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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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Anonymous Louise Baldock said...

It might not be an exciting thing to write about, and it might not be what a budding journalists wants to cover, but as someone who knocks on doors every week in her ward, I can say with my hand on my heart that dog fouling is mentioned more regularly than any other issue by the population. And they would love and adore your googlemap showing whose dog had fouled and who was fined for not picking up after it.

As for aspiring journalists not wanting to cover local stories that they don't think are important, I am reminded that years ago reporters used to have cover fetes, fayres and festivals, large vegetable competitions, lost pets and village cricket before being allowed to deal with anything serious. It was "local" first then.

With the huge decline in the number of reporters available on local papers now, they dont have the resources to cover anything much, there is a lot of dependence on press releases sent to them instead. They only get to work on a few big stories, none of the minutiae. That is probably more exciting for the reporter but the reader loses out. One of the most read papers in Liverpool is the free paper that comes once a week full of adverts. And at such a local level you can afford to talk about dog fouling because the readers know exactly which street, path or park is being referred to.

We need to give the reader what they want as well as what we want them to have.

Interesting stuff!

20 May 2011 at 23:15  
Blogger Madame Dotty said...

Thanks so much for this lovely comment. So dog poo news IS the way to go! :D

I agree: papers must give readers what they most want to read. In the age of Internet, when so much information is already available online, local papers need to be a bit more imaginative in what news they put out. But if finding resources is a problem, maybe using more fun, engaging ways of presenting the same news might help. Just a thought...

20 May 2011 at 23:59  
Anonymous Louise Baldock said...

I absolutely agree - particularly with what you said above about graphics, another fact about local newspapers is that people look at the pictures rather than read the blurb, however well written. So quirky maps, graphs, cartoons, funny photos etc, are definitely the way to go!

21 May 2011 at 00:21  
Blogger Ampers Taylor said...

I am the honorary editor of a North London Community Newspaper called the Finchley Arrow and would love to reproduce your article.

We all work for nothing for the good of our community but it is very hard work.

My email is ampers on gmail . Please email me if you don't want me to reproduce it, I will hold it until Monday.

I tend to reproduce most of it but leave key points off with a link to your web article to encourage people to move over to your website to read the rest of it.

We are totally non-commercial, we even refuse to accept advertising.

Andrew Ampers Taylor

30 July 2011 at 12:59  
Blogger Madame Dotty said...

Hello Andrew,
I would be flattered to have this post reproduced in your newspaper as long as I can get a byline or some kind of mention of my authorship.
Could you please send me the link once it is up? (I am assuming it's an online publication) Thank you. :)

31 July 2011 at 00:48  
Blogger Madame Dotty said...

By the way, my name: Chie Elliott

31 July 2011 at 00:48  
Blogger Ampers Taylor said...

Madame Dotty,

Thanks, I have given full credit both at the beginning of the article, and a link to your website at the end, with a hint to the readers that if they follow the article they may find more links in it. :-)

It is at the website.

31 July 2011 at 10:47  
Blogger Madame Dotty said...

I am honoured. Thank you for my "guest appearance" on the Finchley Arrow. :)

1 August 2011 at 02:00  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think you're rather missing the situation a lot of local papers are in. There are no subs any more - they all got made redundant. There aren't enough journalists to fully cover all the stories any more - they all got made redundant.

And not only do those skeleton crews have to fill up the newspaper, they also have to fill up the website, run the Twitter feed and occasionally produce videos. A hyper local site might be able to run on £8 a week, but a regional paper covering maybe 30,000 people can't.

If you want quality news, don't slate the journalists, defend them against the stranglehold of rampant commercial control and the unreasonable demands of the shareholders.

9 August 2011 at 16:24  
Blogger Madame Dotty said...

Thanks for your comment, although I wish you had not chosen to hide yourself behind the mask of anonymity, as a) I am for an open and frank debate and don't expect everyone to agree w/ me all the time, b) I accept criticism but it is more honest if you can own your opinion by making your identity transparent.

I think you may have mis-read the point in this post. I wasn't trying to "slate journalists" at all. Quite on the contrary, I am a huge supporter of journalists and totally sympathise that they are currently working in very stretched newsrooms with "skeleton crews", as you put it. I wasn't suggesting a regional paper should be run on £8 a week or month either. I wan't even complaining about the "quality" of local news...

I was simply trying to come up with simple ideas that could be implemented inexpensively to make news more attractive and engage more young readers, who don't find local news interesting. Perhaps this is more relevant to online journalism than print press, but being creative about presenting data, working on online community engagement, as The Times is doing, etc are all things that could possibly help get more young eyeballs to local papers.

9 August 2011 at 21:51  

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