In 2017, BBC created the Local News Partnership scheme (LNP) to increase coverage of local stories in the UK. The programme saw 150 reporters joining regional newsrooms up and down the country with a three-year contract paid by BBC to scrutinise local governments and write about public interest topics.
Over the three and a half years, these journalists published 200,000 stories, uncovering the dramatic reduction in bus journeys across the UK, investigating Gloucestershire police staff who sold part-worn tyres from force vehicles for personal gain, and shedding light on failures in criminal background checks by public authorities.
"It feels like a watershed now as we are in the second round of contracts," says Matthew Barraclough, head of BBC Local News Partnerships. "It doesn’t feel like a project anymore, it feels like part of BBC."
The scheme has three components: Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) that pays salaries of 150 journalists working for the regional papers, Shared Data Unit that was set up to train reporters in data journalism and drive large-scale data investigations; and an online portal, News Hub, that syndicates video news footage produced in the regions.
According to Barraclough, the initial vision was to produce public interest journalism at scale and bring competing regional papers together for a common purpose. Four years on, he said that this is the achievement he is the proudest of.
Unlike regional newsrooms that saw their revenue plummet during the pandemic, the taxpayer-funded public broadcaster can afford to plan long-term and pay a journalist for three years to cover public interest stories. This is important because the coverage of council meetings is hardly profitable content for local papers and is often the first to be axed when money gets tight.
"The stuff you need to know is sometimes different from the stuff you want to know," explains Barraclough, adding that local democracy reporters focus on information that can help us to be engaged citizens and make decisions about public life. But they are not there to just transcribe meeting minutes, they also need to make the stories engaging.
One great example of skilful local reporting paired with collaboration with the Shared Data Unit was the story by local reporter Ollie Sirrell who uncovered that people with non-visible disabilities such as autism or multiple sclerosis are much less likely to get a blue badge parking permit compared to those with physical impairment.
Sirrell had a hunch that if that is the case in Berkshire, it may be happening in other regions too. And he was right - an investigation found this is a problem across the country and a story based on combined data from several regions made national news.
Disaster didn’t happen.Matthew Barraclough
To illustrate the impact of this collaborative effort, Barraclough said that when the article was published on BBC News one day after the storming of the US Capitol, it was the second most-read piece of the day.
Other stories, such as the enquiry into people who were harmed or died when their benefits were cut this year, led to a debate in the parliament. Several local democracy reporters are currently working on trying to quantify the impact of lockdown on mental health.
The impact of covid
Since the pandemic, all collaboration took place online. This was not necessarily a bad thing, suggests Barraclough, as it allowed BBC to train 150 journalists remotely rather than having small numbers of trainees in the office.
"Disaster didn’t happen," he says, adding that local news is still around and mostly thriving, with LNP being part of it.
What is more challenging is recruiting local talent. Although there are 150 local reporter jobs, around 15 remain vacant. The main struggle is to recruit reporters in remote rural areas but also in counties around London as the "gravitational pull" of the capital means the talent is scarce.
More surprising is the difficulty to recruit women reporters - the ratio of male and female local democracy reporters is 2:1.
Although the decision about who to hire is ultimately in the hands of the individual news organisations, Barraclough wishes to see more diversity. He thinks that one of the factors that may make it more difficult for women to become local democracy reporters could be anti-social hours as councils tend to meet in the evenings and sessions can last long into the night.
Another issue could be online and offline abuse that women journalists are disproportionally a target of. Although it is again the newsrooms that need to do more to protect their staff, LNP plans an internal conference on the subject as it recognises the toll it is taking on the reporters. In the meantime, an informal support network has formed among the reporters to help each other deal with the pressure.
Despite these challenges, the Local News Partnership is a success. It was the first initiative of its kind and it has inspired other countries like New Zealand and Canada to launch their own version of the scheme.
"Maybe the biggest lesson is that ideas like this are achievable," reflects Barraclough. Before the scheme was launched, there was a lot of scepticism about BBC working with commercial papers and producing value for the audience. As the impact of the stories has shown, the naysayers were wrong.
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