Clickbait from a local democracy reporter? It simply wouldn’t happen

Richard Whitehouse covers Cornwall Council

Richard Whitehouse jumped at the chance to become a local democracy reporter in the South West when the opportunity arose. Writing for Behind Local News, he urges critics to see the good the scheme is doing….

I came into my job as an LDR having previously covered local government in Cornwall for many years.

At the time I was working solely on the print side of our newsroom, no longer attending the council meetings and providing coverage of what was going on in the corridors at County Hall.

One of the main reasons for this was because our company could no longer afford to have me spending hours a day sitting in committee meetings and trawling through council agendas.

Yes, one could argue that the company should have been striving to ensure that they could provide that coverage, but in simple terms it didn’t add up.

The press desk at Cornwall Council sat empty for many months and the scrutiny of the council was almost non-existent.

When the LDRS started it was manna from heaven for someone like me — the chance to focus my attention on what was happening in local government in Cornwall and holding those in power to account.

Having been interested in local politics since I started out as a trainee in the late ’90s I was keen to get back into the process of digging out the hidden gems buried in dense council meeting agendas and spending time watching and listening to democracy in action, providing reports of it to the taxpaying public.

I have now been doing this job for more than two years and can safely say that it has been the most enjoyable position of my career.

And while I understand there are critics of the scheme I see that the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks.

I am largely able to set my own agenda — I am the one who looks through the council documents and decides which items will be of interest. I am the one who marks which council committee meetings will produce stories which will be of interest and which are of importance.

I am guided by my newsdesk, of course, but there is no suggestion that they would encourage me to deviate from the core remit of the role which is to cover Cornwall Council and other public sector bodies in Cornwall.

I have never been asked to write “clickbait” — it just wouldn’t happen. My newsdesk knows the “rules” of the LDRS just as well as I do.

I also know that the media partners who are signed up to the scheme and use my copy across their titles, websites and radio stations all over Cornwall really appreciate being able to have access to that material and help inform their readers, listeners and viewers about what is happening at County Hall.

From my perspective there seems to be a lot of respect for the scheme from all directions — whether that is media companies, local authorities and the public.

Let’s not forget that while we are holding local councils to account we also have a role to play in helping to acknowledge and shine a light on the good work which is also done by local authorities and how they help people in our communities.

There is an appreciation that without the LDRS it is likely that a lot of what is being reported would go unseen or would be watered down in a prepared press release.

In this job I have seen my stories being used more widely than ever before reaching a much greater audience and allowing more of the public to know how their council tax is being spent and what decisions are being made on their behalf by their elected councillors.

If the LDRS didn’t exist would that be happening? Probably not — there would be coverage but that press desk in the committee room would most likely be empty…

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