The UK has experienced a net loss of at least 271 print local newspaper titles since 2005 and digital is the focus more than ever before.
Despite this shift, the new Sky series Hold The Front Page with comedians Nish Kumar and Josh Widdicombe focuses resolutely on print, giving the pair one mission – to get a story on the front page of whichever local newspaper they are interning at that week.
They eagerly check the print edition of the Blackpool Gazette each morning in the first episode, with websites not mentioned once in the half of the six-episode series watched by Press Gazette so far – even when they are covering a football match and journalists around them are frantically filing for online after a tense round of penalties.
The show follows Kumar and Widdicombe as they tour the newsrooms of six titles owned by the UK’s third biggest regional publisher, National World: Blackpool Gazette, West Sussex Gazette, Yorkshire Post, Farming Life in Northern Ireland, Northamptonshire Telegraph and The Scotsman.
They soon discover how few people are delivering the news for each local area – they are particularly terrified in the front room of Farming Life editor Ruth Rodgers (whose team works at home) when they realise their presence has doubled the size of the editorial staff working under her.
The scariest editor in the first four episodes of the series however is the Yorkshire Post’s James Mitchinson: Kumar and Widdicombe variously call him “scary”, “intimidating”, a “serious newsman because he’s expecting quality and quantity”, and, sarcastically, the “touchy feely face of Yorkshire news”.
Gary Shipton, editor-in-chief in Sussex, is not far off however: he gives the pair a dressing down for racking up a £300 bill while visiting a vineyard and is dubbed “grumpy Gary”. “I would not want to fight him,” Kumar says.
Both are demanding and often disappointed – as is Adam Lord, audience editor of the Blackpool Gazette, who is the one to drag the comedians on their local journalism rite of passage – the vox pop.
This creates one of the most relatable segments for journalists, many of whom have similarly stressful memories of “interrupting people’s day to ask ‘hiya, do you like Blackpool?’” (though usually, but not always, equipped with a better topic).
Equally many will relate to the moment Kumar and Widdicombe attempt to write up a story while out on patch squashed in their car, and the several times they end up rushing to file before their print deadline.
In each episode Kumar and Widdicombe are assigned a series of (often immersive) stories and features to get stuck into – but, crucially, they never have enough time to write them up due to the understandable preference among TV producers for scenes of high-octane adventures rather than writing 1,200 words at a desk.
Getting out and about and meeting interesting people is of course one of the best things about being a local journalist and many will relate to adventures like potholing, reviewing a Michelin starred restaurant, attending a farming show, meeting “mermaid” swimmers in the local lido, or watching a local strongman’s record attempt.
Indeed when Press Gazette first shared news of this show with our readers we asked for their bizarre local news stories – leading to tales of vicars blessing a house blighted by a “demon”, a seagull cull petition complete with reporter being attacked by a bird for the photo, and a woman who supposedly won Sir Cliff Richard’s tonsils in a raffle proudly showing them in a jar to the reporter. In comparison, reviewing a spa hotel is a pretty safe gig.
There are some hard news stories too – in Blackpool, the comedians try to chase down then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he arrives to give a speech (unsurprisingly Downing Street were not persuaded to give accreditation to left-wing, former Daily Mash host Kumar while the Gazette’s own reporter got the actual story) and in Edinburgh Widdicombe gets a sit-down with former Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson.
What should viewers take away from this show? Hopefully it helps people realise the pressures local journalists (real ones, no offence to Kumar and Widdicombe) are under – the comedians themselves were certainly shocked by the idea of reporters in Blackpool doing three or four stories per day and even six in Sussex. At one stage Widdicombe says: “It’s like you’re doing A-levels and then it’s going to be published.”
It may also clear up some misconceptions – for example that the Blackpool Gazette, because it is a tabloid, is after “tits and dongs”. In fact, it is a tabloid in size only, as editor Nicola Adam clears up when she teaches the comedians the key to local news: “proper human interest stories – ordinary people doing extraordinary things”.
Kumar himself has put it nicely. Asked by a DC Thomson journalist in a Twitter Q&A what he thinks people will learn about local news, he said: “I suspect they will learn journalism is a hard job that’s getting harder every day.”
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