Filling in the blind spot in public knowledge

8:38 pm on 27 May 2019

By Rick Neville*

Opinion - The $1m of public money being tipped into a pilot scheme to hire more reporters to cover local news around the country won't save media as we've known it, but it's a start.

These reporters will go into places where the local newspaper is battling economic headwinds, and struggling to provide coverage of the depth previous generations of readers enjoyed.

Journalist at media interview

Journalist at work gathering local news Photo: 123rf

There won't be a lot of journalists - eight initially, spread from the Far North down to Otago or Southland. But they'll be in places where local coverage of public interest news has shrunk, or disappeared altogether.

Their brief will be to report on local councils and the like. Wherever public money, and publicly elected people, are involved.

They'll be called Local Democracy Reporters (LDRs). Because behind this idea is the very real fear that when newspapers shrink or close, it creates a news desert, and in such a desert, democracy suffers.

If there's no reporter any more to cover council or committee meetings, who will spot the dodgy deal, the uncontested contract, ask the hard questions of those given custody of public funds?

A recent study from the University of North Carolina observed: "Without quality local news, it's hard for people to participate in their communities in a meaningful way, or even to understand why they should. Corruption runs amok. Apathy reigns. And the underpinnings of democracy rot away."

While this dangerous trend is undoubtedly being felt here, its most aggressive advance has been seen in the US, Canada and the United Kingdom.

In Canada, the Trudeau government recently announced a $C595m ($NZ678m) five-year package to assist the Canadian news industry. The Australian federal government last year awarded regional publishers $AUD60.4m ($$NZ64m) over three years. State assistance for print and other media has been well-established in a number of European countries for many years.

American studies estimate that 1800 (one in five) local papers have closed or merged since 2004. More than 1400 cities and towns have lost their papers.

What happens to the communities they leave behind? A blind spot in public knowledge. Local news brings issues to public attention and sets the agenda for public debate.

As American appeals court judge Damon J. Keith once wrote: "Democracy dies in the dark", a line which now appears on the Washington Post masthead.

The scene is no more encouraging in Britain which today has nearly 200 fewer regional and local papers than it did in 2005, causing Prime Minister Theresa May to warn: "Closure of newspaper after newspaper is a danger to democracy."

Amidst this almost apocalyptic scene, local publishers and the BBC got together in 2017 to forge a new partnership charged with setting up the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

In the months since, close to 150 reporters have been hired, funded by eight million pounds ($NZ15.6m) a year diverted from the BBC's broadcasting licence fee.

The reporters are located all around Britain but mostly in regional cities and towns which have proved so vulnerable to newsroom cutbacks and closures.

Key to political and public acceptance of the scheme has been the requirement of participating newsrooms to distribute local democracy reporters' stories to the BBC and all other media which want them.

That will also be a cornerstone of the New Zealand scheme.

Here, the journalistic carnage has not so far been as dire as we've seen elsewhere. But neither is the picture pretty. Research carried out by the Newspaper Publishers' Association (NPA) indicates that reporter numbers in regional newsrooms have fallen by at least 152 (28 percent) in the last three to five years. And at least 29 community or rural titles have closed in the last two years.

The cause, mirroring the overseas experience, has been savage advertising and circulation declines caused by online competition, mostly overseas-based. And while NZ publishers have fought back valiantly with their own websites, digital subscription and advertising revenues have not so far been able to make up for the slump in print revenues.

The New Zealand scheme has been designed in discussions between the NPA, RNZ and NZ On Air. Since the broadcasting licence fee was abolished in 1999, NZOA is the conduit for Crown funding of RNZ while also providing support for other media and entertainment.

The $1m awarded to the LDR project is to fund a one-year pilot with the money coming from a one-off $6m Innovation Fund approved by the Government last year.

Most of the money will go towards hiring eight experienced reporters who will be based in existing newsrooms around the country. The intention is to put these journalistic boots-on-theground into areas where news holes exist, or where newsrooms have been slimmed down to the point where only high impact or the most obvious stories are covered.

Newsrooms have needed to adapt the way they work to serve the largest digital audience, which is hungry for more and more stories, delivered around the clock. Editors have needed to make choices and prioritise what they cover; the modern digital audience often doesn't have the same tastes and demands of the shrinking print readership. What the city fathers and mothers might be up to often gets less priority than it once did.

The rest of the money will go to RNZ, to administer the scheme and to hire a project manager. Part of the manager's job will be to ensure the new recruits are trained to report for print, digital and radio - true multi-media journalists. All the stories will be made available, without delay, to any qualifying media which want them, including competitors.

The big question is what happens after Year One, when the money runs out?

The NPA and RNZ will be working hard to ensure the pilot proves successful, so a strong argument can be made next year to make the local democracy reporting service bigger, better, and longer-lasting.

*Rick Neville is the editorial director of the Newspaper Publishers' Association and a former journalist, editor and publisher.