LDRs call for a say in the future of the local democracy reporting scheme

  • 03 Mar 2020

An NUJ summit of local democracy reporters shared experiences and information about the scheme to report on public interest journalism.

Dame Frances Cairncross' review of the sustainability of quality press proposed the Local Democracy Reporters (LDR) scheme should be expanded and developed. To ensure its long-term future it would be run by a new body, an Institute for Public Interest News.

The Institute would operate in a similar way to the Arts Council, channelling a combination of public and private finance into those parts of the industry it deemed most worthy of support. Dame Frances saw this is a way of providing stability to the scheme which funds journalists to cover councils and local democratic institutions and share the copy with a range of media organisations.

The Cairncross report published research showing a reduction in public-interest reporting led to people becoming less involved with their local institutions and less likely to vote. But it isn't just about "worthy" journalism. LDR stories can be full of human interest – such as the scheme set up by a rugby league player to help men's mental health or telling the story of those made homeless after the Grenfell Tower fire. They can be hard hitting, such a report on low prosecution rates for rape in West Yorkshire. By just being there, LDRs keep the powerful in check.

Sadly, the government rejected the idea of a public news institute and on the LDR scheme said: "The government strongly encourages the BBC to ensure a robust evaluation of the LDRS and supports the BBC's plans to grow the scheme."

So, when the NUJ called together a meeting of LDRs concerns over the future of the scheme were paramount. The BBC oversees the scheme, funded by licence fee money; the 150 LDRs work with "host" news organisations. In reality, the lion's share of the contracts was awarded to the "big three" publishers Newsquest, Reach and JPIMedia.

The BBC is carrying out a review of the scheme, expected to be completed by the end of April, and re-tendering of the existing contracts will take place in "spring/early summer". The scheme is seen as a great success by BBC management said Paul Siegert, NUJ national broadcasting organiser. But, with the BBC in the throes of cutting 500 jobs in news, the prospect of expansion of the scheme seems unlikely.

The LDRs were told by NUJ officials that they had been advised that the LDR jobs would be protected, even if the contract is given to another employer during the process. But, like many aspects of the scheme, there is uncertainty to how it operates, particularly by employers, and how it will develop.

This was evident from conversations between the LDRs who outlined their concerns:

  • Some LDRs said they were being put under pressure to get "hits" and meet targets by their host newspaper, completely against the spirit of the scheme.
  • Some LDRs are being "directed" by their host newspaper to do certain stories.
  • LDRs in some cases were replacing reporters in the newsroom because backfilling of their posts was not happening.
  • Host newspapers were not putting out stories within the agreed deadline of 12 hours and many were not promoting the stories on social media.
  • LDRs were expected to put up their stories on the host newspaper's content management systems and social media; this is not their job.
  • Despite having had video training, there were no opportunities to use the skill.

This is where being a member of the union is vital, the LDRs were told. Andy Smith, NUJ organiser, said:

"There appears to be a huge variation in the way managers understand the scheme, we can help through the group chapels in providing a collective voice in our discussions with the employers about the role of LDRs and help iron out these problems."

The union will make it clear to Reach that LDRs do not have to take part in the one-to-ones other reporters are scheduled to have with their manager/managers, unless they want to.

The NUJ is applying for union recognition on behalf of LDRs, giving it the statutory right to negotiate pay and conditions on their behalf. So far, the big three publishers have not agreed to the voluntary route; a formal application has now been made to the Central Arbitration Committee for recognition at Newsquest. While union membership among the LDRs is high, recruitment of those who are not, or new to the scheme, was a priority.

The union can help members on an individual basis without recognition. Chris Morley, Northern and Midlands senior organiser, said he had seen off a disciplinary hearing for one member and sorted out other problems and disputes with employers.

The LDRs said they enjoyed their role and could see the value their work was adding to local journalism. "Our communities like the stories we do," said one LDR. "They often tweet their appreciation." Another said: "Some editors and news editors are supportive; others think what we are doing is boring. When I had a news editor who was more interested in my stories it made huge difference to how they were used and my 'views' skyrocketed when they were given a prominent slot or put on Facebook."

The meeting provided a useful opportunity for the LDRs to share their experiences and how they are being used by different companies. Reach has developed the role by creating LDR Freedom of Information Champions.

It was agreed that the union would carry out another LDR survey, canvassing information on issues such as pay across the group. The LDRs at the meeting said it was vital that they had an opportunity to contribute to the BBC's review. The NUJ said it would be able to take their views and ideas to the BBC.

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