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.