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Location: United Kingdom

Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Hyperlocal vs local: how about a truce?

An article I wrote appeared in one of the local papers this week. And for the first time I didn't cheer.

Instead of the usual elation in getting a byline, the sight of my story in print brought on the type of anticlimax you get when you have fought a battle for so long and so hard, victory feels anything but sweet.

This is the story of that battle.

The priority queue
My article was about ineffective CCTV footage failing to help identify yobs, who had vandalised a local shop window in a town with anti-social behaviour on the rise.

The paper's news editor was excited about it and wanted to publish it straight away, but, typically, the story didn't appear for another week. Perhaps they needed time to flesh it out with less local and more regional facts and figures. But it is generally the case that hyperlocal stories, unless they involve death, sex and/or gore, are seldom rushed into a paper that covers a wide geographical area.

When there are only so many pages for news, small town news can easily end up at the end of a lower-priority queue.

With only two newspapers covering the area I live in – one from the Newsquest group, another from Johnston Press – I usually submit local news pieces to both to maxmise chances of publication.

I have been a resident in this town for less than two years, but since I started contributing to the local press, I am constantly surprised at how many townsfolk know me as a journalist. I am of course always "fishing" for stories. I attend the local Chamber of Commerce meetings, council meetings and local cultural events whenever possible; I pay attention to locals' gossip, as sometimes there can be a good story behind them. Local traders – bless them – are always eager to give me tip-offs about upcoming events they are involved in, hoping I will do them a write-up and provide them with some free PR, which I am happy to oblige with if I can.

I was chuffed when, the other evening, the town's mayor came to say hello at a public meeting, and a senior staff member of the district council recognised me and offered me a seat right next to Norman Baker MP.

With my community reputation on the up, I am well placed to become a hyperlocal reporter. The role, however, comes with a price tag, and it is not a pretty one.

It's charity work
By 'price' I refer to a type of penalty and not, sadly, the payment of a fee for work done. Local papers do not have budgets for freelancers full stop, especially not in mid-recession.

Frustrating as it can be, I can even overlook the lack of payment by the papers that publish my work, if I think of my reporting as community service. It would certainly make a world of difference if newspapers could cough up even a nominal tenner per article, just as an acknowledgment of hard work. It is not the absence of money that hurts the most, but the utter absence of appreciation. (Low-waged junior reporters must feel exactly the same). As it stands, there is no clear line marking where the keen work experience student finishes and the keen professional journalist starts.

Does my pothole look big (enough) in this?
The next big battle is getting my hyperlocal news pieces accepted, and published, by local papers.

There is a priority issue, as I have already mentioned. Is the pothole in my street as newsworthy as one in a larger city like Brighton, for instance?

Other times, the story is taken up, but with an "of course we are happy to help build your portfolio..." type of comment, to drive home the fact that they are publishing my piece as a favour, NOT because I picked up on a good story they had missed.

No love lost
Last week I also realised a local reporter assigned to cover this area regards me as a thorn in her side.

This is a senior journalist who, when I once mentioned I expected to see her at a certain public event but she wasn't there (and therefore I had written a report about it), tartly retorted, "But I didn't receive an email about it." Heck. I hadn't received an email either. A local trader had told me about it. Aren't reporters supposed to sniff out off-diary stories within their beat? Or do they sit around waiting for press releases to arrive in their inboxes?

I have only myself to blame for being so naïve. What was I thinking believing a local hack would accept my contributions with open arms, grateful that I was filling in gaps for her. There is obviously no interest in cultivating a working relationship with a freelance/unemployed journalist, who continuously exposes their own gaps and, even without pay, is enthusiastic about pursuing community news.

An inconvenient woman
At a local police meeting we both recently attended, she behaved as if I didn't exist. She was aware I would be there, as we had chatted about it on email an hour before; I was sitting less than two metres away, and right in her line of vision. She had met me before and knew what I looked like. I can only conclude it was intentional.

Even so I gave her the benefit of the doubt and told myself she had other people to talk to, that she was probably in a hurry to go home. But a stiff one-line email from her the following day, informing me my she had placed my "other (much shorter) article" on page x in the upcoming edition, with no mention of the meeting, confirmed my suspicions.

