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Publishers call for 1,500 ‘public interest journalists’ to save local democracy

CairncrossA group of regional publishers is urging the government to back a major expansion in the number of ‘public interest journalists,’ arguing that more than 1,500 will be needed to ensure all courts and councils are covered.

Dame Frances Cairncross, left, is due to present her report this week on how to fund and sustain quality journalism in the UK following a government-commissioned review into the issue.

HoldtheFrontPage has learned that in a joint submission to the review, regional publishers have called for a new tranche of public interest journalists to build on the success of the existing partnership with the BBC, which has seen 135 local democracy reporters employed in local newsrooms.

In their submission, the publishers say they have identified a need for more than 1,500 local public interest reporters – ten times the number originally envisaged by the BBC scheme.

They argue that such an expansion would enable all of the UK’s 800 councils and 400 courts to be covered, as well as other public bodies such as health trusts.

Publishers who have put their names to the plan include Newsquest, Reach plc, JPIMedia and Archant. Their proposals also envisage hyperlocal publishers becoming involved in the initiative.

They argue that without further significant investment in journalism , understanding of and engagement with the “local government ecosystem” will continue to suffer.

At the same time, they also concede that it is not possible to support the kind of public interest journalism required on the current economic model.

An expansion of public interest reporters along the lines suggested in the submission would be likely to require funding of around £60m a year.

Such a sum could be raised either by a tax on the digital giants Google and Facebook and/or via the BBC licence fee, although the publishers’ submission does not include a detailed recommendation on how the initiative should be funded.

Newsquest chief executive Henry Faure-Walker recently gave a clue to the thinking behind the idea in an interview with media commentator Ray Snoddy for industry magazine In Publishing.

He said: “We need to have a grown-up conversation about recognising the importance of good quality local journalism to society, to democracy and about how we support that. Journalism is becoming an increasingly unprofitable activity so you need to incentivise publishers to do journalism.

The Cairncross Review, set up by the Prime Minister in January 2018, was tasked with looking at ways to safeguard the future of the UK’s free, independent and high-quality news in the digital age.

It has focused on investigating the overall state of the news media market and the role and impact of digital search engines and social media platforms, and has paid particular attention to the printed press.

“The local and regional press, in particular, have a core social importance in highlighting and addressing local issues, bringing communities together, and holding local government and other public service providers to account,” said the review’s original brief.

Since the review was first announced, Facebook has partnered with the industry and the NCTJ to provide £4.5m of funding towards its Community News Project, designed to employ 80 new reporters in ‘under-reported’ communities.


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  • February 11, 2019 at 9:44 am

    For a long time readers used to believe that their local newspaper was funded as a charity.

    They were surprised when informed it was a business and run on commercial lines. Now it would appear that the senior managers believe it should be a charity too.

    Why? If a company cannot adapt to the new commercial realities it should die. In its place will come something new and stronger.

    The public or tv licence payer does not owe the managers who brought this situation upon themselves a living.

    And anyway just the other day we were being told that digital was on the verge of paying for itself. If it is, let them hire their own reporters.

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  • February 11, 2019 at 9:51 am

    I do find it ironic that the self same publishers who have been responsible for wholesale job cuts and closing local papers are now going cap in hand expecting help to take on LDR, maybe if they’d prioritised their hyper local news gathering operations to provide for this level of basic cover they wouldn’t need to be asking for hand outs now.

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  • February 11, 2019 at 10:03 am

    This is a scam. We’ve already seen it with the ‘Local Democracy Reporters’.

    The ‘Local Democracy Reporters’ in our region frequently copy and paste press releases, give them the most minimal rewrite with zero extra reporting, and then put them out as LDR stories – often days after the press release was issued, by which time we have already done a better job of following it up ourselves.

    The only meetings they attend are the ones which get covered anyway, like full councils and major planning debates. So these newspapers just send their ‘LDR’ instead of sending whoever would have gone otherwise. Meanwhile, all the other meetings that never got covered to begin with – the ones the LDRs were specifically hired to cover – are still not covered.

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  • February 11, 2019 at 10:07 am

    Help us make make more profits after we wrecked fine newspapers. Not such an appealing headline.

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  • February 11, 2019 at 10:32 am

    TwisV that has been the opposite of my experience with LDRs. Round here, they have been recruited externally and have made a huge difference in our newsrooms. They do cover the big meetings, but staffing was so depleted here that even some of the major meetings weren’t previously being covered.

    They also cover health authorities and police meetings as well as borough and district committees that wouldn’t have been touched previously. Aside from that, they’re following up the issues raised at those meetings afterwards and doing some great work to hold local authorities to account.

