Community news and investigative journalism for Wapping E1W and Tower Hamlets London

BBC to subsidise zombie press with Local Reporters Scheme

By on January 12, 2017 in Opinion

Love Wapping is proud to be a member of a small but growing media sector called ‘hyperlocal publishers’. Simple idea is to act as a news and information source for a very specific local community like Wapping hence the term hyperlocal.

There are now around 400 hyperlocals across the UK.

Hyperlocals are published by local people for local people, usually for free. Each hyperlocal is as different as the community it serves, the only common thread being the desire to serve the people we live amongst.

As a typical hyperlocal LW is completely unfunded apart from the extremely kind and generous people who donate funds to us.

Love Wapping has, in case you had not noticed, a focus on local government issues in Tower Hamlets. We tend to do a lot of investigative journalism work because that is how we get to the root of matters that residents should know about and others would prefer to be kept secret.

BBC Local Democracy Reporters Scheme

Last year the BBC came up with the BBC Local Democracy Reporters Scheme which will allocate £8m of the license fee to fund better coverage of local government by local media including hyperlocals ny funding 150 local news reporters who will solely cover the activities of councils and local authorities.

As there is no profit in covering local government issues like a corrupt Mayor quite a few traditional local papers don’t report on it. Although coverage varies wildly across the UK in our part of east London there is zero coverage of what Tower Hamlets Council and local political parties get up to unless it is packaged as a press release.

Which is great for those in charge but very bad for those who they represent. That’s you.

Earlier this week two gatherings took place at BBC Birmingham’s Mailbox.  One concerned the formation of a trade body for hyperlocal publishers which LW fully supports.

The other meeting related to the BBC Local Democracy Reporters Scheme

LW could not attend due to continuing burrowing work by the Wapping Mole but has read the various reports of the two events since then.

The hyperlocal trade body plan seems great and with the continued help of Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism seems to be progressing well. LW intends to fully engage with the trade body and use our experiences of reporting on the corruption of Tower Hamlets First in our borough to help others and inform best practise.

The BBC Local Democracy Reporters Scheme however seems to suck big time.

Fundamental failings

The scheme seems to have two fundamental failings which will make it of little use to LW or residents of Tower Hamlets.

The first issue is that the scheme seems to be adopting a ‘one size fits all’ approach to media coverage of local government. This is complete nonsense as covering Tower Hamlets is very different from covering Bromley or Billericay, let alone local authorities in other cities or rural areas.

Most if not all of the information about Tower Hamlets that LW gets is from the street and trusted sources. We have neither the time or resources (or inclination to be honest) to sit through several hours of Council meetings.

The second failing of the scheme is that the BBC seem intent on using the £8m of TV license fee to prop up the ailing local newspaper industry, the zombie press which may still be moving but which is most certainly dead.

Fundamental to this zombie feeding is the BBC’s intention to ‘bundle up’ the 150 new Local Democracy Reporters into geographic groups.

According to Andy Dickinson’s article:

“Rather than 150 separate contracts, they [the BBC] have packaged them up into ‘bundles’ containing a number of reporters per geographic patch. Local news organisations can then bid to take on these contracts on behalf of the BBC.”

Others who attended the event consider that the geographic areas the BBC is suggesting make little sense from a local news standpoint.

And last time we checked LW, like most hyperlocals, is not of a size that we would describe ourselves as a ‘news organisation’ despite our vast horders of Wildlife Rangers and specialist correspondents.

As Andy makes clear the BBC are for some reason being very reticent in publishing any information about the Local Democracy Reporters scheme. What information the BBC does provide is only distributed to a few people on the basis that it will not be reproduced or shared with anyone else.

There also seems to be a risk that the BBC will end up becoming a de facto local news media accreditation body which is just not on at all. LW is sure this is not what the BBC wants, but that does not mean it will not happen.

The BBC Local Democracy Reporters Scheme is not yet set in stone and the establishment of a hyperlocal trade body will be of immense help by making it effective, better value for money and meetings the needs of even the smallest hyperlocal publisher.

As it stands LW can see no reason whatsoever to engage with the scheme, let alone bid for any Local Democracy contracts, despite the pressing need for proper coverage of local government issues in Tower Hamlets.

LW believes that the 400 hyperlocals across the UK would be better off putting our efforts into establishing our trade body and creating new ways to work together.

