Local reporting gets a boost!

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that it’s really frickin hard to do good local issues media. Great news: the Local Democracy Reporting initiative!


Local government is where it’s at. The terrain of deadly boring meetings, long complicated regulations and agreements and policy documents, and by far the greatest influence on the places we live.

And it’s been one of the greatest sufferers of the modern media environment morphed by social media and the digital age. Important stuff is often complicated (and yes, often unavoidably so), and more often it’s boring, technical and bureaucratic (often unnecessarily).

Typical local government business: minutes and agenda of one of Hutt City Council’s Committees. Important, and this is pretty accessibly presented cf some councils. Yet pretty dense and hard going.

Take it from Talk Wellington: it’s super hard to keep abreast of even just the opportunities for people to give feedback on stuff. Let alone what those consultations or engagements actually mean, why they matter (or don’t). And let alone what thoughtful progressive-minded people (that’s you, dear readers!) should say in them.

So no, it’s not enough just to have a list of consultations (govt.nz tried that anyway.)

We know that thoughtful people want a little context and a reliable steer on how to think about an issue; all too often our good intentions that are thwarted because we’d rather not say something than say something wholly uninformed, but the 15-20min of research to get a bit informed is too hard.

That’s a real shame (many of our fellow citizens have no such scruples), but it’s understandable. Cos without this context and a reliable steer, we may as well all just stay on a local community Facebook group and rely on Keyboard Warrior Kevin to rark us up to jumping on the “bloody council!” pile-on, and Enthusiastically Evangelistic Eileen (“sign this petition!”) for having our say.

And if that’s the only way that we get our information about what’s happening locally, well… •shudder.

Surely council itself is the source of the good local info?

Yes and no. The quality of councils’ comms is varied, not least because of the complex, technical, bureaucratic issues mentioned above – comms teams have a hard job! But even when they do do a good job, one’s always conscious that comms teams’ job is to put out information on behalf of those in power. They operate at the gnarly interface of officers’ “free and frank advice” and “public good” obligations, and councillors’ “democratic accountability” obligations and “show leadership vs being told what to do” obligations. (See here.) So no matter how good the official comms, many of us feel a little independent steer is essential – and without it, we hesitate to get involved.

Media outfits like Stuff / Dominion Post, Newsroom, the Spinoff are doing their best, and produce some really excellent journalism. But the sheer volume of decisions being made in local councils – even just around Te Upoko o te Ika – means that most stuff never gets covered at all. Including, ironically, debates about how ordinary people can participate in decision-making, and debates about how local council information should be controlled.

Local Democracy Reporting

All the nations that value the role of an informed and engaged citizenry, nourished by good-quality information from a free and frank media, have been struggling with this.

The BBC and the UK government have for the last couple of years been running the Local Democracy Reporting Service: 150 journalists dedicated to covering local issues who feed stories to a wire service that gets them disseminated widely.

Kiwi Talia Rowden is one of them, and wrote a nice piece about it for Stuff.

The ambition is for communities affected by the decline in their local newspaper market to see their elected decision-makers covered day to day, in their own local newspapers, and on the BBC.

I am one of 150 journalists around the United Kingdom reporting for this new service.

Our fulltime remit is to cover local politics: holding decision-makers accountable, scrutinising the spending of public money and documenting council business.

Most days, I can be found in planning meetings and licensing hearings, making contacts, and poring through minutes, agendas and financial reports on the hunt for stories.

As the LDRS celebrated its 50,000th story last year, journalists are saying it’s given them fresh hope for the public good that journalism can do in an age of clickbait. One journo working in the LDRS says,

“Councillors and officers still seem shocked today when I show up to cover a meeting, but I’m very often welcomed by the chairperson of whatever board is being held that day.

[…]

“My own personal favourite of the stories I’ve worked on so far was an in-depth look at the impact of council cuts on the striking Birmingham home care workers, many of whom will struggle to pay their mortgages if cuts to hours go ahead. Whatever it is, what’s struck me most about the job so far is the passion of the people involved in these stories, and their appreciation at finally being listened to over the issues that really matter to them.”

Another writes of being “a funny kind of journo”, and that at the end of the (long, arduous) week he knows he can tell his grandkids “I did it all for democracy, baby”.

There are calls to expand the LDRS, with some tweaks to make it go better, and some supporting systems are being set up too.

So, well done the UK! With that (plus some other healthy lines being drawn) there are some good signs there.

Local Democracy Reporting Niu Zillund!

Now New Zealand has its own – albeit a mini and temporary trial.

RadioNZ, with our broadcasting funder NZ On Air, have a year-long pilot with eight reporters deployed in a similar arrangement to the UK version.

The government’s Advisory Group recommended it, and while it has no money for anything beyond its pilot it’s a great step in the right direction.

Mediawatch covered it today and it’s a good listen.

Read good, and support good media

And in the meantime, when we go “ugh” at the NZ Herald’s paywall, eye roll at the ads around (still free) Stuff , or raise an eyebrow at some group’s wild-eyed press release on (20-year-old!) Scoop Wellington, let’s remember something.

We are what we eat but even more we are what we read. That stuff goes in our brains and shapes our thoughts, who we are, how we see the world.

It’s good to pay to read good stuff.

Support great writers on new-and-improved Presspatron, show the likes of Stuff, The Spinoff, Scoop, e-Tangata, RNZ (and its children like The Wireless), that you care about good local stories (= tell them so, and share what they do produce), and set up a regular donation or subscription. Even if the stuff you like is already free, that’s not what’s important. $20 or $50 a month is a few beers or a (cheap!) round, but besides adding up for the recipients it sends a really powerful signal.

It shows that you care.

That you’re one of those citizens who wants to consume good information.

One of those for whom, frankly, we in the media ecosystem are doing it all for. One of those people who are fuelled by good information, which empowers their good intentions into good action. Big or small, it doesn’t matter – it all counts, and it’s people like you doing it that makes our places better. So read good, and support good!


Footnote: In this context we need a shout-out to those folks who are still donating to Talk Wellington through PressPatron, even since we’ve relinquished our ambitions to become mainstream. You could have chosen to drop your donations, but none of you have. You’re a big part of why TW is still here at all. Arohanui.


Image credits:

  • Banner image – Mihajlo Maricic Getty Images
  • Pencil logo – Hub Journalism Network

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