    And actually, the government provides huge grants for, and in many cases props up, private companies running the arts, transport, waste management, housing etc. So why shouldn’t they pay for some local newspaper reporters?

    I think it’s naive to say that if the newspaper industry can’t support itself, let it die and something stronger will emerge. I’d like to think that would be true but in reality, most hyperlcoals can barely sustain themselves and the only thing that would pop up in the place of local newspapers is the steaming vat of bilious emissions that emerge from Facebook. And nobody wants that.

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  • February 11, 2019 at 10:39 am

    Newspapers are supped to be independent so they can report on anything and should not be seen standing in a queue for a Government backed handout.

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  • February 11, 2019 at 11:32 am

    HFW said “….recognising the importance of good quality local journalism to society, to democracy and about how we support that. Journalism is becoming an increasingly unprofitable activity so you need to incentivise publishers to do journalism”
    I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at his crass outpouring,he want incentives for publishers to fulfil their basic remit of producing journalism people want to read, it beggars belief, it really does

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  • February 11, 2019 at 11:49 am

    ‘You need to incentivise publishers to do journalism’
    If they’re not ‘doing journalism’ ( great phrase that) what are they doing?

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  • February 11, 2019 at 2:19 pm

    If Newsquest, Reach et al want shares of public money then they need to be publicly accountable in return. Taxpayers money should not be spent propping up these corporate dinosaurs.

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  • February 11, 2019 at 2:24 pm

    I’m always confused by the negative comments on here every time the LDR scheme is brought up.

    Like it or not, from my experience, the LDR’s are pretty much the only ones left who are writing the type of stories that I did on my days on a weekly paper.

    You may not like where the funding’s come from, but surely the end product is the main issue here?

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  • February 11, 2019 at 2:39 pm

    I think what most of you are missing is that this has nothing to do with helping the dying Newspaper industry. All of these reporters are needed or wanted to create content for online as they all realise, as most of us do, that real news isn’t what the main publishers are able to monetise online hence why they don’t do what they should be anymore.
    This should have been done or asked for 10+ years ago when the writing was on the wall and there was still some level of decent sales alongside a strong free Newspaper delivery volume going out that could have put these stories in the publics eye and in turn driven sales. But it wasn’t and the people at the top kept milking every last penny they could with massive holiday cuts, reduced staffing and ridiculously levels of cost cutting that did nothing but water down and destroy a solid product.
    Fast forward to now when we have awful products and there is nothing left to milk to keep the shareholders happy and businesses afloat and the cap is in hand like this hasn’t been a product of their own making.
    Sorry but no they don’t deserve this hand out. They had some of the largest delivery networks and dedicated versatile staff to diversify the business down many many different avenues to create new growth as any business would and should but they sat on their hands milking every penny they could so it is undeserved. If they want to help anyone then help the hyper locals to grow.

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  • February 11, 2019 at 4:10 pm

    Percy Hoskins: “If a company cannot adapt to the new commercial realities it should die. In its place will come something new and stronger.”

    Ayn Rand over here.

    I’m sorry but that’s not how it works outside of Margaret Thatcher’s fantasies.

    Companies compete by cutting costs and putting out decreasing quality for increasing costs and then they go bust. We see it on a weekly basis on here. I can only imagine anyone who thinks otherwise has never actually worked for a UK shareholder company.

    Capitalism needs a ‘guiding hand’. Adam Smith thought it would happen due to ‘Man’s innate goodness’, seeing as we know that’s all nonsense, other corrective measures are needed.

    This is great news and I hope it comes off.

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  • February 11, 2019 at 4:22 pm

    formerloyal follower. spot on. Too late. Why? Because newspaper sales have hit pathetic levels that will never recover and only the strongest council stories might attract web traffic. And I don’t see any real investigative local democracy journalism on my patch. Still, come the revolution…

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  • February 11, 2019 at 5:16 pm

    It would be more worthwhile, if free reporters are provided (LDR or other schemes), that the newspaper groups are obliged to publish all of their stories (both online and in print).
    Picking and choosing and using only the strongest stories that will generate some traffic and continuing to ignore the rest does nothing to fill the democratic deficit.

    This is only fair as the newspaper groups, in this tiresome effort to go digital, have trained their audiences not to bother buying the paper any more as everything is online (although we know that isn’t true).

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  • February 11, 2019 at 5:45 pm

    @Trinity Man – sorry to disagree with you but if you take money from an interested/public source like Government then it is only a matter of time before Government leans on a paper not to print such and such a story etc. Newspapers etc must be seen to be free.

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