Community reporting: how it must survive

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Leo Devine is chairing a session on Reporting Communities at the Religion Media Festival “Exploring Belief” on Monday 12 April at 4pm tickets here

By Leo Devine

In 2017, as part of its charter renewal commitments, the BBC agreed to fund new grassroots reporting in communities across the UK. 

The decline of regional newspaper titles and other local media organisations had prompted a serious concern: without the challenge and scrutiny of community journalism, would local democracy itself be weakened and diminished? 

In answer to that question, the BBC formed the Local News Partnership alongside the News Media Association, which represents the vast majority of regional press. Contracts to employ a total of 150 journalists, funded entirely by the licence fee, were offered to news organisations via a tendering process. 

The newly appointed local democracy reporters were given a brief to cover top-tier local authorities and other public organisations. Under the agreement, all stories written by the reporters had to be shared with the 900 media outlets signed up to the local news partnership scheme.

By far the largest partner in the current enterprise is Reach Media plc, which as well as owning the nine national titles, including the Mirror and Express, also has 110 regional titles, including the Birmingham Mail, Manchester Evening News, Nottingham Post, and Leicester Mercury, as well as dozens of smaller publications.

It has 26 contracts amounting to 65 journalists now working within their communities. Other partners include Newsquest and JPI Media. And although the BBC funds the scheme, the journalists are managed by and report to the contract-holder.

In 2019, the BBC announced plans to expand the scheme further, allowing for more reporters and a wider community brief. Tony Hall, then the BBC’s director-general, said: “It’s never been more important to invest in local journalism. The 150 reporters we’ve funded through the Local News Partnerships have made a real difference to communities, giving people the information they need to hold those in power to account.”

In December 2020, it was announced that the scheme, still fully funded by the BBC, would increase from 150 to 165 journalists and that trainees would now be able to apply for the new positions. After a new tendering process, completed in the past few weeks, the extra reporters will be in place by July of this year. 

Undoubtedly, this increase in local journalism has made a real difference to how we report and serve the whole of the UK. According to the official figures, the partnership has produced more than 190,000 local stories that wouldn’t otherwise have been there. Nevertheless, while the focus remains for good reason on local democracy, we should not ignore the wider concerns, passions and interests of communities. Those stories are many in number and most are yet to be written. 

During our forthcoming Religion Media Festival — “Exploring Belief” — I shall be chairing a session entitled The Challenge of Reporting Communities in Britain and will be joined by Helen Harper, regional head of communities at Reach PLC, Debbie Luxon of the Cambridge News, and Adnan Rashid from Staffordshire Live.

Leo Devine is journalist in residence at Plymouth Marjon University

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