The NCTJ had already been working closely with Facebook on a number of training assignments and we’d built up a great relationship with the team there under [then head of news partnerships EMEA] Nick Wrenn’s leadership.
At that meeting, I was told David Higgerson, who I knew to be the progressive digital journalism guru at Reach, had approached Facebook with an ambitious pitch to support the industry in covering under-reported communities.
They were looking for a trusted partner with the capability to manage such a large-scale and complex project. The NCTJ was at the top of the list. There was a budget of $10m. Happy days!
Helping to shape the project over the next three months (and for the life of the project) was an extraordinary experience for me and the senior team at the NCTJ. At that point, we had no new resources to cover the set up so it was a massive challenge.
Working day and night in secret with our partners and with our charitable objectives at the forefront of our minds, we engineered a community-focused training scheme that would fund reporters to work in newsrooms while they studied for their NCTJ qualifications.
Most importantly, the project also had diversity and inclusion at its heart. I remember we’d just published our latest research report, Journalists at Work, which drew attention, once again, to the appalling lack of diversity in journalism. The partners in the embryonic Community News Project agreed this should be tackled as a priority.
Community News Project with Facebook was ‘resounding success’
When the project was announced at a press conference that November, there were the inevitable controversies, jealousies and cynicism. How could the industry beholden itself to a tech giant? Why should commercial publishers benefit from a charitable scheme? Shouldn’t hyperlocal publishers benefit more from this project even though they have no experience of training journalists to NCTJ standards?
Fast forward five years, we have worked with ten providers to train more than 260 journalists. More than 70% of these come from under-represented backgrounds. Some 23 publishers have been involved in the programme. Meta has donated a total of $17m. It has been transformative for the NCTJ as a charity: a higher profile; more resources and expertise; stronger relationships with the regional media; and a greater impact.
Whichever way you look at it, the CNP has been a resounding success. The new journalists have bolstered newsrooms around the country at an immensely difficult time for the media landscape.
Publishers big and small are attempting to transform their business models and adapt to the digital age, with print advertising streams shrinking and many local and regional publishers operating on a decreasing budget. An injection of dedicated community reporters has been a real and tangible help to the industry.
It has also boosted communities which had previously been underserved by their local media, giving particular locations – and sometimes specific demographic groups within those places – a voice and a point of connection.
What’s more, as almost three quarters of reporters hired through the scheme have met one or more diversity criteria identified at the project’s outset, there’s a pipeline of talented people entering the profession. The barriers have been removed for those from all walks of life who want to represent their communities and hold power to account.
A recent survey of reporters who had departed the project found only a third believed they would have got a job in journalism had the Community News Project not existed.
‘Heartbreaking’ that Meta is ending community news funding
We can’t pretend the project has solved the industry’s problems. We’re still searching for acceptable ways to make journalism more sustainable for all publishers, large and small. We must increase our efforts to work together to make our newsrooms more diverse. We should continue to appeal to the public to pay for news if they can and not to take for granted the vital role of journalists in our free and democratic society. The important part the regional news industry plays in the training of professional, qualified journalists who care about their communities should never be lost.
The project has, however, made a big difference. That’s why the recent news that Meta is to end its funding is heartbreaking for those of us so closely involved and why questions are being asked in Parliament.
At the NCTJ, we suspected a year ago that further funding was less likely with Meta retreating from the news industry.
Meta’s decision was always going to be a commercial one, based on its business priorities, which have changed, and with the politics of regulation and fair competition as the backdrop. It’s some comfort that its decision is no reflection on the project itself which it regards as one of its most successful industry initiatives.
Our current priorities are two-fold. Firstly, to celebrate success and reassure the reporters participating in the scheme that their contracts and training arrangements continue as normal. That’s what we’ll be doing in Darlington this week as more than 100 community reporters, their editors and our supporters, get together at the local college to network, learn and have fun.
Secondly, we will do all we can to seek alternative sources of funding to secure this brilliant project’s legacy into the future in some way. Of course, it will be a challenge to find the level of support Meta has given us and there are issues to overcome associated with support from government, other public funding agencies, philanthropy and corporate funding.
It’s easy to shout and scream about Meta pulling the plug on a fantastic industry scheme. Let’s not forget that they made it possible – not just with pilot funding but with two further rounds of funding as well as the dedication and support of the recently-disbanded news partnerships team who assisted with its design, development and implementation. [Head of media partnerships for Northern Europe] Sarah Brown was there at that very first meeting and has been a constant support and champion of the scheme.
Let’s fight instead to secure the longevity of this project and to find ways of safeguarding the future of quality journalism training and the important role of the regional news media.
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