Had the message arrived before the snub, I would have read kindness into her words. But all I could hear now was: "this story is mine, stay off my beat."

The lesson is clear – there is no room for a hyperlocal journalist in a town with an established local paper. Collaboration is not on the cards. I am a threat, an inconvenience.

The last straw
Since then I have been so depressed, I cannot motivate myself to do anything journalism-related. The notes and recordings from the meeting are sitting forlornly at a corner of my desk, my desire to write another story out of them now lost. I have shelved my plans to send an FOI request to the police. My long list of ideas for future features are still in my notebook but haven't been actioned. Right now I can't see the point in investing any more time in any of it. I might as well spend my days and nights writing job applications and stuffing my face with junk food in frustration and boredom.

Long-term unemployment drains you of energy and makes you rapidly lose confidence and self-esteem. It affects you mentally, emotionally, physically. To counter those ill effects, I have been trying my best to keep intellectually and socially active by attending conferences and networking, learning new skills, listening to advice from other journalists, experimenting with digital technology, sharpening my skills all the time...

I have been attempting to be a journalist, even without a job. And what have I received in return? Contempt. Closed doors. "You are not one of ours." Snide comments. Silence.

I am too exhausted to fight any further.

Find your niche
According to a friend, who is a magazine editor, I am wasting my energy writing poxy little articles for poxy local newspapers, which are doing nothing to enhance my employment prospects. He says I need to find my niche market, and he is so right:

"Ultimately, landing a few very small paid assignments for an outlet that has a legitimate audience will do more for your career than grinding away at a hundred labor-intensive articles for a small local paper."

Here is what I believe. Local and hyperlocal can co-exist quite happily in a symbiotic relationship. While news under hyperlocal may be small, the thinking behind it must be big in order to work. Hyperlocal initiatives offer plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurial journalists, who are resourceful, enthusiastic and community-oriented. I aspire to be one of those.

I have not given up on journalism, but I am taking some time out to re-set my priorities. I've had enough of small-town/small-mind journalism, which concerns itself mainly with defending personal reputations and territories. At the end of the day, who is the media serving? Advertisers? Media bosses? Individual journalists?

Isn't it time we put small communities on the map?

Potholes need to be covered. Or someone will fall into them.

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Blogger Alison Gow said...

It sounds like you’re having a tough time but the problem is the industry, not you.
There is hardly a newsroom in the land that doesn’t have ‘closed’ signs on its editorial budget and recruitment policy right now, and things are not likely to improve quickly.

None of this is very comforting, I know, and I think you are right to be wary of being taken advantage of. I’ve had two people work for me in their own time (to build up their portfolios/boost their cv) and, as a manager, I felt the onus was very much on me not to treat them as an extra rota person. They came in with an idea, worked on it using our facilities, and the mutual benefits were that we got an article, and they got advice, support, a brand name to help open doors for them, cuttings, and references. One of them also got a job with us (this was before the ‘closed’ sign went up on Recruitment).

When I started out the only way was to be accepted by a publisher – I was lucky enough to get in but there were finite places with media companies, and lots of disappointed wannabes.
But your friend in magazines is right – things have changed and you can specialise in what you choose, build your reputation and brand, and publish your work, without going near a local paper nowadays. Good luck with the hyperlocal plans; there are some really clued-up people operating in the sphere of enterprising journalism start-ups and I know there will be plenty of people able and willing to give you good advice as you progress your ideas.

Large chunks of the traditional local media (radio and print) need to wake up and start realising that the communities they consider ‘theirs’ aren’t and don’t want to be.

26 February 2010 at 21:57  
Blogger Madame Dotty said...

I am so flattered that you left me a comment, Alison. Thank you.

I wish all people managers had your integrity and vision.

I do intend to follow my friend's advice and focus more on building my brand, etc and targeting specialist markets. But, at the same time, I'd like to continue doing something innovative for my local community.

Problems in this town are discussed (or should I say "whinged about") by small groups of people but nothing ever changes because no one is holding no one else to account. The media is not interested in news from here, as it's too small a community, and not even touristy.

