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.
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.