Picture this: it’s early evening on one of the warmest days of the year so far and I’m sitting at the side of a large room in a community building in the middle of a housing estate. I have my pen and notebook at the ready and I have been asked several times by eager strangers if I would like a cup of tea. The room is populated by several rows of rickety plastic chairs, many of which are occupied by residents of the estate. A table at the front hosts a local authority man in a suit, his trusty sidekick and a couple of representatives of the Tenants and Residents’ Association – the reason for the meeting tonight.
No, it’s not a flashback to my patch reporting days when these kind of meetings were my bread and butter. This is the here and now and is part of the research I’m doing into regional newspapers. I’m not here to take notes on the meeting, I’m here to see what the late reporter for the paper does during his shift. He came to the meeting and, as a result, I followed.
But while the setting of such an event certainly seems to have changed very little in the 13 years since I started out as a rookie reporter, the scene back in the newsroom is vastly different. It’ll come as no surprise for many to read that the daily title and its sister weeklies are staffed by a handful of multimedia reporters, a digital team and a number of journalists who focus on contributed copy like press releases. Digital figures are a key focus and Facebook Live is the tool of the moment.
But, before the doom-mongers and nay-sayers get all excited and start writing ‘I told you so’, there are a couple of unexpecteds in store; specialisms that were once scrapped in favour of piling on the extra digital tasks have been reinstated and reporters are handing over some of their previous digital responsibilities to a dedicated team in order to free up their time and do something unheard of in recent years … they are leaving the office to cover stories on the ground.
As a result, meetings like the Tenants’ and Residents’ Association AGM are actually being attended and efforts are actually being made to build contacts in person, not just online.
But before the rosy glow of nostalgia takes over, here’s the problem: the meeting we attend is not extraordinary. It becomes clear the chairman of the association has been voted in for another year. It is ten years since he started. This, unfortunately, is the top story of the night. While the meeting does get a bit shouty and I take reams of shorthand notes (I couldn’t help myself) there is little else to report. There are a couple of potential follow-ups, nothing groundbreaking, and new contacts have been made. Bog-standard job done.
This humdrum event is the typical life of a patch reporter. Or rather, this was the typical life of a patch reporter. A time when resources were rich enough in the newsroom to mean that hours could be spent building contacts, scouring minutes and covering fairly dull meetings safe in the knowledge that for every nine reasonably uneventful jobs there would be one that would touch the tip of a corker of a story just waiting to be unpicked.
Not so any more. What’s changed is there are no longer actual patch reporters keeping a keen eye on meetings and events within specific areas. The job detailed above was flagged up by the association and it was luck that the night reporter had the time to attend. Had a big event been scheduled on the same night, it’s unlikely he would have been asked to go to the meeting. Regional newspapers simply do not have the resources to cover circulation areas in the same detail as they did ten years ago and more.
As a result, across the UK there will be hundreds of such meetings, many of which will be happening without a thought from a news journalist and one in ten of which may demonstrate a major social injustice.
And the inevitable happens; getting reporters out to such meetings regularly is a mountain that’s too hard to climb for most news providers, as a result the local newspaper is not forefront in the mind for many people who are fighting a good fight. Instead Facebook, blogs and other social media provide a space for many campaigners to air their battles. And many communities neglected by regional news, including those not using the internet, soon forget that the local paper could possibly be called for help.
This patchy effort at patch reporting nationwide has been put stunningly into focus by the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The critics shining a light onto a lack of regional press presence are right; if local reporters had been actively covering the area it’s likely that residents’ concerns about safety would have been given a public voice before the disaster happened. The public service role once taken by regional journalists failed and the horror of what happened shamed not only the local authority and government, but the regional press as well.
We all know the why. But what about the how? It’s not like those invested in regional journalism haven’t been scratching their heads about how to return to the key role in democracy and accountability that local newspapers once played. But what with revenue losses, resource losses, digital uprisings and the tightening of communications with public services like the police and local authority, the challenges have just been too great.
Regional publishers may now have more of an idea about where the ship is going than they did five years ago, but this doesn’t change the fact that more than half the crew has walked the plank and will not be replaced.
And while journalists and industry onlookers are keenly aware of how the land lies, the general public is not as invested or particularly interested in the lack of regional journalistic presence until something like Grenfell happens. Politicians may have made vague pleas to government in the past and actions like the BBC’s project to provide 150 community reporters to local news organisations, including hyper-locals, have come about from pressure and campaigning. But really this is a dip in the ocean and much more is needed to make a real change.
How about publishing companies take inspiration from the recent collaboration between ITV’s Calendar and the BBC’s Look North? By putting aside competition and unifying to run a cross-publisher campaign both in print, online, in the street and behind the scenes, perhaps change could start to happen.
Many of the issues faced by regional news, or the lack of it, is down to revenue, or the lack of it. If publishers joined up with politicians, academics, regulators, campaigners and unions to create a committee of people focused on looking at ways of plugging these gaps, they could potentially examine new and dynamic funding models and look at why and how regional news thrives in other countries like Norway and the Netherlands. To do this, the government and other powers need to recognise the important role played by regional news and they need to be outraged about the reality of life without this vital function. Grenfell shows the time for lip service is over, radical change is needed.
These ideas may seem naïve; but in the shadow of this tragedy surely now is the right time to pull these kinds of ambitions together if any kind of change can be made to the regional news landscape.