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Local news and the BBC’s local democracy reporting – an update

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For the first trip out of the office this year, I went along to the latest of the BBC’s ‘hyperlocal forum’ events today. It was the latest in the series of get togethers looking at how what’s being called a Local Democracy Reporting scheme, funded by the BBC licence fee, will operate across mainland UK.

A total of 150 reporters will be released into the world to report on decision making at top-tier councils in selected areas. Their reporting will be shared out (for free) to all participating news organisations in a move that’s intended to plug the democratic deficit that’s been left by local newspaper closures and constrictions.

The plans have evolved quite considerably since the event I attended last year – there’s even been ‘editorial trials’ in some areas – and the recruitment of the reporters is imminent (first half of this year).

If I go back to the earlier mentions of this scheme, there was some optimism that this would finally unleash a revenue source for those hard-working independents who have been plugging away reporting from their local authorities, often for no financial reward. But the way the scheme has been shaped is unlikely to deliver on that.

In order to effectively manage the contracts that will be needed to run the scheme, the BBC has divided the country into patches which reflect their own local news operations. Within those, they have then ‘bundled’ the local councils which need covering and assigned a suggested number of reporters to each of the contracts to be awarded.

As an example, in my home area, the North East, there will be money for 8 reporters (£34k per contract) across a huge geography of Tyneside, Wearside, Durham and Teesside.

Digging into the ‘bundle’ that covers my area (defined by the Beeb as Teesside) there will be just 2 reporters to cover the (vastly different and distant from each other) local authorities in Durham, Darlington and North Yorkshire.

I can’t think of a single independent news service which strives to cover such a large patch, so the only potential bidder would seem to be the established local Newsquest-owned paper. New entrants are considered ineligible – only news providers already up and running will be considered.

Given that similar situations will apply to many (possibly all) places as most independent publishers generally cover a small geography in a deep way), it’s hard to see where the opportunity to bid for these contracts will occur.

There was some disappointment about that situation expressed in the room today, alongside an understanding for the BBC’s position in attempting to find a way forward in managing this scheme in a reasonable, cost-effective way.

One possibility is that, in areas where there is a hyperlocal already operating, there could be some sort of joint bid with the local newspaper to cover these large patches.

The consultation is still running with the BBC continuing to talk with people about different ways of running the scheme and it will soon be put out to the industry with invitations to bid for the contracts.

Written by sarahhartley

January 9th, 2017 at 5:56 pm

Making a hyperlocal part three – contacts

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Contacts – in the end, they’re all there is. If Mae West had been a journalist, rather than saying ‘keeping a diary will keep you in the end’, I like to think she might have instead spoken about keeping a contacts book with the same reverence.

Any time spent on creating and building contacts is never wasted, which is why I’ve included it so early in the process. It also won’t stop here, this post is simply a process to get started.

So where to start?

Setting up a website or blog from scratch is just like starting a new beat as a reporter. You’re looking for contacts who know everything that’s going on in their field. Well-placed people. Some of those will be people who are paid to communicate with the public eg. Press and PR but many will be people who hold a position of authority, or have volunteered for a role and who don’t necessarily know about public participation. Your contact with them will need to be handled slightly differently to explain clearly the context of what you are trying to set up.

Begin by listing any personal contacts you have as these will always be the strongest ties – family and friends. Then start with the main institutions in your town. Here’s a fairly typical list I’ve started for my town:

Mayor and councillors
Council press office
Police, fire and ambulance press offices.
School principles and heads of governors
Existing bloggers/tweeters
Leisure facilities – cinema, theatre, operatic society, sports centre
Museums – Green Howard’s , Richmondshire
Neighbourhood policing panels
Town council clerk
Church representatives
Trading groups
Local MP’s constituency office
Existing campaign groups – Friends of Richmond CCTV
Civic Society
Allotments organisation

Having identified some of the local structures, time to put some research into finding the people behind the organisations and starting to build that contacts book.

Back in the day this meant a succession of well-guarded index tabbed notebooks – these days it means a database.

Taking the time to set up a spreadsheet right at the start of the process means an invaluable resource that can be easily updated as you progress. If there’s a group of you working on a project, it also makes it easy to share resources too. One word of caution on that – do ensure you understand the implications of the Data Protection Act when dealing with any data which isn’t in the public domain.

