BBC Local Democracy reporter scheme “bundles” likely to scupper hyperlocal bids

More details of the BBC’s £8m a year plans to fund 150 “local democracy” reporters across the UK have been unveiled to community and hyperlocal publishers at an event in Birmingham.

The bad news for independent news publishers, community website owners and citizen journalists hoping for a slice of the action was that the detailed proposals seem to scupper those ambitions.

For instead of offering 150 separate contracts for each reporting post, the BBC has instead opted to “bundle up” the posts into larger zones, some stretching across adjoining counties.

Bundled contract examples

Scotland, for example, is now divided into five contract bundles; Somerset, Gloucestershire and Bath are bundled together; as are Devon and Cornwall.

The Birmingham contract bundle would be for five reporters across the whole of Birmingham and Coventry; while in the East Midlands, Nottingham and Leicester are bundled together.

The unexpected update, announced by BBC project leader Matthew Barraclough, is a positive outcome for major publishers who would welcome the prospect of publicly funded extra reporters in their newsrooms.

The session at The Mailbox, held Monday, was attended by independent publishers and community journalists from across the country, along with representatives from the Cardiff-based Centre for Community Journalism.

Also in attendance was David Higgerson, digital publishing chief for Trinity Mirror’s regional titles, and David Holdsworth, BBC’s controller of English regions.

The Local Democracy reporter scheme was first announced last May, just ahead of the BBC’s Charter renewal. It was jointly announced by the BBC and the News Media Association (NMA), which represents most of the country’s major newspapers and commercial publishers.

The BBC pledged to fund 150 separate reporters, to be employed by existing publishers in separate geographical areas.

The key points were:

  • Each reporter would be briefed to cover higher tier council meetings and news
  • The copy they produced, which would be benchmarked and subject to scrutiny, would be shared on a “pool basis” with their employer, and simultaneously with the BBC and qualifying approved local media
  • Full costs, paid by the BBC from public funds, would be £34k per reporter, including a minimum salary of £22k
  • The total cost to the BBC would be in the region of £8 million a year and would be subject to annual review.

The BBC said the scheme was designed to “sustain plurality in the local news media, drive up the quality of services and use the expertise of both the BBC and the local commercial news sector for the benefit of all audiences.”

It also said the contracts would be open to any interested parties (not just NMA members), including radio, TV, news agencies and others.

Hyperlocals still in with a shout

Matthew Abbott, communications and projects officer at the Centre for Community Journalism, said he is still optimistic about the opportunities for smaller publishers.

“It is my understanding that as long as they can partner with a bigger media organisation that can handle the employment practicalities, they can still bid for contracts; indeed, there are some hyperlocal for-profit publishers who could provide the administration themselves too. The BBC do look favourably on partnerships.”

He also added that the extensive work done by C4CJ to date had opened up access to content to smaller publishers.

“We think this is the crucial and most beneficial bit: access to the content.”

In his blog last May, immediately following the launch press release, David Holdsworth, BBC’s controller of English regions, said:

“The partnership plans represent a new commitment to local news.”

The BBC opted to partner with the NMA, which has previously actively campaigned against the BBC and its Charter, saying on its website that state funded news providers disrupt the balance of the media market, “with far reaching consequences for publishers.”

The partnership came in for criticism from some commentators including, last month, Jonathan Heawood, Chief Executive of press representative body Impress.

In a press release on December 1 he said:

“Is the Local Democracy Reporter scheme a pound of flesh which the BBC was prepared to sacrifice in order to retain the licence fee?…it is clear that the scheme effectively constitutes a form of top-slicing, whereby a sizeable chunk of the licence fee is siphoned off from the BBC and used to subsidise the operations of other news providers.”

This week Keith Harrison, editor of the Express & Star, the country’s biggest selling regional newspaper, wrote a column criticising BBC plans to invest £289 million in its highly respected World Service operation, suggesting the organisation ought to forget its international ambitions and instead support local media.

He said:

“Attempts to transform publishers into digital businesses are hampered by the Beeb’s huge – and, again, incredibly expensive – online presence.

“At a time when the regional press is under serious threat, both from commercial pressures and punitive privacy legislation, it jars that we are able to spend £289m expanding a service, however laudable, overseas, while watching historic newspaper titles struggle at home.

“So as we set sail into a bold new year, how about a bit of tax-payer funded help for ‘independent and impartial’ journalism here in the UK?”

Well, here it comes, Keith…in the form of the two Local Democracy reporter bundles, one covering Wolverhampton and the Black Country (three reporters) and one for Shropshire (two reporters).

Those zones are of course currently covered by the Express and Star and its sister paper Shropshire Star, both owned by independent publisher Midland News Association.

In total the two contracts are worth £170,000 of taxpayer funds annually (or, if it bids, that’s £1.7m to Midland News Association over the BBC’s 10 year Charter period.)

I trained as a journalist at the Midland News Association’s NCTJ training school in Wolverhampton, and worked at the Bridgnorth Journal, Shropshire Star and Express & Star for five years. Both newspapers continue to demonstrate a strong commitment to their communities.

They also continue to invest in scrutiny and investigations, keeping a constant eye on developments in health and local government.

I’d love to see them given a helping hand to employ more journalists, if only to replace some of those that they’ve made redundant in the past two years.

Recent Companies House records show the company’s financial position for 2015 (report dated January 2, 2016):

screen-shot-2017-01-09-at-22-04-01

It would make sense then for the MNA to bid for the relevant contracts, thus adding a ‘free’ five-strong local government reporting team to their newsrooms.

The BBC hopes the scheme will come on stream by the middle of this year, added Matthew Barraclough on Monday.

The Twitter Moments below rounds up live tweets around the consultation event.

Twitter Moments: Local Democracy Reporter Scheme update

 

 

 

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