Credit: Mac McCreery on Flickr

Facebook’s £4.5m/$6m pilot scheme Community News Project (CNP) is nearing its end, after launching in May 2019. Its aim was to strengthen local democracy and give voice to underserved communities around the UK.

The platform originally planned the scheme to last for one year but it renewed it for another year in November 2020, investing a further £2.25m/$3m.

But how successful was it really during the pandemic, when reporters had to work from home instead of mingling with their communities?

Greg Luckhurst was one of more than 80 journalists who were trained and embedded across five regional newsrooms at Reach, Newsquest, Archant, JPIMedia and Midland News Association in partnership with the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ). He works as a community reporter at the Bournemouth Echo and said that overall the scheme had achieved its goals despite some "teething problems" at the beginning.

At first, there was a lack of information from Facebook detailing what the parameters of the community reporter roles were, but Luckhurst was eventually assigned the geographical patch of the Christchurch/Highcliffe area. Since then, he has covered topics, such as the LGBTQ community and stories about the environment and schools in the area. While the stories do not often make the front page, he said they still served their purpose.

"They’re not the headline-grabbing stories, but they mean something to people who are the subject of the story or the group they are a part of," he explains.

"I think you’ve got to expect that maybe you’re not writing the hardest-hitting stories, but they will mean something to someone. And people will read them, especially during covid. With the kind of the humdrum of the mainstream media people are taking the time to search out wholesome content."

Luckhurst added that community reporting during the covid-19 pandemic has been challenging as he was working from home instead of getting the experience of working alongside other journalists. However, the skills he has learnt during journalism ‘bootcamps’ organised by Facebook were of great help.

"I’d say everyone’s felt a little bit more independent, with sourcing news stories on our own. We’ve had to do a lot of maturing in that sense," he says.

Support has been provided from the CNP throughout its existence with training sessions to help the reporters to serve their communities. As Facebook hired a mix of reporters with different degrees of experience in journalism, helping them to build up their NCTJ qualifications was necessary for them to succeed in their roles.

Daily Star reporter Kirsty Card who started as a Facebook community reporter at Birmingham Live, had taken a journalism course that was not accredited by the NCTJ, so the CNP role came up at the “right time” for her just as she was graduating.

Learning the essentials of media law and shorthand helped at the start of her journalistic career. She built up connections with the LGBTQ community as well as asylum seekers and migrants and wrote extensively about their experiences.

In her time as a community reporter her most favourite stories included covering the #IAmEspoir campaign to save a lesbian asylum seeker who was deported to her home country of Cameroon; telling the story of Eva Echo who came out as trans to her wife; and reporting on the life of Reice Reilly, a cancer patient who blogged about his condition and managed to tick some items off his bucket list before dying in July 2020.

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"There were a lot of stories that Birmingham Live weren’t telling at the time which I managed to bring in," she says.

"As time went on we were able to build the audiences that the papers didn’t have, so there’s been quite a few successful Facebook groups that community reporters have started that have been linked to the brand that’s grown quite well."

Card added that Facebook wanted to make sure reporters were "fulfilling the brief" that they had been set out to do, so there was never any pressure to take on the load of another journalist’s work at the same publication.

"It’s all been fantastic. We’ve had tutors on hand all the time if we’ve got questions. We’ve always had a contact at the NCTJ and at Facebook, so if ever there were any issues we knew exactly where we were supposed to be."

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