Kate Lockett, a reporter on the Helston Packet in Cornwall, worked in the NHS for 12 years as a housekeeper for Helston Community Hospital. Now she is following in the footsteps of her dad, Noel Perry, who reported on Helston for the West Briton for 40 years, before his death in 2013. Kate, 33, said: “It’s something that I have wanted for so long, so I just did it. I took a leap of faith.”
“Journalism was always the goal to do since I was about six or seven. I have always wanted to be a journalist since I can remember. Growing up, I saw the respect my dad got as a reporter and the friendships he made. I admired him and wanted to be a part of it.” She got the chance to change career when she spotted an advertisement on Facebook for the Community News Project (CNP), a scheme funded by Meta – the digital giant behind Facebook – to get new faces into journalism to report on local communities.
I left my job as news editor of the Essex Echo a few years ago after a fantastic training and career telling the stories that really matter to local people. There’s no job like it. It’s why I joined the industry’s training charity and why I love inspiring others in my current comms role at the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ). But I had seen first-hand just how challenging it was, with scarce resources, to do justice to all the community news alongside all the crime, court reports and council meetings that drove the news agenda. There had been no one like me in my newsroom, where my strong Teesside accent earned me the title of the office foghorn (of which I was secretly proud).
It was against this backdrop that the Community News Project was born in 2019, to provide the resources and expertise to try to deepen the relationship between communities and their local news organisations. The ground-breaking scheme attracts people who bring something different to the news – whether that be because of their ethnicity, a disability, their socio-economic background or life experience – and to reinforce the focus on the issues that matter to local communities.
Initially, the partnership brought together Meta (formerly Facebook), the NCTJ and nine regional publishers. The pilot programme created 82 new community news reporter roles – funded by Meta – to inject a much-needed boost to the publishers’ coverage and to their audiences’ sense of engagement, even trust. Recruitment to fill the community reporter roles began with a drive to attract a diverse mix of people who were passionate about reconnecting with those communities that had been forgotten, isolated and unheard.
Recruiting the right people into these roles was critical. News organisations wanted to hire reporters who could successfully engage with these communities – be that through their faith, sexuality, background or upbringing – so they could build the bonds to unearth new and hidden stories. With the NCTJ overseeing the scheme, publishers were able to recruit untrained talent: people from within the applicable communities themselves, who might not otherwise have been attracted to journalism or who had thought it was out of reach. Once in role, they could train towards the Diploma in Journalism alongside the day job.
Publishers used more varied recruitment methods than they might usually, seeking to unearth hidden potential. It wasn’t just a case of online ads in the usual places: publishers visited local colleges, posted information in Facebook groups, and pinned job descriptions to village notice boards. The project’s primary objectives were threefold: to deliver trusted journalism to underserved communities; to hire a diverse cohort of reporters; and to equip the reporters with professional skills and an industry-recognised qualification. Those early recruits hit the ground running.
It has now been almost four years since the CNP was launched and the number of community reporter positions funded by the scheme has grown from 82 to 100, creating a real difference to newsrooms whose renewed coverage of previously underserved communities has become an invaluable asset to the news operation.
When Meta confirmed at the beginning of 2022 that it was keen not only to extend the existing positions but to expand the scheme, the NCTJ ran a public tender process to bring new partners in. The result was that the CNP now benefits 23 regional news publishers in the UK, from the biggest (Reach, Newsquest and National World) to many smaller outfits (the
Brighton & Hove News, the Southwark News and the Congleton Chronicle, to name just three).
The focus on attracting talent from under-represented backgrounds has remained vital. Among the community reporters currently in post who have provided information, 67 per cent meet one or more of the CNP’s diversity criteria (ethnicity, sexuality, disability, educational and socioeconomic groups are all taken into consideration).
Among this third cohort of community reporters is George Harman, 26, who was working as a mechanic when he joined the CNP. George said he always had an interest in politics and current affairs and is now enjoying getting to grips with the issues facing local rural communities at the Wellington Weekly News, connecting with people in the villages and small towns in his patch.
From rebuilding engines to rural reporting
He said: “After leaving school, I did not know what I wanted to do, even though I had been good at writing. I became a fully qualified mechanic after school because I got into cars. I learnt a lot of valuable stuff, but it has always been in the back of my mind to write for a newspaper.
“You wouldn’t think that there were a lot of transferable skills. But as a mechanic you learn how to talk to people properly and communicate to decipher what people mean. I can interact with a mix of people. I am enjoying this job so much more. I have got so much more energy in life.”
Iona MacDonald joined the scheme to focus on stories about rural areas in the north west Highlands, working for the Highland News. Aged 16 and with no formal journalism training, but from the region herself and passionate about the role, Iona combines learning on the job with training for her NCTJ Diploma in Journalism at Glasgow Clyde College.
She said: “My patch is pretty rural with lots of small villages but there’s a lot going on, especially tourism, though I think a lot of it is often missed because it’s so rural. It’s exciting to have these areas more recognised in the media. Because I am from the area, there’s a lot of people I know or vaguely know but may not have spoken to them in a professional way. I will use that to my benefit.”
George, Iona and Kate follow in the footsteps of the 82 reporters who joined the CNP in 2019, many of whom have taken up permanent journalism roles after completing their training. Naomi de Souza became a senior reporter at BirminghamLive, having started her career as a community reporter at Reach PLC in Coventry.
She completed both her Diploma in Journalism and the National Qualification in Journalism during her time with the project, having never stepped inside a newsroom before. She also won the Community News Project award at the NCTJ’s most recent Awards for Excellence, recognised for work including an investigation into the sale of skin-lightening products across Coventry.
She said: “Getting to represent unheard stories from large swathes of the city was a privilege. You have a special power to bring important stories to the forefront. People talk a lot about diversity in the newsroom, but you see its benefits in action on the scheme. Reporting on stories that strike at the heart of diverse communities and resonate with real people not only builds audience, but trust, which has sometimes been lost in newsrooms.”
Indeed, it’s not only the reporters themselves who have benefited from the project; crucially, so have the communities those reporters serve. Charity champion Ursula Myrie, 48, from Sheffield, says that her relationship with Lisa Wong, who was a community reporter at the Sheffield Star in the CNP’s first cohort, really made an impact within the black community in the city and helped instil trust in the media.
Ursula, who founded the survivor-led mental health service Adira, which supports the black community, forged a close connection with Lisa. “My community have loved Lisa’s stories; she has gained a lot of trust. There’s more about my community in the paper now. This is new for us – to have our stories out there. And they are positive stories too. They’re not about missing fathers, single mothers, black-on-black crime. Lisa has definitely bridged that gap.”