PA training head: Funding for 'public service' pilot close

Press Association training director, Tony Johnston, said today he was ‘optimistic’the agency would shortly be able to announce independent funding arrangements for one of two planned “public service reporting” pilot schemes.

Johnston said that since announcing plans eleven months ago to run two public service pilots, PA had sought to establish more than anecdotal evidence about decline coverage of public bodies.

Research conducted by PA had produced ‘compelling evidence’on the decline in reporting of courts and public authorities by local newspapers, Johnston told the Local Heroes conference, in London.

PA surveyed, in two separate studies, local newspaper editors and clerks of a number of magistrate courts as part of its plan to launch its pilot schemes, he told delegates.

Half of all editors surveyed told PA their papers scrutinised the local authorities less than they did ten years ago, Johnston said, while 79 per cent of court clerks said local coverage of their courts had declined during their tenure.

Once off the ground the pilots would report from the local court cases and council meetings previously covered by local and regional newspapers, he said, then undergo an assessment of what impact they had.

‘Only then will we look at where funding for a long term project might come from. It’s not for the Press Association to decide that but for me some important principles will remain non-negotiable…

‘The service would have to be completely editorially independent of the funding source. Content would have to be free to all and be generated in a way that delivers value for money.”

Any unit developed as part of the ‘public service’scheme would have to provide training to journalists and be a professional service to provide content that the market could not, he added. It was likely that a pilot team would use half-a-dozen reporters dedicated to reporting on one local authority each.

‘It is absolutely not about trying to prop up the newspaper sector through public funds. What it is about is the radical approach to local news and ensuring that journalistic scrutiny of vital institutions in a democracy survives.”

In areas governed by unitary authorities, typically cities and larger towns, served by strong weekly and daily newspapers, Johnston said research showed the problem of declining coverage was not keenly felt.

However, he said in areas where a two-tier local government structure existed coverage was often lacking and the same was true for local authorise which operated on the fringe of a newspaper’s patch.

‘We don’t know what more political reporting on a local level will have on democracy, and what impact publishing the outcome of more criminal cases might have on crime levels and the criminal justice system,’he said.

‘We just don’t know the answers to these questions, which is why we remain committed to running two pilot projects.”

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