The BBC, Local democracy, hyperlocal and journalism.

I spent the afternoon in Birmingham at the BBC finding out more about their Local Democracy Reporters scheme.  It’s a project I’ve been keeping an eye on for a number of reasons.

The promise of 150 new jobs in journalism, especially ones that are exclusively aimed at covering local government,  is clearly of interest to me as a Journalism lecturer.  It’s more opportunities for students and journalists for one thing.  But the focus on civic reporting also begins to address an area that I think is under-resourced and under-valued (by producers and consumers alike).  The scheme also includes plans for a content hub called the News Bank for material created by the reporters open for anyone to apply to use. This would also includes content from the BBC’s fast developing Regional Data Journalism unit.

The combination of data, hyperlocal and civic content is too good for me to ignore.

What’s in it for hyperlocals?

One of the underpinning reasons for this scheme is to “share the load” of accountability journalism. The role of journalism as holding the powerful to account is one that many feel is being lost,  especially at a local government level. People talk about a democratic deficit and news deserts; towns with no journalistic representation at all.  Many see hyperlocals as an essential part of filling the gap but its notoriously hard to create a sustainable hyperlocal business model.  So it is no surprise that hyperlocal and community media representatives have been following the development of the project with interest.  When the BBC promise a pot of money to improve local democratic reporting who better to benefit from the cash!

So how would the scheme work?

The fine detail of the plan is still being pulled together, but in principle the scheme would be something like this:

The BBC will have create contracts for  Local Democracy Reporters but they won’t manage the reporters. Rather than 150 separate contracts, they have packaged them up into ‘bundles’ containing a number of reporters per geographic patch.  Local news organisations can then bid to take on these contracts on behalf of the BBC. The organisation will be responsible for the reporter both editorially and also from a straight HR point of view (sick leave, appraisals etc. ). The BBC have a number of criteria and requirements for anyone wanting to bid. This includes a proven track record in producing good quality content and the capacity to properly employ and manage a member of staff.

The content created by the reporters as well as any prospects will be made available on a shared News Bank.  So as well as the ‘host’ organisation, other media organisations can use the content created.  There would be no exclusives for host  organisations; when the content drops, it drops for everyone with access to the content hub. So you don’t need to employ a local democracy reporter to get access to the content on the Newsbank. But  you would need apply to the BBC for access. As long as you fulfil their criteria – adherence to basic editorial standards and a track record in producing good quality content – you’re in!

There is a good deal of simplification here on my part. There is a tonne more detail in the plans that were presented today but we were asked not to share too much. Which is fine by me.

But at the event today, I made a few broad notes on some issues and observations.

  • **Defining ‘bundles’ – **A number of the hyperlocal operators in the room noted that the bundles suggested by the BBC sometimes didn’t make sense when you knew the local geography and political landscape.  Others noted that they seemed to mirror the regional media orgs patches. The BBC noted that the geography of the scheme was, in some part, driven by the location of BBC local offices, who would have a role in overseeing the project. That said the BBC were very open to feedback on the best way to divide up the patches . A positive role for Hyperlocals and it shows the value that the focus on a patch can bring.
  • Scale and partnerships – Many of the hyperlocals in the room felt that the decision to package up reporters by patch and the criteria they set for qualifying organisations effectively shut them out of the process.  They might be able to manage one reporter but not three or four across a large patch. One solution offered was working in partnership with larger, regional media organisations to deliver contracts in an area. e.g. An established media player such as Trinity Mirror or Johnston Press could take on the contract and then work in partnership with a hyperlocal to deliver the content whilst the larger org takes on the HR and management issues.  I think the devil is in the detail but it strikes me as a good compromise. But its fair to say, that idea wasn’t warmly received by many of the hyperlocals in the room. I think the the best way to describe the reason is ‘because trust issues’. Interestingly the idea of collaboration between hyperlocals to create collaborative networks to bid got very little comment of it seems interest.
  • Value to the tax payer – The BBC are clearly caught between a rock and hard place with initiatives like this.  They have money that they want to use to ‘share the load’ but at the same time, would be under huge amounts of scrutiny for what is produced and who they work with.  Accountability is something they take very seriously and the BBC are masters at getting themselves in knots trying to be fair and balanced to everyone.  Often they just can’t win.  The scheme as presented today highlighted some of those tensions.  By ‘outsourcing’ the management of the journalists they deal with the issues of the BBC barging into a sector and skewing the market. But at the same time, the need for accountability means the scheme is run through with ‘checks and balances’ the Beeb would apply to ensure the license fee payers were getting value for money.  Its not quite the hands-off it could be.  It also seems that the ‘value for money’ tests stretches to ensure that the material collected by the reporters is also useful to the BBC and their reporting.  Not quite having your cake and eating it as maybe confusing who you are baking the cake for.

But in the midst of the accountability knots and the predictable cynicsism animosity that underpins the relationship between some hyperlocals and the regional media, I think something really important slipped by thats worth keeping an eye on.

The BBC seal of approval

To get access to the NewsBank organisations will need to submit an application to the BBC. General noises around the criteria suggest these will include caveats on quality content and track in producing news content. Orgs will also need to show  a commitment to the same editorial guidelines for balance and impartiality as the BBC. But details of the process of assesment where sketchy.

But lets look at that another way.  In short **the BBC will become a local media accreditation body.  **

I don’t know how I feel about that. To be clear, I certainly don’t perceive an suspicious motives. But it still makes me uneasy.

I guess you could read it in the same way as hyperlocal’s being recognised as publishers by Google so they could feature in Google News.   Perhaps, as long as the process was transparent, its not a bad thing that some standards are defined. But then I think the sector doesn’t really have a problem in that area.

I don’t know.  But of all the issues this scheme raises, it feels like the one most likely to generate unintended consequences.

All of that said, its worth watching and supporting. Looking beyond the implementation, which is never going to tick all the boxes,  I do think the scheme when it roles out will mark one of, if not the biggest investments in civic journalism in the UK that isn’t technology driven.  I might go as far as to say its the only journalism first investment in civic innovation that I’ve seen in the UK.

It may not work across the board but you’ve got to admire the idea.


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