The Midhurst and Petworth Observer and its sister titles and websites across Sussex have won a contract to employ three new local democracy reporters as part of a pioneering project developed by local media organisations and the BBC to ensure local politicians are properly held to account.
The aim is to ensure that top tier councils across the UK - like West Sussex County Council, East Sussex County Council and Brighton and Hove City Council - receive the forensic and independent coverage that the public demands.
Sussex Newspapers won the contract after passing stringent criteria which included financial stability and a strong track record of relevant journalism. We will be working in partnership with Brighton and Hove News and its editor Frank le Duc to provide the Brighton coverage.
With print and digital titles covering every part of the county, Sussex Newspapers has 1.4m unique browsers each month and hundreds of thousands of weekly print readers. It is part of Johnston Press which has led the way in developing the ground-breaking national scheme with the BBC under the direction of chief executive Ashley Highfield.
Contracts to employ an initial 144 full-time and two part-time Local Democracy Reporters have been allocated to 58 news organisations in England, Scotland and Wales following a competitive bidding process.
Those news organisations - ranging from a radio station to online media companies and established regional newspaper groups - will now receive funding from the BBC to cover employment costs of the reporters.
Once recruited, stories written by the democracy reporters will be shared with more than 700 media organisations that have signed up to be part of the Local News Partnerships scheme.
David Holdsworth, Controller of BBC English Regions, said: “This is a major advance in the partnership which will significantly improve the reporting on councils and public institutions, leading to greater public accountability for our local politicians.”
As part of its Charter commitment, the BBC is investing up to £8m annually in the Local News Partnerships during the next nine years to the end of the Charter in 2026.
The landmark partnership between the BBC and the News Media Association also includes a Shared Data Unit, based at BBC Birmingham, and a facility allowing local news providers access to relevant regional BBC video and audio content.
The Shared Data Unit will utilise BBC teams and seconded journalists from the wider industry to develop data journalism expertise. The first regional journalists to be seconded started on November 20.
Ashley Highfield, chair of the News Media Association and chief executive of Johnston Press - publisher of this title - said: “The ground-breaking Local News Partnership between the NMA and the BBC is now becoming a reality which will benefit the BBC, local media and, most importantly, local communities.”
“The initiative has moved the whole relationship between the BBC and the local media sector from confrontation to collaboration, and key benefits will include 150 new journalists on the ground holding public institutions to account on behalf of their readers.
“Managed by local media and funded by BBC, the Local Democracy Reporters are just a part of a slew of collaborative initiatives that will see local media get access to BBC’s local video and data journalism.”
To be awarded the democracy reporter contracts, the 58 successful news organisations had to pass stringent criteria which included financial stability and a strong track record of relevant journalism in the area they were applying to cover.
The award decisions were made by senior editorial BBC figures across the English regions, Wales and Scotland.
In areas where a single contract contained multiple reporters, some successful bidders opted to share the allocation with neighbouring news organisations.
The next step will be for the successful organisations to start recruiting, with a view to becoming operational in the next few months.
A total of 150 local democracy reporters will eventually be employed once all contracts have been awarded.