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‘A strange kind of journo': My life as a local democracy reporter

Ellis ButcherEarlier this month, the Local Democracy Reporting Service set up between the regional press industry and the BBC marked one year since journalists began working for it.

Ellis Butcher, pictured, a local democracy reporter working for Newsquest titles in Cumbria, gives his take on life in the job.


It takes a strange kind of journo to be a local democracy reporter.

You will be happy spending your days at wonky press tables stuffed into the far corners of Victorian town halls in vast, grand chambers with appalling acoustics and terrible recall moments.

You will rack up hours in wood-panelled committee rooms, translating well-meaning windbags, reticent council officers and committee Spocks who strangle the English language. They will not care, but you must.

You will become fluent in the arcane processes and archaic oaths of Local Government, which deters so many of the general public from taking part in the democratic process. Entirely for deliberate reasons.

“Nem con…non-statutory…sine die…point of orders…notice on motion…standing deputies…casting votes…adjacent amenities…curtilages…localities…material considerations.”

You will record the high drama and the slow grinding gears of municipal machinery. Its twists, turns, bun-fights, sideshows, and Punch & Judy political rows. Planning disputes, budget struggles, legal wrangles, slip-ups, and jobs boosts.

In the chamber, you will be welcomed as a friend but swatted as the fly in the ointment. Chief executives may swerve you. Cabinet members will try to charm you. Press officers will blow hot and cold.

You will not care. You will hide on a far distant wall, beyond the flap of papers. The hide of a rhino and the hearing of a long-eared bat to catch those distant mumbles at that far dusty corner of the chamber, the kind of spillage that could transform a down-page nib into a sure-fire splash.

You will derive immense pleasure from conducting swift autopsies on fat agendas to dig up diamonds. Your diary will fill with endless meetings which drag on long past lunch, tea, supper, and sundown – but you will not wilt.

You’ll stay to the death to record 11th-hour knife-edge votes and attempt to cover it all with a depth that newspapers have long since shrugged the collective shoulders.

You will file copy from glass palaces, coffee houses, remote laybys and jazztastic hotel lounges – anywhere you can get decent wifi before the ever heavy Deadline that pervades over all.

Just like local councillors, you will miss your children, your partner, TV dramas, vital oxygen and crucial football games.

But you will not flinch because you will be able to tell your grandchildren: “I did it all in the name of democracy, baby.”

11 comments

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  • January 30, 2019 at 10:00 am
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    How is that strange? It sounds exactly like the kind of job I was doing in the 90s (along with most of the rest of newsroom)

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  • January 30, 2019 at 2:55 pm
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    That someone finds this strange is in itself strange, surely he’s describing a regional journalist of the pasts role?
    Or had this job changed so much that nowadays it all seems, well, strange.
    Don’t reply, I think we all know the answer already.

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  • January 30, 2019 at 2:55 pm
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    Indeed. It is strange he should think it should be strange, let alone worth writing about.
    In the days when weekly newspapers went in search of stories instead of waiting on e mails and social media young reporters like me often did three nights a week covering councils on top of crime and general news, helping with sport and the occasional am dram or pop show review. That filled your week!

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  • January 30, 2019 at 5:34 pm
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    Hi, I was trying to make the point that the LDR role is strange in that it offers a path back to the journalism of old. These days, not many trainee reporters get the chance to cover councils in this way. Nor are they banging at the door to get into the industry for the thrill of covering the local council. So in that way, it is a strange gig. I hope that clears it up. I was asked to write the piece by the BBC as part of the anniversary of the project. Thanks for the comments and to HTFP for publishing the piece.

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  • January 30, 2019 at 8:08 pm
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    I won’t knock Ellis for writing the piece. I enjoyed the nostalgia. Although my days of covering councils are long in the past, (some 30 years ago in fact) I look back on it with fondness. Not because of the meetings per se but because of the integrity of the news-gathering operation. If only they still existed I would happily go back to those days in the districts, when I was part of an eager young team covering the patch.
    Wait a minute….my rose-coloured spectacles just misted over.

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  • January 30, 2019 at 10:02 pm
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    Agree with everything above. But are local democracy reporters simply re-writing agendas and reports of meetings? Is there any investigative reporting going on? Are councillors giving tip offs of taxpayer money wasted and real issues in the real world that need tackling? And if so please let us know. Because not only is it not very strange it all sounds a little anodyne.

    And to be honest the problem with local council reporting in the past was that it was all rather dull. This isn’t pointing the finger at any individual or newspaper or organisation.

    The reporters were happy barely re-writing agendas and their reports were full of council jargon. There was rarely any meat on the bones of a good story. Which is strange because, in theory, the stories should be brilliant and relevant.

    Speaking to several council press officers many consider the LDRs as irrelevant, another email address to send press releases. It’s a great shame. But then how much are they being paid? There must be 100s of former senior staff made redundant in one cull or another who would jump at the chance to earn a decent amount in the job they love? But if you are paying £25k you are’t going to get much more than the big standard local reporter. And their reportage will, all too often, reflect that

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  • January 31, 2019 at 8:20 am
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    Ah yes @archantlifer “..the integrity of the news-gathering operation. If only they still existed..”
    If only indeed
    It’s a pity many bright young things, wanting a career in local journalism and eager for what they believe will be the kind of job described in the piece, quickly find out it’s no longer like this,regrettably,an ability to trawl social media and Facebook posts to lift items for the days news is really all that’s required and that requires no journalistic or people skills whatsoever. Is it any wonder so many talented people, the more existences and time served as well as the bright young things,leave the bigger regional publishers to join PR companies or the small local independents where real grass roots journalism and reportage really is valued.

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  • January 31, 2019 at 9:48 am
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    Cumbria journo. I had assumed the Beeb put you up for it. Pardon me being sceptical but there is an element of self-justification here, not on your part but on the part of the BBC. There is little evidence of real investigative journalism generally.
    Percy Hoskins: I for one make it my duty to root out jargon and cut through the bull. If I did not the subs would throw it back. But anything seems to be acceptable now including repeated use of abbreviations that the public does not understand eg the RDC and NCC and WTC (Rushcliffe District Council) Nottingham County Council and Whitby Town Council, instead of the full name followed by (eg) the town council etc. (I am not suggesting their local papers do this, just an example of what does happen too often)

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  • January 31, 2019 at 11:42 am
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    The good old days? Back in the sixties, I used to cover meetings at one urban district council that regularly went on long after 10 pm. Fortunately, there was one sensible councillor, a local businessman, who would often turn and wink at those of us sitting at the press table as the meeting droned on.. This was the signal that he was about to start a row with the clerk,–usually over town centre redevelopment, before shouting: “That’s it.Mr Chairman, I’ve had enough of this nonsense.” As he stormed out of the chamber, we would follow him for a quote……then join in him the pub for a pint or two before closing time It was always a great get-out!

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