Using excel, googledocs or similar, layout your new contents database with column headings something like this.
Organisation. Name. Email. Phone. Notes. First contacted. Response.

If there’s a group of you doing this, you’ll need a column for who is to make the 1st contact too.

The heading ‘notes’ is for anything useful to know about contacting the person eg.’ Don’t call on Thursdays as child-minding’ or ‘strict vegetarian’ if you’re likely to be arranging a venue to meet.

The column first contacted is for recording a date so you can easily set a date for follow up conversations to track without bombarding someone with annoying repeat information.

All set – time to hit the phones and introduce yourself. Far better in person or over the phone as these are people you need to build relationships with.

If you do find a need to email to many people, just remember not to reveal people’s email addresses to everyone else in the list (without their prior permission). Use the BCC field of email to keep those addresses private.

The next instalment in this series will be some ways to approach ‘competitors’.

Written by sarahhartley

November 8th, 2012 at 5:37 pm

Council coverage in local newspapers: Update

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The project I started  in an attempt to benchmark the current state of play for the reporting of local councils has been running for a few months now, so it seemed timely to give an update.

I decided to look at this issue, using the HelpMeInvestigate tools, following the furore around this issue last year, and especially in response the vociferous comments on Roy Greenslade’s blog where readers were claiming their local papers didn’t carry out this type of bread-and-butter reporting any more.

It didn’t reflect my experience of working on regional and local papers, but I wanted to find out more by involving people from different parts of the country to widen pool of knowledge.

Sadly, the results so far don’t show a very healthy situation at those newspapers which have been analysed, with many seemingly pushing out local authority press releases or inserting the ‘usual suspect’ councillor quotes into stories which originate elsewhere.

Not all of the 31 people who’ve signed up to take part in this project have come to their conclusions yet, so perhaps it’s early days (or I’m an optimist!) but here’s the story so far with the first ten results submitted;

In alphabetical order and with a quote which I felt summed up what were often long, thoughtful posts from the participants;

  • It seemed that the investigation at The Banbury Cake found it hard to find much news of any type, never mind council news. Perhaps a worthy subject for a different kind of case study for having quite so much advertising in this climate!  “News coverage is by no means extensive, and although within the small space given to news, there are some council stories, they are either adapted from other group titles, or appear to be taken from press releases (not necessarily council press releases, but from other organisations who may have been involved with a council-run or funded scheme).
  • Birmingham Post, Mail and Sunday Mercury proved to be a mixed bag. The weekly Sunday paper didn’t prove to carry much council coverage (Just one story) although that’s perhaps not too surprising given it’s off-diary raison d’etre. In general, Paul Bradshaw’s initial impressions included; “There is actually a reasonable amount of the news ‘hole’ that refers to the council in some way,  however, almost none of the coverage is direct reportage, or clearly comes out of a council meeting or report” although this weekend he analysed a further two editions of the Mail and noted one 12 page edition with no council stories present.
  • The Cotswold Journal appeared to be suffering from the pressures of having a large geographic area and a small staff when the coverage was analysed leading to the conclusion; “Hence a reliance on press releases or short, less detailed, stories. Where there are longer stories, human interest seems to be a factor – profiles are popular. Often, the council perspective seems to be a last minute insertion or an extra quote, rather than being the nub of the story.”
  • I looked at the Darlington and Stockton Times and found it to be rude health as far as local council coverage goes. Being a regular reader, I can conclude that council coverage and council stories regularly make the big stories – often to the annoyance of the local authorities involved.
  • The Lancashire Evening Post didn’t fare quite so well with little direct council coverage found and a lack of questioning arising in the comments, leading Ed Walker to the conclusion. “Like others I’ve been finding there is little reporting of council meetings, more stories are created from council press releases and then a few quotes from councillors. It’s also not clear when these councillors were saying these quotes, although the councillors title and ward are always attached.”
  • The Oxford Times proved to do a lot of local health authority stories and provided a good service in a lot of areas but the analysis found it fell down on the local council: “We were slightly surprised by the findings, as we had been fairly confident that a newspaper of The Oxford Times’ size and status would contain a good amount of council coverage.”
  • The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald showed itself to be strong on both the quality and quantity of council reporting with the investigator concluding: “There is a distinct feeling with this edition of the Herald at least, that this local newspaper and its readers recognise the role of local councils and aren’t afraid to write about them.”
  • Sussex Express and The Argus were studied over four weeks by journalist Chie Elliot who found results in line with her expectations – about 4% of the content produced being council news (Note:the method of calculation used has provoked further debate, see full posting for more on this). She concludes; “When editors are under pressure to publish stories that sell papers (i.e. gore, crime, deaths, scandals) and move circulation figures upwards, stories about local government decisions, which are not controversial enough to stir a strong response from the reader, are likely to be given lower priority, or, might, at most, end up as a nib (news in brief) in a spare corner of the page.”
  • The Wilts and Glocs Standard didn’t impress too much and, although there were quite a few mentions of councils and councillors (press releases?), the whole package lead the journalist scrutinising it to conclude: “There is little evidence, as far as I can see, of monitoring council meetings or writing more in-depth pieces about local politics.”
  • The Whitney Gazette likewise appeared to be suffering from staff shortages as far as the journalist assessing it could tell, sadly concluding: “We did think that there might be a higher level of WODC (the local council) coverage in the paper, as the district council is based in Witney itself, and is a major employer in the town. But the Witney office is only open for fairly limited hours, and presumably there aren’t the staff in Oxford available to trek out to cover district council meetings.”

