the latest organisation to champion their role as the saviour of the UK regional Press…the BBC.
It’s now two years since the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) was started, with the BBC (ie you and me, licence payers) contributing £8 million a year to pay for 150 reporters employed by local publishers to cover the work of local councils and other public bodies under the BBC’s latest ‘Charter commitment’.
Now, 90,000 or stories later, those reporters held their first conference and awards ceremony. We are gathered together in the altogether fitting surroundings of the BBC’s cathedral at MediaCityUK in Salford, just a £2.40 tram ride from Manchester city centre. There are smiling, helpful people from the BBC, a smattering of G&G (great and good) from the UK’s main newspaper groups and about 100 local democracy reporters from around the country.
Unlike a lot of these industry dos it was not a talking shop for assorted M&S (movers and shakers) to tell the congregation how important they are and what an impact they are having. This was a practical conference with delegates learning how to do stuff and even lining up to take pot shots at the opening speaker, a surprisingly cheerful spectre at the feast in the shape of David Holdstock, director of communications at the Local Government Association.
There were sessions on getting the best out of Freedom of Information requests, making better videos and using social media to greater effect, all lapped up by the eager crowd. Some reporters were cajoled onto the stage to talk about their exploits, most notably Julia Gregory, Local Democracy Reporter for Kensington and Chelsea, who has been at the forefront of news about the ongoing Grenfell fire disaster.
MEN OF THE MOMENT: Jeremy Clifford (left) from
JPIMedia and Matthew Barraclough from the BBC
A total of 144 Local Democracy Reporters have been allocated to news organisations in England, Scotland and Wales. The other six are planned for Northern Ireland later this year. These organisations range from a radio station to online media companies and the established regional newspaper groups well represented at the conference. The reporters cover top-tier local authorities and other public service organisations, filing around 6,000 stories every month in total.
Events in the prosaically named but dramatic space of Q5 were chaperoned by Matthew Barraclough, head of Local News Partnerships at the BBC, and JPIMedia editorial director Jeremy Clifford wearing another hat of chairman of the NMA/BBC advisory panel for the partnership
“It was impressive to see so many LDRs in one place – it brought home to me yet again what a significant force they have become,” reflected Barraclough, a former BBC regional journalist, after the event.
“I was able to meet some who I haven’t seen since their initial training more than a year ago, and others for the first time. I was struck time and again by their dedication and good humour. I believe that the consistent, detailed reporting the LDRs generate day after day is a force for good both in local politics and society at large.”

Close eye

Clifford thought the conference demonstrated the success of the Local Partnership in bringing together the BBC and the publishers in a “new spirit of collaboration to tackle a really important issue - how we cover local council institutions within the context of the challenges of the industry and staffing levels”.
He continued: “The awards were a celebration of the scheme – showcasing the fantastic work that has been taking place since the scheme launched, with nearly 90,000 stories being produced by this team of journalists – celebrating and keeping a close eye on the work of our councils."
In March Tony Hall, director general of the BBC, formally announced plans for a ‘Local Democracy Foundation’, saying: “My goal is to mobilise a powerful coalition behind the creation of a Local Democracy Foundation.
“And, together, to do all we can reverse the damage that has been done to local democracy in recent years and bring about a sea change in local public interest journalism.”
Watch this space…
Your correspondent (centre) gets a grilling from reporters
at the Local Democracy conference


It was difficult not to get caught up in the love in the room. Even hard-bitten old hacks (aka your correspondent) have to agree that putting 150 reporters into the newsroom, who might not otherwise be there, has got to be a ‘good thing’.
It was also interesting to note that there were plenty of wiser, older heads in the cohort, evidence that the service is a back-door way of retaining some of the experienced (ie more expensive) people who might not otherwise have survived the inevitable rounds of redundancies.
Everyone involved in the project, not least the LDRs themselves, is upbeat and positive about the benefits of the service and while there may be reservations about the price to be paid for taking the big-tech money, getting into bed with Auntie doesn’t seem quite such a problem.

  • This story is part of the coverage of the LDRS conference which appears in the July issue of PJNews

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