AddThis SmartLayers

Publishers using LDRs to ‘prop up’ other coverage, editors claim

Darryl Chamberlain 2022Hyperlocal editors have shared their anger after accusing bigger publishers of using taxpayer-funded local democracy reporters to “prop up” coverage outside of the scheme’s remit.

Darryl Chamberlain and Linus Rees have criticised MyLondon publisher Reach plc and the Evening Standard over the way they make use of journalists employed in their newsrooms as part of the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporting Service.

Darryl, pictured, claimed the service “hasn’t come up with the goods” in the past year, claiming the publishers who employ the LDRs are using them to generate clicks rather than covering council meetings.

He has further accused MyLondon of making “basic geographical howlers” due to journalists not knowing the places they are reporting on.

In response, Reach says its LDRs in London “focus on stories which are in the public interest, and try to find ways to make them interesting to as many people as possible”, adding it is open to talks in order to “ensure realistic expectations over the coverage one reporter covering three councils can be expected to provide”.

Reach won the majority of LDR contracts in London in 2021, with nine of the 13 reporters employed by the publisher, while the Evening Standard was awarded the contract for the journalist covering the Greater London Authority under the scheme.

Both Darryl, who runs independent South-East London titles 853 and the Charlton Champion, and Fitzrovia News editor Linus are entitled to use copy produced by LDRs as partner publishers in the project.

Darryl, pictured, criticised the way the service operates in London in a review of 2022 on 853’s website.

He wrote: “Our page views are slightly down this year, but that reflects us publishing a little less. Part of this is because the BBC-funded Local Democracy Reporting Service, which we used to use a lot of material from, hasn’t really come up with the goods this year.

“The LDRS, which supplies stories to us daily, is meant to cover the day-to-day business of councils, with publishers given money to employ what should be dedicated reporters.

“But in our part of the world, the service is being used to prop up the general output of MyLondon and the Evening Standard.

“In particular, reporters at the former are expected to come up with regular ‘furious resident’ stories and other dismal vox-pops which shine a light on nothing apart from the shortcomings of corporate local journalism.”

He added: “One low point came in early September when one of our original stories, about the approval of the Tesco tower in Woolwich – seven hours of watching the meeting and writing it up – was rewritten and distributed back to us and to other outlets who receive the wire.

“Only a lack of time – I was literally packing bags to go on holiday – stopped me from sending in the mother of all invoices for repeated copyright infringement, although we did get an apology.

“I must emphasise that none of this is to blame current or past reporters, many of whom are under a lot of pressure to deliver page views. The fault lies further up.

“MyLondon and the Standard’s ability to take advantage of licence fee funding in this way – without sanction – shows how the odds are stacked against small operations like ours.”

Before the contracts changed hands last year, LDRs in the areas covered by Darryl had fallen under Newsquest’s oversight.

Speaking to HTFP, Darryl said: “The last contract-holder, Newsquest, did an okay job as at the time it had editors and reporters who knew the patch and its issues. This isn’t the case with MyLondon, so basic geographical howlers are creeping in because they don’t know where places are.

“I run 853 on a shoestring thanks to the generosity of readers who pay for what I do – it shouldn’t be my job to do unpaid staff training for a billion-pound listed company.

“On a practical level, it’d be nice to be able to take a night off and know that a meeting is still being covered and covered well. That isn’t happening at the moment.

“None of this is to denigrate the work of the LDRs who are under great pressure to deliver. But the fault lies further up.

“I have colleagues in the independent sector who employ LDRs who are constantly striving to follow the strict rules around the scheme, yet here in London major publishers are treating a precious resource – licence-payers’ money – in a cavalier manner.

“The BBC needs to look at who is really benefiting from the Reach and Standard LDR contracts in London and to ensure that reporters who are funded by the licence fee are given more freedom to do their jobs properly.”

Linus added: “It is not the reporters’ fault but what their editors are telling them to cover.

“Our small neighbourhood news site, which has a few thousand regular readers, is a partner for coverage of London Borough of Camden and we have no complaints about the Hackney Citizen whose LDR covers Camden council meetings, as well as Islington and Hackney. Indeed we have a very good working relationship.

“But the coverage of Westminster City Council is worse than disappointing.”

Paul Rowland, editorial director of the Reach Live Network, has defended MyLondon’s use of LDRs.

He said: “At MyLondon, we take our commitment to the Local Democracy Reporting Service very seriously. We always seek to improve, and always take constructive criticism on board.

“Far from depending on our LDRs for content, we employ additional staff to support our LDRs, and work with our partners, to ensure we meet our obligations.

“Our investment in growing MyLondon’s staffing over the past three years has meant that we are well equipped to support the LDR service for the benefit of readers across London.

“With our LDR assignments, we focus on stories which are in the public interest, and try to find ways to make them interesting to as many people as possible, for the benefit of all partners – with wide public interest and engagement considerations in mind first and foremost, rather than specific page view targets.

“As ever, we are more than happy to keep talking to partners to ensure realistic expectations over the coverage one reporter covering three councils can be expected to provide for any one council.

“The size and scale of MyLondon’s audience enables stories produced by LDRs to reach many more people as a result, which is good news for public interest journalism.”

A BBC spokesperson added: “We are proud of our Local Democracy Reporter Scheme and the work produced. We work closely with our partner organisations to ensure content is delivered to the satisfaction of all.”

HTFP has also approached the Evening Standard for a comment.