The News Media Association wants to increase the number of BBC-funded local democracy reporters by almost 40 per cent to 200 after the scheme’s first year has already begun “strengthening local journalism and the accountability of local public bodies”.
More than 30,000 stories have been published by 126 BBC-funded local democracy reporters since the first appointment in Kent at the end of January.
LDRs, who are each contracted by a specific publisher as part of the Local News Partnership between the BBC and NMA, are expected to cover local government and make their copy available to other organisations through a wire service.
Nine partner organisations taking part in a feedback survey gave an average score of 7.7/10 when asked to score the effectiveness of the partnership at helping them hold power to account, while the average score for its effectiveness at better serving audiences was 8/10.
The BBC and the NMA released their first annual reports on the scheme today, with the BBC saying “already the work of the Local Democracy Reporting Service is having an impact on policy, openness, and the richness of local news-gathering”.
For example, Herefordshire’s LDR, Carmelo Garcia, was credited with reversing a plan to cover up councillors’ misconduct after his story led to a 1,700-signature petition, while Gloucestershire LDR Leigh Boobyer’s story from a health scrutiny meeting exposed a computer glitch which saw an NHS trust’s debt double in a year.
JPI Media editor-in-chief Jeremy Clifford (pictured), chair of the NMA/BBC Advisory Panel, said: “The first annual report shows unequivocally that the Local News Partnership is strengthening local journalism and the accountability of local public bodies, to the benefit of our democracy.
“Given the success of the scheme to date, we will continue to work with the BBC to improve the level of service and look at the potential opportunities to expand it in a number of key areas.”
Matthew Barraclough, head of Local News Partnerships at the BBC, said: “This collaborative project has already delivered significant levels of public interest journalism which is being used both by the BBC and our partners in the independent local news sector.
“In addition to improving the service, we are also interested in exploring the insight and context the reporting can give to national stories and will look at ways in which this can be developed.”
The BBC and NMA both said there had been difficulties recruiting in some areas of the UK to reach the full 145 roles agreed upon. They are currently at 87 per cent of contracts filled.
This is due to a shortage of reporters with the “requisite skills”, the NMA said, as the agreed minimum standard for the role has excluded trainees and some graduates.
The deadline for recruiting LDRs has therefore been extended to January, by which time the NMA expects all the contracts to be filled.
Despite this, the NMA is pushing for the number of roles to be increased to 200 as a priority.
The NMA said in its report: “It is our belief that the original intention to have 200 BBC funded journalists would further improve the breadth of coverage of democratic institutions, providing coverage to the wider media industry as well as the BBC.”
The BBC said the original agreement allowed for the number of LDRs to be expanded to up to 200 subject to a public value review.
It added: “The first full survey of all partners will not take place until all content is available across the UK, however early indications are that the content is valued and well used by partners and BBC news teams.”
The LDR scheme has not yet extended to Northern Ireland, although three pilot roles have been put in place, due to “some resistance” resulting from differences in the local news market and structure of local government.
The BBC said: “We are cautiously optimistic that an appropriate solution can be found.”
Other teething problems this year have included partners not sharing an LDR’s content with other publications in a timely way, incorrectly attributing LDR stories, insufficient productivity, and attempts by partners including the BBC to directly commission an LDR.
The BBC said “progress has been made in most areas” while Clifford said: “I believe this is a positive process and any transgressions have been honest mistakes as we get to grips with the demands of the service provision.”
The Local News Partnership also includes the shared data unit, which sees experienced BBC data journalists train reporters seconded from the regional news industry.
It has also produced 12 pieces of investigative journalism, including story packs distributed to local news publishers, since the launch in November 2017 on topics such as the impact of Brexit on the NHS, potholes, extended access to GPs and the housing crisis.
The third part of the partnership is the news hub, through which the BBC will share video and audio from the four regions of the UK with local news partners.
However this has proved the “most problematic part of the LNP” due to technical reasons, Clifford said.
So far it has only launched in England and Scotland and only distributes video, on which news providers are currently not allowed to run pre- or post-roll advertising.