The BBC has said its local democracy reporters scheme is having a “net positive impact on competition in local news” despite concerns too many of the contracts are given to just three publishers.
The BBC funds 150 local democracy reporters across the UK to report on local authorities for partner newsrooms.
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But the review, written by BBC Northern Ireland director Peter Johnston, said any expansion should first focus on ensuring local authorities are thoroughly covered before moving on to other areas of public need like court reporting and emergency services.
Any expansion would also require external funding being sought and is subject to approval by the BBC Board.
About 390,000 pieces of content have now been produced since the first LDR was appointed in January 2018.
The review said the scheme has “successfully generated the public value that it was designed to deliver” and created new local roles “in a climate of widespread journalist job losses”.
Around 950 news outlets can now access LDR content, with 138 publisher partners. But about 90% of the host newsrooms are from the UK’s three biggest local news groups: Reach, Newsquest and JPI Media.
Reach has 64.5 LDRs, Newsquest has 38.5 and JPI has 36.5.
The report said the requirements for hosting an LDR should be widened so that more smaller publishers can take part, as previously the scale and capacity of some organisations may have given them a “greater advantage”.
It added that although winning an LDR contract could theoretically give a publisher a “significant competitive advantage”, it has seen no negative impact on smaller and non-print competitors or consumers as a result.
“Nevertheless, to the extent that we are understating any competitive advantages for winners, or negative impact on nonwinners, we believe the bidding process could reasonably be modified to facilitate greater inclusivity and we do not feel that the success of the scheme would be compromised in doing so,” it said.
The current contracts between the BBC and the host newsrooms are due to end in January next year.
Options to help smaller publishers win their bids could include relaxing the requirement for a newsroom to be physically located in the relevant area, and reducing the number of reporters allocated to the same newsroom in bigger areas: for example, Greater Manchester currently has six reporters in one contract.
The BBC also responded to concerns over ways publishers could try to exploit the scheme, including by using the BBC-funded LDRs to enable them to reduce the headcount elsewhere in their newsrooms to save money, or asking them to write stories not in their remit (like clickbait).
It said there had been “few instances” of such behaviour and that this has diminished since the scheme began thanks in part to monitoring by the BBC team.
“We acknowledge the fact that any market intervention such as this runs the inherent risk of subsidising some private activity and leading to a reliance on the scheme,” the review said.
“However we believe that sufficient measures have been put in place to minimise any subsidisation and that we should weigh the risk of reliance on LDRS against the alternative, where the contraction of the industry and reduction in political coverage would have continued without the LNP.”
The report also suggested the BBC may take up an idea put forward by the National Union of Journalists for an independent whistleblowing process for LDRs who want to raise issues of concern without fear of repercussion.
“Supplier autonomy is crucial and we appreciate that it is critical to the partnership that the BBC doesn’t stray into becoming a de facto employer of the LDRs, however we think a balance is achievable here whereby a suitable complaints mechanism could enhance transparency further and allow LDRs to feel more supported in their roles,” it said.
Picture: Press Gazette