PA’s public news pool could cost £18m nationwide

Press Association’s proposed public service reporting initiative would cost £15m to £18m a year and require 500 to 800 reporters if rolled out nationwide, according to the wire’s own estimates.

“That’s a lot of new money to bring in to the public spending round but, in terms of the BBC, it’s three Jonathan Rosses,” PA’s training head Tony Johnston told a Digital Editors Network gathering in Preston. But he added that PA is not seeking BBC funds and the estimates are rough.

The PA, which gets 40% of its revenue from newspapers, in July said it wants to use public funds to plug a gap in news coverage of local council and other meetings.

Johnston said it has already conducted a two-week trial in Essex. Now it wants to consider a trial of six to 12 months in Liverpool, to review that project with an “academic partner” and, depending on the review’s outcome, “lobby for national funding” to take the idea nationwide. That would see teams of reporters sit in on council, police authority and health board meetings that many newspapers ignore because, Johnston said, the current model is “broken”. “The key thing is, can we get the money?” he added.

Funding for the trial is being sought and a second pilot is thought to be close to financing.

Unlike PA’s conventional operating model, stories produced would be “available to all free of charge”, Johnston said. “It’s not that there will be a primary site for the public to access – they may do so if they wish, but we’re in the business of creating a content pool available to the publishers, who will come up with innovative ways of distributing, segmenting it, monetising it if they like.”

It will probably be delivered initially through a WordPress (blog) site, but it will be delivered with RSS feeds spinning off it and not as a primary site of interest.” Johnston showed a mock-up of PA content in a blog wearing an out-of-the-box default WordPress theme.

And he said “franchise” mini publishing houses could even form to distribute the new stories. “It may be that bloggers tender for that service, or a collective of journalists who have lost their jobs through rounds of redundancy – or it may be existing publishers within those existing circulation areas. It’s not going to be Hansard, but it will be written in such a way that it allows the publisher (itself) to take a view on it.

But this absence of a visible site to satisfy the public is just one of the reasons a UK government may find the idea hard to fund with taxpayer money. With election time nearing, a possible Conservative government, in particular, is unlikely to splash £18m on what is effectively a newspaper bailout, even if it would be full-square behind shutting council-run newspapers that are draining counterparts’ recruitment ads.

The PA wouldn’t hire all those 800 writers itself, even if it can take its idea nationwide – bloggers could be tasked with feeding in material if they can be verified, Johnston said.

Asked by paidContent:UK whether PA would consent to any government stipulations during the handing out of any public money, he said:”Any strings attached to the journalism … we would find incredibly difficult to support. There would have to be a service-level agreement.”