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Publisher plots ‘ambitious’ bid to axe LDRS and create 1,750 local news jobs

SimonBax-e1397149503811A regional publishing boss has launched an “ambitious” bid to replace the Local Democracy Reporting Service with an expanded public interest news scheme which would see the creation of around 1,750 new journalism jobs.

Clear Sky Publishing founder Simon Bax has put forward plans for a new Government-funded scheme that would employ enough journalists to cover every local authority in the UK, as well as most courts and other public bodies.

Simon, the former Archant executive chairman, has calculated the scheme would employ more than 1,750 public interest reporters across the country in total, including 250 apprentice journalists.

The proposed scheme would lead to current programmes such as the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporting Service and the Facebook-funded Community News Project being scrapped and replaced with direct funding from Westminster.

By Simon’s calculations, the total annual cost of the programme would be £50m and would be paid for with a mixture of levies on tech platforms and savings made from the scrapping of the £8m-a-year LDR scheme.

Publishers would apply for an initial three-year grant to employ the number of journalists they require on their patch to cover the relevant bodies, with smaller companies being “prioritised” and any group that owns a national title being excluded from the bidding process.

Simon’s proposal has been put forward as part of Clear Sky’s submission to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s inquiry into the sustainability of local journalism.

In it, he claimed the plan would be “a much more efficient and effective way of ensuring that coverage of public institutions is maintained or enhanced” than the LDR scheme and other funding projects like the Google Digital News Initiative and Facebook’s Community News Project.

Simon, pictured, wrote: “These individual programmes though well-intentioned and helpful are uncoordinated and insufficient in their scope.

“I would recommend that these be replaced by a much larger and more ambitious scheme that would see 1,500 local public interest reporters be funded along with 250 apprentices.”

Simon claims a total of 427 reporters would be needed to cover local authorities and the devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, while 516 court reporters would be employed to cover every magistrates court and county court in England and Wales, Scotland’s 34 Justice of the Peace Courts and 21 courts in Northern Ireland.

In addition, 502 reporters would be taken on to cover Health Trusts and Clinical Commissioning Groups, along with 49 fire authority reporters and 43 journalists to cover the Police & Crime Commissioner areas.

It is also proposed 250 apprentice journalists, including those from “disadvantaged backgrounds and ethnic minority groups”, would be recruited using third-party funding to be trained as the “public service reporters of the future”.

Simon, who launched Devon-based Clear Sky last year after leaving Archant, wrote: “Funds could be allocated by Government from revenues raised by the new Digital Services Act to allay Treasury concerns over increased expenditures, or from the television license fee if that continues.

“Tech platforms would include Google, Facebook (including separate charges for Instagram and WhatsApp), Apple, Snap, TikTok and Twitter (and others that would qualify to pay under the Digital Services Act in the future) and their contributions could be determined as a percentage of their UK revenues.”

He added: “Smaller independent publishers would be prioritised with the content being produced being shared with the BBC and other publishers.”

Simon’s proposal bears some similarities to previous plans for an “institute for public interest news” recommended by Dame Frances Cairncross following her 2019 report into the future of news provision.

However, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport subsequently dismissed her idea on the grounds that the launch of such a body would amount to “inappropriate government interference with the press”.

Clear Sky has also lent its backing to a £100m ‘Innovation Fund’, proposed by a raft of independent publishers under the banner of pressure group ‘News For All’, to help local titles “find sustainable business models”.

In a separate submission to the DCMS Committee’s current inquiry, the National Council for the Training of Journalists has urged the Department to invest £2m in order to help fund around 70 new journalism apprenticeships across the country.

The BBC currently funds 165 local democracy reporters working in regional newsrooms across the country, while around 100 journalism jobs are currently supported by the Facebook Community News Project.

Google estimated in its submission to the inquiry it has given $18 million to over 80 projects in the UK through partnerships with news organisations.

HTFP has approached Clear Sky, Facebook and Google for a comment on Simon’s proposals.  The BBC declined to comment.