The BBC has widened its definitions of national news to include such apparently mundane themes as potholes in the road, bus timetables and school dinners, after stories from a new £8m-a-year reporting project have highlighted the value of public interest journalism.
The deadly threat to cyclists caused by potholes in Britain’s 37,000km of neglected roads recently made it to the BBC Six O’Clock News, while the revelation that Britain has lost 134 million miles of bus network and bus usage is at its lowest since the 1980s was covered by the BBC News Channel.
They are among more than 11,000 stories created this year under the BBC’s Local News Partnerships scheme and shared with regional news media organisations which have given the issues a local twist. The Manchester Evening News covered the bus story by speaking to passengers mourning the “doomed” number 88 from Blackley to Manchester city centre.
Launched at the end of January, the scheme is funded from the BBC licence fee and operates a nationwide Local Democracy Reporter Service (LDRS), with a team of 90 journalists monitoring the activities of local councils, and a Shared Data Unit in Birmingham, which crunches public data and uncovered both the potholes scandal and the bus shortages story.
Between them, the partnership projects are generating 3,600 stories a month for a network of 800 local newspapers, radio and television stations, independent news sites and the BBC itself. The initiative has assumed new significance amid political controversy over the provision of public services.
Later this month, the BBC aims to complete a complex technology project that will allow those same news partners to take video news content from all its English local news bulletins (with plans to extend the service to the other UK Nations and to provide audio content from BBC local radio).
The overall scheme is intended to support local journalism in the UK, which has been in decline for decades, by providing reporting resources in covering local government and giving skills training in data journalism as increasing amounts of public information are made available online.
But the fast-growing archive of local stories is now being seen by the BBC as an early indicator of emerging national trends. “We have created a new editorial resource,” says Matt Barraclough, head of BBC Local News Partnerships. “If you went back 30 years much of this stuff would have been there but you’d have to go to public libraries and microfiche readers. The idea of having it all there and instantly searchable presents us with an opportunity as a publicly funded national news organisation to see the same stories rolling out in multiple places across the UK simultaneously and say ‘This is nationally significant.’”
Despite the BBC’s enthusiasm for the scheme, Barraclough admits that recruitment of the planned 150 local democracy reporters has stalled, following the hiring of the first 90. He puts this down to the lack of a large pool of available journalists with the requisite skills. “Who recently went shopping for 150 senior journalists in one hit? Even when 5 Live turned on [in 1994] and the BBC created a news-driven radio network, there was never that huge hiring exercise,” he says. The local newspaper industry has seen massive lay-offs but many journalists quit the industry altogether. “They have gone into PR and corporate comms, they haven’t sat around wringing their hands, they have got bills to pay. They are not sitting there waiting for us to call. In very short order we hired 90 and then we hit a plateau and we are having to work harder to find those journalists.”
The journalists who work for the LDRS are not hired by the BBC but by local news organisations who recruit them under contract from the national broadcaster. “They work to their news editor. They don’t work for the BBC in any respect. Although the BBC is funding the scheme we are largely just another partner.” The set up has led to criticism that the BBC licence fee payer is being exploited to “subsidise” newsroom cost-cutting programmes by allowing local media groups to move their own staff to the local democracy beat and get the BBC to pay their salary.
This is simply not possible, Barraclough argues. “If the reporter was an internal move, the BBC doesn’t start paying the contract until that person’s job has been back-filled."
He acknowledges that the BBC partnerships scheme is not, by itself, going to reverse the decline of local media. But it will protect a “vulnerable” area of journalism for the next decade. “We were making a very conscious choice which was to ensure that whatever happened to UK journalism there would be 150 journalists there in 10 years' time filing those type of stories and making them free at the point of delivery,” he says. “[News organisations] all agree that this is too important to lose; this coverage that enables people to make good decisions and keeps democracy healthy is absolutely vital.”
The Shared Data Unit, which is based in the BBC’s Birmingham Mailbox offices, has been especially impactful. A team of three BBC data specialists led by Pete Sherlock provides training to journalists from local news organisations who undertake 12 week secondments. Reporters from the Birmingham Mail, Bradford Telegraph & Argus, Northampton Chronicle, Yorkshire Post, Stourbridge News and ITV Central have learned skills that they will take back to their newsrooms.
The SDU targets data sets that provide information that is so granular that it will potentially generate stories even for bloggers covering a local neighbourhood. “We would always look at data around the big drivers; transport, health, housing, education, because we know it would have broad appeal,” says Barraclough. The unit’s latest project, exposing the 56% rise in illegal mobile phone use in jails since 2014, generated stories for commercial media organisations across the UK, from The Scotsman to Spirit FM in West Sussex. It was also covered by more than a dozen BBC outlets.
Local scoops go national
The 90 reporters in the LRDS have had numerous scoops; the story that Jake Dyson (scion of the vacuum empire) was planning to build a private helipad in a Cotswold village close to a 12th century church; the revelation that a house in Staffordshire had been deemed 30 inches “too tall”; and news that a police officer in Avon & Somerset faced a disciplinary hearing for trying to quash a charge against his daughter for texting while driving. The latter story escalated through the BBC’s platforms until it was on the national news page, registering 900,000 views. As a result, “the entire news gathering machine in the west of England” turned up to the tribunal, Barraclough notes.
While this is good for democracy, it’s also clearly good for the BBC. Not only is this national network of local democracy reporters feeding the BBC’s content machine, it is also helping to dispel accusations that the BBC is too focused on London, while the partnership arrangement silences historic criticisms from local news publishers that it is putting them out of business.
Barraclough has this month appointed a specialist local government journalist to the BBC to sieve the growing archive of local democracy stories that might suggest national trends. In this way he hopes that BBC News might be able to pick up more quickly on emerging issues such as child sexual exploitation, which was originally overlooked as a localised problem. “If you talk to local councillors they get a sense that there are issues bubbling under that all councils are [facing] but that they are all doing it in isolation and actually it is a national issue,” he says. “I’m so excited that we might be able to join those dots so much earlier than we ever have done before.”
The partnerships scheme is ready to launch its final element, the News Hub, from which local news organisations will be able to take pieces of BBC video and audio news for embedding in their own content. This project has been trialled in the West Midlands and north west, where a BBC interview with an under-fire Northern Rail executive, who had refused to speak to the press, was widely shared with northern newspaper titles. “It’s really good for the BBC because it means a great interview is seen by thousands of additional people and really good for the partners who get…the main protagonist of the story that they have been struggling to get,” says Barraclough enthusiastically. Newspaper reporters might reflect that it could set a precedent for the corporate PR sector insisting that senior figures only give pooled interviews to the BBC.
The creation of the News Hub has been a major commitment by the BBC, ensuring that the content of 15 regional TV outlets and 45 radio stations is made available to the local press every day. “We have to make sure we only share material we have transmitted and change the quality from broadcast quality to online news quality or it would be a huge file, and to burn the BBC blocks on it because we want people to know where it has come from. That all needs to happen automatically in the background with virtually no impact on the BBC’s workflows.”
But the benefits for the BBC, in putting its branded content in front of vast commercial news audiences and deepening its relationship with communities across Britain, are considerable.
Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell