Earlier this month at a Press Gazette and Kingtson University conference, Press Association training director Tony Johnston said funding for one of the agency’s pilots of its public service reporting scheme was close.
The public service reporting scheme, first mentioned in July last year, will aim to increase coverage of local public institutions and produce reports made available online for free to local news organisations. The first pilot partnership announced was with Trinity Mirror. As part of the initiative, the agency would recruit journalists and deploy them within a defined area and for a specified time period to cover local authorities and public bodies. The aims of the pilot would be to ascertain demand from local media for this type of news with a view to rolling out the scheme nationally – at an estimated cost of £15-18 million a year.
Johnston said the funding for the first pilot had come from an independent source, stressing the importance of this relationship for future funding of pilots and a long-term service:
The service would have to be completely editorially independent of the funding source. Content would have to be free to all and be generated in a way that delivers value for money.
Today the National Association of Press Agencies (NAPA), spurred into action by Johnston’s comments, said it would seek fresh talks with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to raise concerns about the PA’s plans to create a subsidised reporting network. The association is particularly concerned with suggestions made last year by PA managing director Tony Watson that funds from top-slicing the BBC Licence Fee could go towards such a public service reporting initiative as part of the Independently Funded News Consortia (though he didn’t explicitly mention the public service reporting pilot at this point).
Says NAPA spokesman Chris Johnson in a press release:
This would be the first step on a slippery slope to further demands for the BBC licence fee cash to be used to subsidise all kinds of reporting deemed “too expensive” for commercial companies.
Many NAPA members find that with the retrenchment of local newspapers they are increasingly being called-upon to provide grass-roots content of all kinds.
We can see no justification for replacing staff who have been made redundant with an expanded network of PA staff subsidised with public money. It would tend towards creating a dangerous reporting monoculture – some kind of UK version of Pravda – and a phenomenon that is quite alien to the British news industry and a free press.
NAPA will raise its concerns with Jeremy Hunt and will encourage the DCMS to examine the potentially damaging and distorting effects this plan would have on an already a fragile market. We believe that it would distort the market and seriously discourage new entrants from setting-up in business. It would be anti-competitive, and should be resisted at all costs.
Speaking to Journalism.co.uk, Johnson said he did not question the need for strong local journalism, reporting on public bodies and courts, but is concerned that the PA has not been more explicit about its plans for funding.
It seems to me that the PA keeps flying this kite in the hope that some one or other grabs onto the line (…) I don’t know why any kind of public funding should be used to subsidise newspapers who have engaged in wholesale decimation of their staff.
I’m not sure top-slicing was ever particularly high on the PA’s agenda as a source of funding for this specific scheme, but the agency has kept its cards in its search for backing very close. The stakeholders involved in the local media scene will await PA’s funding announcement with interest…