The Press Association is to launch a pilot scheme where its journalists will report from the local court cases and council meetings previously covered by local and regional newspapers.
The news agency has teamed up with Trinity Mirror in Liverpool for the “public service reporting” trial, which aims to find out what stories the local press is missing by no longer having the resources to cover a wide range of public institutions.
PA managing director Tony Watson told the culture, media and sport select committee this morning that the pilot scheme would launch in the autumn and would focus on courts, local authorities and other public bodies such as health trusts and police authorities.
“Is there content out there around public institutions that is not finding its way into the media at the moment as a result of pressure on resources?” Watson asked.
“The only way we can do it is stick a bunch of reporters in an area for a defined period and point them at those institutions and just see what comes out.”
PA will recruit extra journalists specifically for the project. Watson said the agency was engaged in “a couple of conversations” with possible independent sources of funding for the project.
“I’d hesitate to mention them because I don’t want to put them under pressure and jeopardise the opportunity,” he told the committee.
“I think there’s something to be said for it to be independently funded.”
Watson also told today’s select committee hearing that there was a case for part of the £130m of licence fee cash set aside for independent local broadcast news consortia in the Digital Britain report going to local newspapers.
“At a time when large sums of money are being talked about to preserve 30 minutes of regional news on channel three, there is an argument to say if that’s the priority that we attach to public service broadcasting, what about public service reporting?
“Is there not a case to recognise the role that local newspapers play in the life of their communities in holding public institutions to account, for that contestable fund to extend to newspapers?
“The industry has always set its face against direct public funding for all sorts of reasons. I think things are getting so difficult in parts of the regional press now that there is a serious danger that courts and councils and other public bodies will not be covered to the extent that you would wish to be the case in a functioning democracy.”
He later added: “What we would say is that the contestable fund offers a unique opportunity here. We would say very definitely that’s its worth further examination of whether there could be some mechanism of recognising that very important role – just as important as public service broadcasting – that the newspapers peform.”