Hyperlocals have common cause and beliefs and, as the recent investigative journalism course run by the Centre for Investigative Journalism illustrated, a growing appetite for digging away at stories that neither national or local zombie media will touch.

Central to the BBC Scheme is the pooling of stories into one central place for everyone to share when published.

Essential to the BBC of course but there is no way Love Wapping is sharing any of its hard won exclusives with the zombie media. Or the national media for free for that matter.

Sharing our hard won stories with other hyperlocals and using their stories in turn is of course a great idea.

Hyperlocal publishing is the future. We should not allow the BBC, even with the best of intentions, to hamper its development and drag it backwards. Hyperlocal publishers should continue to do their own thing the way their communities want and let our future work shape our fortunes.

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There Are 2 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Thanks for reading my post and including it here. To be fair and just to clarify my point, I think I know why the BBC are being reticent on the detail of the contracts – just look at the reaction of industry sites like hold the front page. I don’t think its fair to say that details of the scheme itself have been limited (in all senses of the word) or without substance. But I would say that that on the day, it seemed a little confusing as to what was public and what was maybe sotto voce. But I can sympathise with the nervousness – and to that extent know why they were nervous.

    The figures and contractual ideas are always going to be picked over and some basic sums done and the numbers used to support or undermine. Given that some of this is still up for negotiation, including the Bundles, there is a risk that the BBC end up defending interpretation rather than reality. I do think the BBC needs to get over that a little; it needs to be more robust if its going to maintain some level of Involvement in the local/regional media landscape 🙂 To be fair to the BBC though most of the reticence from hyperlocals in the room seemed to have little to do with the BBC and everything to do with the perception of the established regional media organisations.

    I can see your point about the missed opportunity to create a ‘marketplace’ for hyperlocal content that could produce an effective revenue stream. I think its what economists call a ‘wicked problem’ but I do think thats a necessary challenge for the hyperlocal sector to grasp. I’m not sure I’d like the BBC to effectively service or control that market – economically or otherwise. Much better that is handled and managed by the hyperlocals. (perhaps through an honest broker like Cardiffs CCJ) As a final observation though I’d say that the if mechanics and will for participation in that kind of platform was possible then I would argue you would maybe have a scaleable enough network to be able to form consortiums to bid for the BBC’s Reporters scheme.

    • Mark Baynes says:

      Hi Andy! Thanks for the clarification on your original post and your additional thoughts, very welcome. When I first heard of the BBC Local Reporters Scheme I was very much in favour of it as the absence of effective reporting of the previous administration in Tower Hamlets (with the noticeable exception of Ted Jeory’s work on trialbyjeory) led to a situation whereby the entire borough was effectively hijacked by a group intent on lining the pockets of themselves and their supporters to the detriment of those genuinely in need. I am still a little baffled as to why the BBC are not being as open about their plans as they could be and to be honest I think the ‘zombie press’ are rubbing their hands with glee over another revenue stream at a time when their industry is collapsing. One of the consequences of publishing for the sake of ad revenue and not the information requirements of the readership.

      I do not think that the hyperlocal sector has missed an opportunity. The same digital tools that have decimated print publications are bread and butter to hyperlocals and I am sure there is a way for hyperlocal publishers to share content to the benefit of all. Needless to say a majority of hyperlocal stores are of relevance to only a specific geographic area – few people in Aberdeen would be interested in a car crashing into Mr Hussey’s butchers shop in Wapping Lane. However other stories that are generated by hyperlocals would be of interest on a UK basis, partly on their intrinsic news value but also as an example of potential stories for any area of the UK and, if correctly done, examples of how to research and present stories that need to be told. I am working on such a piece at the moment which will be published on Love Wapping later this week, but a classic example from Tower Hamlets is the data journalism LW undertook in relation to the previous Mayor. The same ‘pattern’ of approach could be applied elsewhere.

      I would like to think the hyperlocal sector could form a consortium to bid for the BBC Reporters scheme but think the reality of being a hyperlocal publisher (one or two people working with limited resources) would make this currently unfeasable. But I am sure we could, once we have got the framework of a trade body together, create a UK-wide hyperlocal network (huh?!) without too much trouble. The participation and honest brokerage of Cardiff’s CCJ would be essential.

      Hyperlocals may also have a potential future revenue stream from the emerging market for data. Of which more another time.

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