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Oct. 31, 2018, 6 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How the BBC built one of the world’s largest collaborative journalism efforts focused entirely on local news

News publishers of all sizes are partnering to “save democracy” at the local level; more than 35,000 stories have been published.

Three large regional news publishing companies in the U.K. executed a coordinated public condemnation in June against what they saw as the British government’s preferential treatment of the south in its handling of a national rail crisis.

Fueled by a sense of outrage over massive train cancellations and delays, the publishers put aside years of historic competition and came together around the #onenorth campaign, simultaneously publishing front page stories and a joint editorial in approximately two dozen papers, shaming the government to heed them and act.

Joined by a handful of hyperlocal news publishers, the #onenorth coverage was picked up by radio and television and spread widely on social media, becoming a graphic display of the kind of power that three erstwhile competitors, Reach plc, Newsquest and Johnston Press, could wield if they buried their hatchets and collaborated.

In the eyes of Jeremy Clifford, the editor-in chief of Johnston Press, the #onenorth campaign is indicative of a greater willingness over the last 18 months among the larger publishing organizations in the U.K. to collaborate “due to the realization that we have more in common than divides us in terms of competing with each other.”

In fact, the climate has changed to such an extent that not only have these privately-funded news organizations found opportunities to work with each other, but they have also seen the benefit of coming together to collaborate with the Goliath in British journalism: the publicly-funded British Broadcasting Company (BBC).

Partnering to save local news

For more than a year now, news organizations ranging in size from tiny hyperlocals to the big three regional publishing companies involved in the #onenorth coverage have been signing up to participate in a massive Local News Partnership (LNP) that leverages the reach and resources of the BBC to shore up the local press and fortify its role in democracy.

The scale of the project is immense, functioning like a wire service for more than 90 news organizations representing 800 news outlets around the country, allowing them to share and use each other’s content. The BBC provides the infrastructure and has promised to spend 8 million pounds a year (that’s around $10 million) in the partnership for the next 11 years. The BBC is a public service broadcaster funded by a yearly license fee that is charged to all U.K. households with a television, rather than being directly underwritten by the government.

One element of the project is called the Local Democracy Reporting Service, which hires and trains local journalists then devotes them exclusively to covering local government and other public service organizations. No fires, no crimes, no courts; these reporters cover mainly community and civic meetings and events. The reporters are hired locally by the partner news organizations but their salaries are funded by the BBC.

There’s also a News Hub, which gives the local and regional news organizations involved in the partnership access to BBC video and audio footage.

“This level of coverage has never been undertaken by any news agency,” said Matthew Barraclough, who oversees the project for the BBC. Thus far the partnership has produced more than 35,000 stories and he anticipates it will grow about 1,000 to 1,500 stories a month.

The impetus for the project, Barraclough says, was the shared realization by the BBC and the News Media Association, the trade body for news publishers in the U.K., that the number of local and regional journalists had been declining by the thousands over the last decade and with them was going the scrutiny of local and regional government.

Getting the project going was a multi-step process, according to Barraclough, who has been working on laying the foundation since 2015. First, he had to solicit and then vet news organizations from around the country to participate, opening the doors to the partnership in May 2017. He said 800 outlets joined on pretty quickly because many of the regional and local newspapers are owned by the three big publishers.

Then, to create the technological infrastructure, they turned to StreamAMG, which was already being used by the BBC to get content to its global partners as part of the BBC World Service. Meanwhile, local video and audio clips produced by the BBC had to be watermarked with its logo and channeled into the project.

Next, they had to organize the hiring of Local Democracy Reporters by the local partner organizations, to cover local government and public institutions. Figuring out where to allocate reporters was complicated due to the conflicting demands and requirements of different areas, he said. In Northern Ireland, for example, politics was a challenge. While impartiality is accepted in journalism on the mainland, in Northern Ireland it’s a harder sell and communities saw a need for two reporters instead of one: a Republican and a Loyalist.

The project pays off

So far 128 reporters have been hired, Barraclough says, and they are already at work covering decisions by local governments involving taxpayers’ money which otherwise may not have been covered.

A number of these reporters have written about their experiences, some of them noting their surprise at how interesting local government coverage can be and how important they felt their work was to the democratic process. Their stories often get picked up and published by news organizations across the country as well as the BBC.

The local community coverage is a welcome resource for editors such as Anna Williams who runs The Ambler Community Newspaper, a co-op hyperlocal publication in Northumberland, in the north of the country. Being part of the partnership gives her access to coverage of meetings that she says she often does not have the resources to cover herself.

“It has been quite straightforward and I’m really pleased to be a part of the scheme,” Williams said of her participation in the LNP. “It’s not really for breaking news, and we would usually write our own articles from our own perspective, but it’s good to get more of a feel for what is going on in Northumberland County Council meetings.”

Williams says she sees even more potential in getting to know about other editors through the partnership.

“I think I’m the only community newspaper involved in this in this area — if there are others, I don’t know about them,” she said. “I suppose that is one aspect which could be developed; who else is using the system?”

For Barraclough, the results have been gratifying. He says he has taken particular pleasure in seeing how frequently content generated by the partnership makes its way to front pages.

He says he hopes to undertake a public value examination of the service in a couple of years to see if it’s justified and possibly look at expanding it. For now, he hopes it will serve as a model of collaboration, if not in its entirety, then in part.

“We’re doing something at scale that people can watch,” said Barraclough. “They can cherry pick the bits that apply to them.”

Clifford, who chairs the joint advisory panel overseeing the partnership, says the LNP has facilitated the kind of collaboration between news organizations that was evidenced in the #onenorth coverage.

“It has also brought the BBC closer to the privately-funded media sector, giving it a better understanding of how we operate, the pressures we have and where it can play a part in helping to support rather than to compete,” he said.

“The wider value is that there is a good, constructive dialogue between the BBC and the wider industry where further opportunities can be explored, and we will use the Local Democracy Reporter scheme as the vehicle for this and to produce a national agenda based on public service reporting,” Clifford said.

Lessons learned

Asked if he had any insight into the collaborative process for other news organizations contemplating collaboration, Clifford shared these:

  1. Find the areas where you can work together and build trust so that you can move forward.
  2. Acknowledge that your organizations may well compete with each other but identify the areas where you are better collaborating.
  3. Explore areas where together you can produce better journalism than if you continued separately.
  4. As well as reporting, look at skill sets and strengths your organization has that can be shared.

Clifford says he and the News Media Association will be pushing the BBC for the number of Partnership reporters to grow to 200. And he sees potential for future collaborations down the road.

Tara George is a professor and head of journalism and television/digital media at Montclair State University. She can be reached via email at georgeta@montclair.edu. This piece is being copublished with the Center for Cooperative Media, a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University.

POSTED     Oct. 31, 2018, 6 a.m.
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