Outside of the work on HelpMeInvestigate, local democracy and access to that information continues to be under the newspaper spotlight in the north west.

And away from the mainstream media organisations, the push to open more data and democratise town halls continues apace in towns and cities up and down the UK, so it looks as if the reporting of local decision-making will continue to be a hot issue in 2010.

If you want to join this HMI project, sign up here. If you’ve any news about the reporting of local authorities please feel free to share it in the comments below or contact me direct, sarah@foodiesarah.com.

How involved should a journalist be?

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The topic of reporter involvement came up at a recent broadcast debate I attended and it’s been playing on my mind ever since.

Initially I was thinking about the role blogs could play in allowing a reporter to be more reflective of their work and the opportunity for greater transparency about any involvement in a story this would lead to.

The debate as far as broadcast journalists go seems to centre around what is on-screen i.e. is the reporter part of the story, bringing their own experience of the issue to light in that very public way that filming allows.

An example given was of a reporter covering a story about lack of bin collections. She was one of those in the street where the collections hadn’t taken place so her experience was just as valid as anyone else living there.

The rule of thumb applied that being part of the story was acceptable, providing it wasn’t gratuitous.

Invest yourself in the story, yes – but not in a gratuitous way.”

Jonathan Maitland, Media Guardian, May 12th.

But I started thinking more about what the reporter is doing off screen. Perhaps the involvement, or otherwise, should be made clearer to the viewer/reader/user when it isn’t quite so obvious.

American news organisations seem to feel the need to be more upfront on this issue. I found this, frankly bizarre, example where a reporter had carried part of someone’s scalp to the local coroner during an interview with the dead man’s relative.

The reporter then agonises over whether his journalistic integrity has been affected by this act in this blog post and says: “In my gut, I suppose I knew I was crossing some journalism ethics line, but I couldn’t think of anything better…”

His editor finally rules:

“I believe a different reporter should have taken over the reporting once the first reporter became part of the action. I believe a fair and objective observer is needed to tell a news story the right way, and anyone who is a character in the story should not be presented as objective.”

This type of ruling is completely at odds with the regular sight at the moment of television journalists covering the China earthquakes telling us viewers that they couldn’t stand-by, that they feel so moved they have helped search the rubble for survivors.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone could remain so uninvolved that they wouldn’t lift a rock off a crushed child – but should this then become the story? Is the plight of so many victims and the enormity of the disaster not more newsworthy than the TV man’s actions? Does this type of activity move us further into the realms of reporter as celebrity?

I don’t have the answers. This is one of the those blog posts I hope could generate some debate but I do wonder what the next progression in this could be.

Would the so-called embedded war journalist be expected to participate in a battle for instance?

Robert Fisk has something to say on this topic. In the preface to The Great War for Civilisation he says “…we journalists try – or should try – to be the first impartial witnesses to history.”

Written by sarahhartley

May 26th, 2008 at 6:14 pm