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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.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Potholes and dog poo: is this the future of journalism?

Newspaper and tea
Photo courtesy of Matt Callow
"I don't care about local news."

The bold statement 'The Chancer', one of the journalist graduates from The Wannabe Hacks blog, made in a post about local journalism failing to engage young people attracted a string of of angry comments from several journalists, who called his argument "parochial", "naive", "ridiculous and lazy".

Knowing the power of the Internet in helping employers hire and fire, I was astounded that a young graduate, who "wanna be a hack", should have exposed such eyebrow-raising views in a public forum. His views, however, are far from being unique.

I live in a small, low-average-income town, where, I am certain, young people also think the local paper is only good for wrapping fish and chips. Apart from a few pubs and gambling places, our high street does not offer particularly attractive young leisure options. Not surprisingly, vandalism is a common local occurrence.

A large Christmas tree put up in the high street at the end of last year was tied to a security camera pole to prevent theft. Despite the effort, within 24 hours, its decorations had been stolen and destroyed. No one was even shocked but it filled me with rage and contempt. What had happened to community spirit? Where was the feeling of belonging and wanting to make things better?

Not all young people are apathetic of course. And not reading the local paper doesn't make you into a vandal either. The Chancer, as far as I know, is a law-abiding citizen, but his lack of interest in the local goings-on reflect that of a vast number of young people across the country. They do not feel a tie to their local area. They do not yet have social responsibilities that can be affected by local politics, local tax, local rubbish collection.

We can berate the wannabe hack for his flawed argument but not for his brutal honesty.

Local news readers
The editor-in-chief of my local newspaper recently extolled the importance of the paper in a double-page spread commemorating Local Newspaper Week (9 - 15 May).

He said the local voices that get heard through the paper represent "the bedrock of any democracy". The Prime Minister's also sent in a message reminding readers local papers help "hold the powerful to account", and former Guardian editor Peter Preston, concludes his column with: "Prize it, relish it, support it, because [..] it helps your world go round."

Democracy? Accountability? World spinner? When I stare at one of our local papers' front page story, and see a Yorkshire Terrier being hailed 'a hero'...for having barked – thus alerting his sleeping owner to a fire, the temptation is great to sneer at these idealistic concepts. 

Right, let's face it. The general pattern tends to be: a couple of larger stories from neighbouring towns, a smattering of nibs about local events and meetings; rehashed press release material, an OAP's 90th birthday, someone running for charity. All in all, fairly sleepy, polite news. An occasional death or crime thrown in for good measure.

Yet, if you look at the Letters page, you will see many locals and local politicians, have read it and written in with their say about an environmental issue, rubbish and bins, about cycle paths, or the lack of them, about dangerous potholes and annoying dog poo fouling the streets.

Whether the young are listening or not, this is their town, their community, their home – they do care. And as long as someone cares, journalists have a duty to fulfil.

Yes, there is room for improvement. Some decent subbing would not go amiss for starters – spelling and grammar in our local paper are often embarrassingly atrocious – and reporters could do with replacing lame press release rewriting with more footwork. But at the end of the day, no matter how good the writing is, papers still need advertising income, still need to sell copies. The question is how.

Dog shit and the future of news
I had hoped some kind of magic formula combining digital + (hyper)local + monetisation could be the answer. But when even the excellent Guardian Local initiative announced its closure for being 'unsustainable', my heart sank. What next then?

Talking at the Brighton Future of News earlier this week, Guardian data journalist James Ball pointed out that a street-by-street mapping of local crime is something no newspaper seems to be recording, but, if one was available, it could generate massive reader interest.

A light bulb went on over my head.

Could using data creatively be one of the solutions? Data visualisation is innovative, exciting and appealing to the eye. It is a fun way to tell a story with pretty pictures – much like a graphic novel – although it is still up to the journalist to find the story in the data.

Most importantly, it could engage younger readers, like The Chancer, who might just take a bit more interest in the local news. Of course this would still imply a migration from print to digital, but more eyeballs on local news can't be a bad thing.

At the BBC Social Media Summit (hashtag #bbcsms on Twitter) this week, Will Perrin founder of Talk About Local mentioned a North London local site, which, despite being run at only £8/month, attracts the equivalent proportionate audience as BBC's Newsnight – even though, in his words, it is fundamentally about "crime, potholes and dog shit". [Watch the video on the BBC College of Journalism site (26min in)]

Will Perrin's words convince me even more that journalists discussing the future of local news should be more concerned about format, presentation and delivery, a little less about local content, which although spurned by the young and the apathetic, still seems pertinent.

In my amused perverted mind, I am imagining a Google Map of dog fouling with pet owners' names against turd-shaped placemarks to name and shame offenders. It wouldn't work in real life, but it would certainly grab readers' attention and provoke mirth.

BBC's Dave Lee's tweet below says it all. We could spend a lifetime debating the future of news and local journalism, but the answer, I suspect, is already right here, at our feet. Quite literally.

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