Byline: Roy Greenslade
RADICAL plans by Britain's leading news agency, the Press Association, to introduce "public service reporting" are well advanced. I understand that PA is days away from securing an agreement on funding from a charitable source.
Once the money is available, adverts will be placed to recruit staff for the pilot project in the Merseyside region in company with Liverpool's main newspaper publisher, Trinity Mirror.
The idea is that the new team of public service reporters will then put up their copy on a dedicated portal that will allow any news outlet, whether it be a Trinity Mirror title, a national paper or an individual blogging outfit, to publish the content free of charge.
It is an imaginative attempt to overcome the worrying prospect of courts, councils and other public bodies going unreported as traditional news organisations cut back on their reporting staffs.
Judges have been alarmed by the fact that many court hearings are taking place without any public scrutiny. Similarly, inquests are being held without journalists being present. Local authorities have also registered concern about the absence of reporters at meetings. The failure by councils to communicate, especially with young people, is of growing concern.
A representative of the Local Government Association attended a presentation of the Press Association project last month, and was so impressed that he is reporting positively to his board. "We are supportive of viable local media," he told me, "and I see this as an interesting concept."
At the same meeting was a member of Essex County Council's communications team, and he too was enthusiastic.
Councillors in many boroughs across the UK are worried that residents are not being informed about the nuts and bolts of decisions, especially when there are policy disagreements among the political parties.
Though some councils have launched their own papers and magazines as local newspaper sales have fallen, these publications -- by their nature - do not reflect the views of opposition councillors.
Their greatest flaw is their overriding propaganda function, which eschews any independent questioning of their own council's activities.
A range of public institutions, such as health trusts and school boards of governors, are not being covered. Instead, papers are relying for much of their information on PR releases. Again, these fail to give a rounded view of internal debates on matters of policy that affect many thousands of people.
Thus far, there is no sign in Britain - as distinct from the United - that independent digital start-ups are taking up the slack as papers close down or reduce journalistic staffing. There are isolated examples of bloggers doing their best to report on local affairs but there are no outlets yet acting as comprehensive watchdogs.
Press Association executives were among the first to pick up on the implications of this troubling retreat from on-theground Politicians across worried that not being informed nuts and bolts of reporting. That's hardly surprising because most of PA's 27 shareholders are newspaper publishers who have been responsible for instituting the cuts in editorial resources that have led to smaller reporting staffs, many of whom now rarely leave the office. …