As they say in the US, all politics is local.

Whatever the origin of the phrase, it’s a useful hook on which to hang the rising interest in the role and function of the UK’s local media. As ‘solid state’ printing moves ever more towards the cloud, trends which saw the near disappearance of traditional community and town sheets appears to be reversing.

Still in its first year, the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) is already proving to be a new-style, slow-burn revolution across the UK local news media sector. As a response to a silo tendency within the broadcasting industry, where component sub-groups fail to connect with each other, a creative model of local news partnership could buck the trend.

The double-whammy of rapid digitisation (where classified advertising skipped almost immediately to the internet) and a huge fall in the number of local and regional journalists (by as much as 80% at some publications) has contributed to the near hollowing out of the local news sector. At a period when public services and agencies started to retract post 2008 – when local residents desperately needed more, not less, trustworthy and accurate reporting – practiced journalism skills were transferring to the commercial creative writing sector, most notably PR and marketing.

Under the LDRS model, journalists are employed by local news providers but costs are borne by the BBC. Their copy and content is BBC (and therefore taxpayers’) property and a freely available resource. In theory, an LDRS journalist can produce an article conforming to the principles of fair, accurate reporting and its contents can then be used for more opinionated, directed reporting, even by the same news agency. This is not perceived as a problem, but instead integral to the notion of media plurality – a much-needed ingredient for democratising information, in particular the question of who can access it and how. Across the country, many local government meetings are now routinely live streamed and archived. The analysis, storytelling and summarising of legal, governmental process, however, adds a valuable dimension to that raw data. The physical presence of a reporter in itself should not be overlooked. As every educator knows, the act of observing affects behaviour.

We are living in a period of fast-moving political realignment. Social media has created both expectation and entitlement to engage. Locally-focussed media platforms promoting events, activities and campaigns are burgeoning. A 2018 Guardian article documenting Warren Buffet’s investment in US local media highlighted the connection between neighbourhoods where physical mobility has slowed down and the revival of local media, which is creating a new style of community engagement.

While there are smaller independent publishers represented on the current LDRS roster, many fall under the ‘big four’ of Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest and Tindle, who own the majority of local newspaper titles in the UK, a clear area of improvement for future expansion of the initiative.

Following last year’s Cambridge Analytica revelations, the phrase ‘sharing data’ sends a chill up the spine of data protection lobbyists. In the example of LDRS, public interest information is deemed key to active, well-informed participation in civil society. A new social contract is emerging and this requires well-informed citizens, confident in knowing how to hold their representatives to account and change systems if they are failing. Mass public participation, in an endless stream of consciousness, is a world away from the crafted signposting of the journalist-on-the-ground, directing us towards fact and detail. After that, it’s our responsibility to make of it what we will.

bbc.co.uk/lnp/ldrs

themediafund.org

Julia Moore