Still life in the old watchdog: The enduring importance of local media

local media

Party leaders should know the old adage that all politics are local. When Keir Starmer visited Cornwall on his post-election listening tour, however, he bypassed Labour constituency activists, who then criticised his call for more support for tourism in the county.

Jennifer Forbes, who was the party’s Truro and Falmouth candidate in 2019, complained on social media that Starmer had “got the policy issues embarrassingly wrong”. Instead, Labour should back expanded port facilities and offer a Green New Deal: “Tourists might want to protect our tourism industry, but locals want more high-quality jobs”.

The story was picked up by Left Foot Forward, founded in 2009 as “the home of political news and comment for UK progressives”. And a new regional journalism site, West Country Bylines, featured an opinion piece, expanding the same argument by drawing on deep local knowledge.

Between them, the two media were, in other words, holding power to account by comparing its claims with the best immediately available evidence: fulfilling journalism’s role as a civic tool in democracy.

But it is sustained in Britain today on the proverbial smell of an oily rag.

Free to read, LFF must continually appeal to readers for contributions. WCB editor Anthea Simmons confirmed that its writers are “all volunteers” – which, she admits, favours “people who are retired or who can afford to do it” without payment.

Starmer’s visit was dutifully reported in the Falmouth Packet, but with only a quote from government minister Thérèse Coffey by way of balancing comment. The weekly is owned by the Newsquest group, whose chief executive has warned of job cuts due to a Covid-inflicted crater in its finances.

Coronavirus a challenge and opportunity for local media

In any case, Simmons said, readers were now increasingly disenchanted with the ritualised reporting pattern of “indexing” contentious issues on to disagreements between leading figures from rival political parties. It was left to independent media to bring in new sources and open out a wider context.

If there are glimmerings of renewal, they must illuminate a pathway through layers of doom and gloom in a sector reeling from the collapse of ad revenues, evaporating readerships as tech giants hog online news consumption, and corporate consolidation that has shrunk newsroom headcounts.

But coronavirus has been a challenge and opportunity for journalists to inform and connect their communities as they support themselves through the crisis.

A recent conference of journalism researchers hosted by the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University heard from Professor Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, of Cardiff University, who had interviewed 59 editors and reporters from local and “hyper-local” media, revealing how their understanding of public interest journalism had been shaped by interactions with readers and audiences in the pandemic.

Many were thriving: lockdown conditions meant people had to “stay local”, she observed, which had redoubled the value for community media of “being out there on the ground, talking to people” rather than sitting in a remote newsroom. It meant they could update readers on shops and services that were open or closed, or alterations to local services.

Such tasks are typically labours of love, with most reporting annual incomes of under – often well under – £25,000. A Columbia University study, published eight years ago, identified such “post-industrial journalism” as a growth area, predicting that 2020 would see “more non-profit news organisations, driven by several kinds of donation – direct cash subsidy by philanthropies and other donors… and in-kind donations of the time and talents of a particular community”.

Other findings presented at the same conference included interview evidence showing the enduring importance – for journalists in local news – of being trusted by their home community, the value of participation by readers themselves in building that trust, and the ability of local and regional media to engage in depth with stories of potential national and international significance that are taking place on their own doorstep.

I will be drawing on the findings when discussing “Free Flow of Information” at the RISING Global Peace Forum in Coventry next week, which aims to explore the culture of peace as an integrated approach to preventing violence and violent conflict.

Resisted political point-scoring

For Anthea Simmons, the regional profile acquires fresh importance today as a “bubble-buster”, engaging readers between and beyond polarised political filters that are blamed for killing off the “inadvertent news audience” and ensuring we are never challenged by the news we see and hear. She had resisted heavy pressure to feature, in West Country Bylines’ launch edition, a long piece by a recently deposed MEP that was heavy on political point-scoring.

There are substantial roles to play for local news, and needs to meet – if its traditional forms of political reporting, now supplemented with a kaleidoscope of approaches, can often appear stale and arguably outdated.

The recently launched Public Interest News Foundation may help to connect these with philanthropic funders. Practitioners may be volunteers, even activists, rather than professionals – or, in many cases, a bit of all three. But reports of its imminent death may well turn out to have been exaggerated.

Professor Jake Lynch is a journalist, commentator, associate professor at the University of Sydney and Leverhulme visiting professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace and Social Relations at Coventry University. He will be joining a panel at the RISING Global Peace Forum in Coventry from November 11 to 13.

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