View all newsletters
Sign up for our free email newsletters

Fighting for quality news media in the digital age.

  1. Publishers
September 27, 2022updated 07 Oct 2022 8:20am

Local newspaper walk-ins: The good, the bad and the downright strange

By Alex Morrison

For ten brutal minutes, Sam Blackledge stared at a photo of a bruise.

The man who brought the photo into the office of the Plymouth Herald watched him eagerly, waiting for Blackledge to see… what? A wave? A ghost? A kidney bean? Every so often, Blackledge said “no”, just to break the silence. He only saw a bruise.

What was in the picture? We’ll get to that.

More important – for journalists, at least – is the situation. This was a “walk-in”, a long-time staple of local journalism, when a member of the public turns up with a story to tell (or a jar of possibly lethal jam. We’ll get to that, too). Usually, a reluctant trainee reporter is sent to deal with it.

Ever since my first journalism job at the Crawley News, a weekly paper in West Sussex, I’ve had a theory that everyone who has ever worked in local news has at least one weird and/or wonderful walk-in story to tell. I’ve got plenty – including an Italian man who moved to Crawley and “discovered climate change” via his increasingly successful attempts to grow aubergines.

In January this year, I tested my theory by tweeting: “Dear local newspaper journalists – past (like me) and present. We need a book of brilliant/bizarre “walk-in” stories. Working title: “There’s someone in reception” (at which point everyone pretends to be working so someone else has to go). Who’s got good material? #journorequest.”

I’ll be honest. My Twitter output rarely threatens to go viral. And for an hour or two, neither did this. Then a couple of journalists responded, tagging others.

Content from our partners
MHP Group's 30 To Watch awards for young journalists open for entries
How PA Media is helping newspapers make the digital transition
Publishing on the open web is broken, how generative AI could help fix it

By late afternoon, I watched as comments poured in faster than I could read them. Nine months on, I’m still not sure I’ve read them all, despite repeated trawls. There’s so much to take in: fake shootings, a kidnapped tortoise, theft of pornography, a “Nazi” greyhound and a claim Osama Bin Laden hid himself in Skegness.

While I was delighted to receive hundreds of replies – with stories spanning many decades – it also felt a bit like pitching an over-ambitious story and the editor replying: “Go on then.” So now I’m writing the book. And, after early nerves about the scale of the project, it has become a real pleasure – a nostalgic journey into the barely believable world of local news.

As it turns out, journalists are wonderful interviewees. They’re enthusiastic about their profession and they tell stories for a living, so they know how to deliver the quote that you double-underline (I also add a star in the margin if it’s really spectacular).

Some have provided brilliant observations for assessing walk-ins. For example: the bigger the carrier bag of documents, and the more discoloured the stack of paper within, the less chance the story stands up.

I’ve interviewed more than 50 people so far, and many more have sent stories via email. To cope with the sheer number, I’m including “nibs” from people who sent sharp snippets on Twitter (with their permission, of course).

It’s hard to pick favourites, but a special feature of walk-ins is that people often bring props to prove their point. Examples in the book include a (possibly live) grenade, a bag of dead bats and a trio of potatoes that looked (to the visitor) like a family of ducks.

David Bishop recalled a walk-in at the Daily News in Hāwera, New Zealand, in the mid-1980s, when a man came to “correct something terrible that was in the gardening page”. The man said the paper was giving deadly nightshade a bad name by suggesting it could be dangerous – when in fact it was safe to grow and even to eat, subject to proper cooking (please don’t try this).

“He gets out a jar of this jam, plonks it on the desk and invites me to have a sample,” Bishop said.  Muttering something about having just eaten, Bishop suggested the man could leave the jam behind. To Bishop’s relief, he agreed, and contented himself with extolling the virtues of nightshade in various recipes.

“He went away feeling much happier,” Bishop said. “I put the deadly nightshade jam in the bin, like a normal person would do.”

While many of the stories I’ve received are funny, others are serious. The current draft contains a chapter of “reporters under fire”, with journalists being threatened, punched, handcuffed and even held hostage (they were all OK in the end). There are also examples of major investigations – including two into child-abuse gangs – that began with tips from walk-ins. And there are moving stories, including one in which journalists at a BBC radio station helped a homeless drug addict turn his life around.

It’s undeniable that walk-ins – the good, the bad and the downright strange – have declined or stopped as local papers closed their offices or shut down entirely. I’ve asked people about their experiences of this, whether they worked in the “good old days” or are plying their trade now.

The book is not intended to be an exposé of these changes – nor to play them down. It’s a celebration of local journalism and its people. As well as walk-ins, the current draft includes a chapter of stories found online, plus chapters on ring-ins, going out “on patch” and – my personal nemeses – vox pops and death knocks.

Having left local papers in 2013 – and seen massive changes for my old papers and ex-colleagues since then – I’ve been heartened to find there are still plenty of excellent reporters out there, not only covering the big stories but finding the proper page-three stuff (not the Sun kind) about stolen garden ornaments, cows chasing cars and someone being made to show ID to buy a quiche.

But what about Sam Blackledge and his picture of a bruise? In case you haven’t guessed, the answer is the same one that almost always emerges if someone spots a mysterious shape in a bruise/cloud/piece of toast.

“Eventually, he revealed that he thought it looked like Jesus,” Blackledge said. Apparently, 50% of people could see the son of God, and 50% “can’t or won’t”.

When it comes to local journalists, I think almost 100% have a story worth telling. If you’d like to share yours, please get in touch on or @alexmorrison81 on Twitter.

Picture: Imagno/Getty Images

Topics in this article : ,

Email to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
  • Business owner/co-owner
  • CEO
  • COO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • Chairperson
  • Non-Exec Director
  • Other C-Suite
  • Managing Director
  • President/Partner
  • Senior Executive/SVP or Corporate VP or equivalent
  • Director or equivalent
  • Group or Senior Manager
  • Head of Department/Function
  • Manager
  • Non-manager
  • Retired
  • Other
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.
Thank you

Thanks for subscribing.

Websites in our network