853 and the Local Democracy Reporting Service

Greenwich Council chamber
Covering local councils is a challenge for the companies who dominate London’s local media, who rely on the LDRS rather than investing in their own reporting. At 853, we usually do it ourselves – because our readers pay us to – but it does provide a backup

A few stories on 853 carry the bylines of “Local Democracy Reporters”. This is part of a BBC-funded scheme to ensure local councils are covered properly in local media. 853 has been a partner in the scheme since November 2018, and so receives some stories as part of it. Here’s some more on why and how this came about.

What is the Local Democracy Reporting Service?

LDRS logoThe LDRS was set up by the BBC in 2017 to address the the decline of local council reporting. This decline followed cutbacks at the major local news groups, which then lobbied the government about the issue.

One of 853’s big selling points for a couple of years was that it was the only outlet regularly covering Greenwich Council meetings. In theory (and sometimes in practice) the LDRS brought this to an end.

The following year, 853 was given the opportunity to join and receive stories along with a host of other outlets and the BBC itself.

Each Local Democracy Reporter is assigned to cover a number of local councils. The scheme has been criticised because many of the reporters are based at newspaper groups that have cut back their staff in recent years, or – and this is a problem we have with the scheme – they are used to those further outlets’ own editorial policies rather than for public interest reporting.

Over the years, outlets like the News Shopper and South London Press have come to rely on LDR stories to fill their papers and websites rather than employing their own journalists while the MyLondon website – which employs most of the capital’s Local Democracy Reporters – uses them to bolster its sensational style of reporting.

So it’s not perfect. But the LDRS does produce good stories from time to time, and occasionally a corking scoop, so we remain a part of it.

Why is 853 using this copy?

At present, 853 has one part-time reporter/editor (Darryl). Being part of the LDRS means 853 gives us some backup and some ability to cover stories that Darryl can’t.

It also means we can monitor stories from neighbouring boroughs – or from City Hall – and if they’re relevant to a Greenwich audience, we can bring them to you.

We used to use about one LDR story a week. However, since June 2021, most of the London reporters have been based at MyLondon, the citywide website run by Reach plc, the company behind the Daily Mirror and Daily Express. The reporters are great. But the stories now tend to suit that website’s “angry people in local newspapers” worldview and are very limited in scope, so we now use a lot less of the copy.

We have serious concerns about the way this works at present – after all, you pay for this through your TV licence – and have spoken out about this in public. There’s little point in subsidising talented young reporters to cover local councils if their editors have no clue about local issues or even where places are. But for now, we will continue to use copy where it suits and edit it as necessary.

Does this cost 853 any money?

No. It’s basically having access to a free newswire. The only cost was an evening preparing the application form. It’s no different from the national press having access to the Press Association or Reuters.

Who are the reporters?

Joe Coughlan is the reporter for Greenwich, Bexley and Bromley. He is based at MyLondon. Past reporters were Kiro Evans (November 2021 to June 2022 at MyLondon); Lachlan Leeming (December 2019 to November 2020 at the News Shopper), and Tom Bull (June 2018 to September 2019 at the News Shopper). To contact Joe, email joseph.coughlan[at]reachplc.com.

Robert Firth is the Local Democracy Reporter for Lewisham, Southwark and Lambeth and is also based at the MyLondon website. His predecessors were Gráinne Cuffe (November 2019 to August 2021, mostly at the News Shopper) and Bridie Witton (June 2018 to September 2019 at the News Shopper). To contact Robert, email robert.firth[at]reachplc.com.

Noah Vickers is the Local Democracy Reporter for the Greater London Authority and London Assembly. He is based at the Evening Standard. Until December 2022 this role was held by Joe Talora, before that it was Jessie Mathewson. To contact Noah, email noah.vickers[at]standard.co.uk.

Very occasionally, you may see the names of other reporters covering other boroughs whose stories have been made available for us to use – currently these include Ruby Gregory (Tower Hamlets and Newham), Julia Gregory (Hackney) and Josh Mellor (Redbridge and Waltham Forest).

Who runs the scheme?

The Local Democracy Reporter Scheme is run by the BBC, with a small team based in Birmingham. However, the reporters are employed by the host news organisations and answer to them rather than the BBC or us. That said, their stories do occasionally appear on the BBC News website and they are trained to appear on TV or radio should the need arise.

I’ve got some more questions!

Drop us a line at tell853something[at]gmail.com. If you want to know more about the scheme itself, visit the BBC Local News Partnerships website.