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.