Publishers call for 1,500 new public interest journalists

CairncrossA group of regional publishers is urging the government to back a major expansion in the number of ‘public interest journalists,’ arguing that more than 1,500 will be needed to ensure all courts and councils are covered.

Dame Frances Cairncross, left, is due to present her report this week on how to fund and sustain quality journalism in the UK following a government-commissioned review into the issue.

HoldtheFrontPage has learned that in a joint submission to the review, regional publishers have called for a new tranche of public interest journalists to build on the success of the existing partnership with the BBC, which has seen 135 local democracy reporters employed in local newsrooms.

In their submission, the publishers say they have identified a need for more than 1,500 local public interest reporters – ten times the number originally envisaged by the BBC scheme.

They argue that such an expansion would enable all of the UK’s 800 councils and 400 courts to be covered, as well as other public bodies such as health trusts.

Publishers who have put their names to the plan include Newsquest, Reach plc, JPIMedia and Archant. Their proposals also envisage hyperlocal publishers becoming involved in the initiative.

They argue that without further significant investment in journalism , understanding of and engagement with the “local government ecosystem” will continue to suffer.

At the same time, they also concede that it is not possible to support the kind of public interest journalism required on the current economic model.

An expansion of public interest reporters along the lines suggested in the submission would be likely to require funding of around £60m a year.

Such a sum could be raised either by a tax on the digital giants Google and Facebook and/or via the BBC licence fee, although the publishers’ submission does not include a detailed recommendation on how the initiative should be funded.

Newsquest chief executive Henry Faure-Walker recently gave a clue to the thinking behind the idea in an interview with media commentator Ray Snoddy for industry magazine In Publishing.

He said: “We need to have a grown-up conversation about recognising the importance of good quality local journalism to society, to democracy and about how we support that. Journalism is becoming an increasingly unprofitable activity so you need to incentivise publishers to do journalism.

The Cairncross Review, set up by the Prime Minister in January 2018, was tasked with looking at ways to safeguard the future of the UK’s free, independent and high-quality news in the digital age.

It has focused on investigating the overall state of the news media market and the role and impact of digital search engines and social media platforms, and has paid particular attention to the printed press.

“The local and regional press, in particular, have a core social importance in highlighting and addressing local issues, bringing communities together, and holding local government and other public service providers to account,” said the review’s original brief.

Since the review was first announced, Facebook has partnered with the industry and the NCTJ to provide £4.5m of funding towards its Community News Project, designed to employ 80 new reporters in ‘under-reported’ communities.

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