By Ruth Peacock
Community reporting in Britain is under threat. Meta (formerly Facebook) has withdrawn a multimillion-pound scheme providing community reporters to local publications across the country. And the BBC has slashed local radio broadcasting hours, including reducing the number of religious programmes from 39 to 13.
The impact of both decisions, taken in close succession, is leading to fears of a vacuum in community reporting, a democratic deficit, with newsrooms becoming less diverse, expertise and knowledge lost and the reporting of faith groups limited.
Editors representing local publishing groups expressed their disappointment and concern during a Religion Media Centre briefing.
There were suggestions that to compensate, all reporters must become community reporters. And all the journalists who report communities, from large organisations to small neighbourhood publications and community radio stations, should collaborate.
This particularly applies to the BBC, which is investing in new digital journalism jobs, increasing online news at the expense of radio. There were repeated calls for it to “be a better neighbour”.
The briefing took place days after Meta announced the end of its Community News Project, where $17 million was spent over five years, providing 260 reporters who were employed by all the main regional publishing groups. Their role was to report under-served communities while being trained to qualify as journalists.
The editors told the briefing that the cut was like a hammer blow.
Helen Dalby, audience and content director at Reach, which employed 29 journalists on Meta’s Community News Project, said it was very disappointing: “Many of our community reporters have done some fantastic work around religious and faith groups in those communities, covering grassroots issues at a very local level and building relationships in those communities.
“Our community reporters have published some exceptional impact journalism and during the Covid pandemic. They played a trusted role in bringing local communities together and keeping them informed.”
Toby Granville, editorial director at Newsquest Media Group and board director of the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), agreed: “It’s a real hammer blow for journalism.”
He said 60 per cent of the journalists hired under the scheme came from a diverse background and there was a concern that this would be lost in newsrooms.
The NCTJ was similarly disappointed, he said. There was now a push to work with the rest of the industry to replace the funding. There had been conversations with MPs and they were trying to get the BBC’s support.
BBC cuts to local radio output mean most local programmes have been replaced by shows covering large regional areas. Instead, the BBC is putting more money into online output, recruiting digital journalists to provide 10 stories a day in each area.
The strategy met grave concern among the editors. Ms Dalby said the industry did not think there was a deficit in digital news hat the BBC needed to fill and there was concern that its plans would create further pressures on regional publishers: “We do worry that the consequences of the BBC boosting its local news services online could seriously damage the local journalism ecosystem.” she said.
Mr Granville urged the BBC to “be a better neighbour” and work with other media organisations to safeguard community reporting. “We think that the BBC and our industry could really benefit from working together rather than separately,” he said.
The loss of BBC local radio religious programmes on Sunday mornings was considered to be a serious blow to journalism.
Dr Liam McCarthy, a former local radio editor who is now an honorary fellow at Leicester University, said there was no way you could cover the East Midlands effectively in one programme. It was too diverse.
“The one thing I won’t do is criticise the people who are trying to make the shared programmes work. But it is a difficult situation,” he said. “I think there is a vacuum developing around community reporting, particularly in terms of faith.” He calculated that the cuts meant stories of faith on local radio had been cut by two-thirds.
“My fear about community reporting is we’ll end up with local radio programmes about festivals. It will become like religious tourism rather than the kind of news, local news, that grabs features.”
The speakers were asked what could be done, in view of the looming deficit in service to the public and anxious disappointment in the industry.
Mary Dowson, director and one of the founders of Bradford Community Broadcasting , said there needed to be much more collaboration.
Community radio had been going for 30 years in Bradford and now had 150 volunteers reflecting the city’s many communities. They had been telling stories “from the inside” in depth, for years but community broadcasting had been overlooked.
“We’ve tried over the years to have partnerships with BBC which have not always worked because there’s been a bit of a patronising attitude towards community radio,” she said.
“I think this is a moment where we could collaborate much more and actually work together across newspapers, across the BBC, and actually look at how we can make sure that those stories continue to be told and what could be done.”
Dr David Baines, a lifelong newspaper journalist and now lecturer in journalism, localities and communities at Newcastle University, said there was also emerging community journalism, with small publications requiring simply to be sustainable, not to make large profits.
He mentioned the Bristol Cable and the Govanhill magazine, co-operative media projects delivering a public interest news service for communities. He said communities could be reimagined as a collection of people involved in common activity with journalism supporting that process.
Community journalism was all very well, but it tended to be largely urban and was inconsistent, with some rural areas having no service, according to Dr Rachel Matthews, an experienced local newspaper reporter and now lecturer at Coventry University on regional newspapers and communities.
She told the briefing that many people involved in community journalism were trained journalists, with standards regulated by the watchdog Impress. She injected some context, saying that local news had been declining for years, since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s “when we probably had the peak of boots on the ground doing community reporting”.
For her, the strength of the Meta Community News Project was the way it reopened entry into journalism for diverse groups, as the old apprenticeship scheme once did local papers. She hoped that vision would not be lost.
Mr Granville confirmed that Newsquest had launched a young reporter scheme involving apprenticeships leading to a degree qualification and Reach was working on a similar scheme.
The briefing’s host, Leo Devine, explained that the Religion Media Centre tried to help young journalists understand the world of faith, because often reporters needed to see small and marginalised communities through the prism of religion, and he wondered whether, without the right expertise, journalists may feel lost.
Amardeep Bassey, who has spent 30 years reporting communities mainly in the Midlands for national and local papers, said there was no reason for expertise to be lost.
“There’s a lot of talent out there that doesn’t need to be lost at all. I mean, this whole debate and the pulling of the plug on the Meta scheme — what gets me is that we are all community reporters.”
He said media organisations should not need to bring in reporters funded by external partnerships. Reporting communities should be “part and parcel of any media organisation”.
The bottom line in this issue was diversity, he said. He had just trained about 1,000 journalists on how to report communities. Only one black or brown person was among the hundreds of sub-editors whom he trained.
Most so-called ethnic communities in the UK were British-born, he said, and community reporting should not be boxed off and made separate from other types of reporting.
Dr McCarthy agreed, saying this was “where you start the glue in a city like Leicester where I am in the minority as being white British. I do think it’s implicit on us all to be getting greater diversity into our newsrooms, and that does start at the top.”
Meanwhile there is immediate pain as large media organisations calibrate the change.
Robert Barman, managing editor of the Kent Messenger Media group, part of Iliffe Media, said there was uncertainty about the future for some reporters. Meta was pulling the plug next year and it was reported that current contracts were not affected. He said it was hoped that journalists on the scheme could be subsumed into the newsroom when the funding came to an end.
In BBC local radio, social media has been full of emotional announcements from experienced presenters, household names who have been on the radio for decades, saying goodbye to their listeners. The response has been public anger at the loss of trusted friends on the airwaves.
Dr McCarthy said there was a case to be made to go back to the BBC. In the short term, there might be an argument for top-slicing money for community producers working with other media organisations, in a scheme similar to local democracy reporters.
Otherwise it may be a question of waiting for the BBC charter renewal. “The BBC needs a new charter in 2027 and it always feels it should do things locally around the time of charter renewal. It also does more about diversity around the time of charter renewal. You can track it. So there is some hope that it might return to some form of where it is now.”
The Religion Media Centre is organising Creating Connections events in six cities in England this autumn, bringing together faith groups and the media to improve understanding and deepen knowledge. Details on our website here
We are also launching a Young Reporter Award to encourage high standards in the reporting of stories about religion. Details on our website here