The new $6m partnership with Facebook to fund 80 community journalists for towns with no local newspapers is arguably the biggest opportunity for the UK’s regional media in 2019.
With publishers still shedding titles and jobs, and in the face of a declining and precarious pre-Brexit economy, this major initiative could make a genuinely positive impact on the sector.
The Facebook scheme – called the Community News Project – is an industry-wide initiative involving five of the biggest regional newspaper groups. It is being funded by a $6m charitable donation from Facebook to the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), the sector’s main training body.
The NCTJ is working with Reach, Newsquest, JPIMedia (formerly Johnston Press), Archant and the Midland News Association to recruit, train and qualify the new journalists to serve under-reported communities.
There are two important things to note about this two-year programme. Firstly, it’s a pilot project, and so if it’s seen to work for all partners, it could be the first of a series of investments by Facebook. Already, I understand the steering group is discussing how to bring smaller, independent publishers into the scheme, and much further down the line, there could even be a way of including serious hyperlocal titles.
Secondly, this is the first time the private sector has made any substantial investment into the regional media. A successful project could trigger the likes of Google and Twitter to look at how they too could help the regional media – which they arguably rely on for content – to survive.
Does the project have any major threats? I hope not, although the NCTJ – as purse-holder – will need to make sure it’s not simply used as an excuse by publishers to make further cuts. That’s a difficult area to scrutinise, as publishers will of course continue to squeeze resources in response to the economy and revenues.
But what the NCTJ will be wanting to ensure is that there is no direct ‘replacement’ link between any specific cuts and funded trainees. For instance, if Publisher A has a reporter in Area B and is given a Facebook trainee to supplement that scarce resource, it wouldn’t seem right if the publisher made the existing reporter redundant shortly afterwards.
The reason this is worth highlighting is because the new scheme will operate in a similar way to the BBC-funded Local Democracy Partnership, with the publishers employing the new reporters although they will be funded by Facebook via the NCTJ. And the BBC scheme has received some negative publicity for allegedly using that resource to fill in roles that were subsequently made redundant.
Whether or not criticism of the BBC scheme is fully justified, the Facebook scheme will need to watch the same issues closely.