I am not a British citizen so I cannot vote, I can't take up any political roles, I can't even join the civil service in most cases. The only way I can make a difference is by shining a light on issues that need addressing, holding public bodies to account, making people without a voice heard. If I can do any of those things, I'll be as happy as I'd been offered a job as a "proper" journalist somewhere.

I do have plans for making that happen, which I will reveal when the right time comes. But it will not be in cooperation with short-sighted journalists too busy protecting their own jobs to worry about pothole stories. ;)

26 February 2010 at 23:08  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading Alison's comment I thought she summed up the situation very well.
The talk these days is about being 'entrepreneurial' and 'hyperlocal', so go for it and set up your own.

With regard to the reporter you're talking about. I don't know who the person in question is, but if they work at the level our team do, and how I used to work during my days as a patch reporter, then they're working as hard as they can.
Sometimes it might not be possible to get out to your patch.

27 February 2010 at 22:54  
Blogger Madame Dotty said...

Thanks for reading my blog, Miss Nimmykins. ;)

I hear what you're saying and I am sure you're right. I've heard so many other reporters saying they'd love to be able to get out more, get stories directly from the community, etc.

But if she doesn't have time to get out to my patch, I would have thought she'd be a tad more grateful of my contributions and not treat me like an inconvenience...

Okay, maybe I'm being a bit biased because I'm fed up right now and she's taking the brunt of my frustration. I apologise for my rant (it wasn't meant as a moan about all local reporters round here btw) but it was the last straw for me. It had been building up over months.

If the reality is that local papers are so busy they don't have resources to cover hyperlocal, there's one more excuse to search for a different platform for it. Sometimes you need an eye-opener like that to make you take some drastic actions, and I suspect that was one of those...

28 February 2010 at 00:28  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It sounds like you're wading into a minefield, Madame Dotty - but I think you might fare better if you were to think a bit differently about the point of view of the reporter you've fallen out with.
If you're now becoming well known in the area as someone who contributes to her paper, could it be that people who once contacted her are now contacting you? The email she mentions about the first meeting might be a case in point.
There's no benefit for her personally there. Not only are you potentially showing her up to her bosses, but you are also providing copy free of charge (it's not her fault you're not paid) at a time when everyone is painfully aware their jobs may be at risk.
And if you're giving the stories she's consequently missing to her paper's rival, that must be especially galling.
If you were an independent blogger, this might be different. But your outlet is the same as hers - the printed paper.
The hyperlocal argument is interesting, but to the reporter herself is somewhat irrelevant. Her job is to provide copy about her designated patch while probably not having the time to get out of the office that much - not worry about the paper's overall coverage.
If you're serious about reporting on your local area, then I'd echo everyone's advice and say set up a blog - or even become one of The Argus's community correspondents.
However, I get the strong impression that, understandably, making a living is more of a priority for you. In which case, I would warn you it's likely to be a labour of love. But you never know, you might crack it - and if you do, please let us know the secret.

1 March 2010 at 11:35  
Blogger Madame Dotty said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1 March 2010 at 14:40  
Blogger Madame Dotty said...

Thanks for the nice comment. Very good points there. I am listening and I am always grateful for any tips.

Jo Wadsworth from The Argus has already kindly invited me to become a community correspondent, and I don't think it's a bad idea at all. But I've also got something else up my sleeve, which I don't want to publicise just yet, so I want to make sure those two roles wouldn't clash before I commit myself.

I do understand local reporters don't have it easy, and maybe if I were in her position I'd behave in a similar way (though I'd never snub another journalist, even if they were from a rival paper). But it's a shame that media jobs have come down to this: protecting your own backside taking priority over collaboration. It's not the reporters' fault; it's the way the industry operates.

I'm not interested in upstaging anyone. I'm just trying to do some journalistic work and need a platform for my output, but you're right that in the end we're competing for a very small, narrow strip of the same platform... ;)

Re making a living, I have long given up trying to find a journo job that pays the bills. I am applying for non-journo jobs now so that at least I have one stable source of income. The journalism I'll keep doing as a sideline regardless of any income generation. Being free of money worries would free me up to be more creative and resourceful, which is good. But if one day that side of things takes off, it would be a dream come true and I will happily tell the story to the world. :)

1 March 2010 at 14:42  

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