Local democracy reporters are improving public interest journalism, but the BBC-funded scheme has some problems
© david woods
27 November 2018
Local democracy reporters are breaking important stories about local councils and public bodies, they are appreciated by their readers and enjoy the job, but there are a number of problems caused by the management of the scheme.
A summit of local democracy reporters (LDRs), convened by the National Union of Journalists, allowed them to swap their experiences of the role and discuss how they can organise as union members to take up a range of issues across the scheme in a collective way.
The summit coincided with reports by the BBC and the News Media Association (NMA) which revealed that 126 (87 per cent) of the Local Democracy Reporters are in post and 30,000 stories have been written since the scheme was launched in January. More than 80 media organisations representing 800 print, online or broadcast outlets are local news partners.
The LDRs at the summit voiced concerns picked up by the reports, such as their stories not being published quickly enough, certain publishers preferring lighter stories and trivia, not getting attribution for their stories and being asked, even by the BBC, to do work beyond the remit of the role.
The overwhelming problem appeared to be that LDRs frequently feel isolated because their “host” local newspaper is often unfamiliar with how the scheme should work and the BBC reluctant to get involved saying the LDR needed to discuss work matters with the news organisation they were contracted to. One LDR said she had to fight to be issued with a mobile phone, others said they struggled to be allowed to put taxis on expenses after attending late-night council meetings and sometimes felt vulnerable. The LDRs said there were other significant health and safety issues. The LDRs reported that there had been some difficult relationships with council press officers who suddenly found their local authority under greater scrutiny because of their work.
The overall message from the LDRs at the summit was that they were producing important stories and were appreciated by readers. One LDR said despite the frustrations thrown up by the way the scheme was being run, she knew that she was fulfilling an important role in holding local authorities to account.
The LDRs agreed that getting organised within the NUJ was an important way to get these issues addressed. A chapel has been started for Reach-employed LDRs and one is being set by those working for JPIMedia. The NUJ is now looking at how best to set one up for Newsquest. If you are an LDR, you can contact the NUJ at email@example.com
The NUJ has been concerned that newspaper groups were taking on LDRs at the same they were making redundancies and in one case a political reporter’s role was cut as an LDR was taken on. This issue has been raised by the union with the BBC. There are also concerns that some of the host newspapers are not paying the locally-agreed minimums for fully qualified journalists, as the scheme stipulates.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, reported a useful meeting she had had with the BBC about the scheme. She was able to clarify concerns and confusion among the LDRs over “daily quotas”. She said the BBC said it expected 30-40 stories a month – about two a day – and that quality was more important than quantity. She also said that the BBC expect the LDRs to receive pay increases as part of their contract; many of the LDRs said this had not happened.
The scheme is funded by £80m from the BBC licence fee over 10 years and the LDRs are employed by news organisations, chosen by a bidding process, and initially paid a minimum of £22,000 and £24,000 in London. The LDRs report on local democratic institutions and their copy is shared with partner news organisations.
The NUJ is supportive of initiatives to support and increase the levels of public interest journalism but is opposed to the BBC licence fee pot being raided to fund the LDR scheme.
The NMA said “A trial survey of partners and stakeholders overwhelmingly found that the scheme is helping respondents to better serve their audiences, with an average score of effectiveness at better serving audiences of 8.4 out of 10.”
The LDR scheme has not been extended to Northern Ireland, but the BBC and NMA were “cautiously optimistic” that solutions could be found. A news hub, which would allow partner news organisations to use BBC videos was described as the most problematic part of the scheme because of technical problems.
According to the NMA report “The Shared Data Unit set up under the scheme has published 12 pieces of investigative journalism on topics such as the link between early deaths and poverty, the impact of Brexit on the NHS and the cost of policing football matches, generating more than 400 local stories for partner outlets and 3.9 million-page views on the BBC News website.”