Why small news should be big news for local newspapers – mock it at your peril

Do you remember the story of the burnt office chair which appeared in the Westmorland Gazette? Back in 2007, the posting of what was essentially a nib on the Gazette’s website led to widespread sniggering behind hands about how a local newspaper could cover the torching of a swivel seat in a local park.

Five years on, and the story still sporadically attracts attention in the comments section. Such gentle (and in some cases, not so gentle) mocking of local news goes with the territory for reporters up and down the country – but should we be joining in?

In recent weeks, Hold The Front Page mocking this nib in the Lake District HeraldĀ  about the owner of a property being called by police to lock a door, and widespread mirth on Twitter about a Sale and Altrincham Messenger story about a pan fire in which the contents of the pan were destroyed by fire.

At the same time, respected journalist Peter Sands also appears to be leading an assault against what he describes as ‘non news’. In his latest example, he cites a Runcorn and Widnes Weekly News (disclaimer, I work for Trinity Mirror, which publishes the News) story which reports that no Jimmy Savile victims from Runcorn (assuming there are any) have made themselves known to Cheshire Police. Other examples highlighted on Sands’ blog include a dog which suffered an injured nose, a mattress that fell off the back of a lorry forcing a car to stop, a pasty three days past its sell-by date being sold to a young mum and a Christmas tree being blown over in the wind.

Like I said, it’s easy to take the mickey. But in each case, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. The Lake District Herald story could have done with more information to make it relevant, but was it non-news? As for the saucepan fire – if I saw the fire engines in my street, I’d want to know what happened.

In the case of the Runcorn Savile story, it appears to have been prompted by a page on the Cheshire Police website advising victims in Cheshire on what to do. Good journalistic commonsense would be to ask the police the obvious question – and given the website is visible to the public, why not share the response with readers? As for the dog’s injured nose, surely reporting the fact police are investigating the incident allows the public to decide whether their tax pounds are being well spent. The mattress which fell off a lorry? Read the story and it turns out the police want witnesses to come forward. Out of date pasty sold in any shop is surely news – the issue is whether it’s front page news. And the Christmas tree being blown over? It’s a Christmas tree. People care. Although the use of the phrase ‘stricken evergreen’ is unforgivable.

There’s a serious point I want to make here: that the difference between what a trained journalist sees as news and what the local newspaper reader sees as news has the potential to render us irrelevant to our audience. My parents read the Chorley Guardian every week and have been known to snigger at what some might consider trivial nibs. But the trivial nibs aren’t so trivial when it explains why the police, ambulance, fire crews etc were down their way. Likewise, I’ve been known to smile at some of the smaller stories which appear in the Bourne Local, a weekly newspaper serving the small Lincolnshire town. But, as I’ve blogged before, seeing the paper being picked up by more people than not as soon as it arrives in the local Sainsbury’s tells me that it’s a paper which knows its audience.

Had I been a reader of the Westmorland Gazette who had seen fire crews putting out the office chair fire in the local park, there’s a safe bet I’d not know for sure what they were doing. If I picked up the Westmorland Gazette and couldn’t find anything about the fire, what would I do? Maybe nothing at all. But make the paper useful – by telling me something I knew I wanted to know – and I like to think it makes it more likely I’ll pick the newspaper up again. And that’s what local newspapers need to be: relevant and useful. Applying journalistic snobbery doesn’t help.

Over the past month, we’ve been experimenting with daily liveblogs on the websites of two of our titles – the Manchester Evening News and the Daily Post in North Wales. The principle is very simple: Breaking news shifts page impressions like nothing else (UFOs, David Beckham topless and nonsense transfer rumours apart – but we’re after a local, loyal audience) so those websites have put the focus on breaking news. As soon as it breaks, it goes on the blog, followed shortly after by a link to a longer article. On both sites, it’s had an instant, positive impact on page impressions and unique users.

One of the early lessons out of the experiment is that there is no such thing as a piece of breaking news which is too small to report. Reports of traffic jams – even if they happen every day – are appreciated. In Manchester, what I suspect some might call the ultimate piece of ‘non news’ (I wouldn’t) – reporting that the police said nothing had happened overnight. A follower of the liveblog asked why the police hadn’t mentioned a shooting in Salford. A very good question indeed.

Small news, for local newspapers at least, should be big news. If we’re to maintain a relevance to a local audience, they need to know we’re covering things that matter to them. And making sure we cover the ‘I wonder what that was all about’ stories is as good a place to start as any?

With the notable exception of the story of a custard shortage in Whitstable - a story which was effectively denied by the shops involved, and which randomly described the Co-op as a local shop, not ‘one of the national chains – I’m not sure there is such a thing as a non-news story. If it looks like it might be of interest to local people, if it smells like it might of interest to local people, then it’s a safe bet it probably will be of interest to local people. There’s an exception to every rule – and I think Whitstable’s custard shortage is probably it.

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7 comments

  1. This is more an argument for better comms from Police and Fire Services given much of the justification for publishing the non-stories seems to be based around interest in their activities.

  2. I agree entirely. At my paper we had about 70 words about a man who died a non-suspicious death at his home, which necessitated an ambulance calling at his home. There was a narky comment online about the story, but I had two people who asked me what had happened. News is what people want to know about.

  3. I have been a journalist for 48 years and am still turning out the copy, albeit it part-time. In the early days I was told “If it moves, it’s news.” And, I believe, there used to be a large poster sign hanging from the ceiling in the Express & Star newsroom at Wolverhampton which said just that. There must be some truth in the slogan because the E&S is the largest selling evening paper in the country – and it still comes out on the day, rather than being available with the nationals.

  4. We have readers who would be up in arms if we failed to report on tiny little things that had caught their eye or been the subject of local rumour. Our sales are going up.

  5. On the whole, I agree with the idea that journalists need to be more aware of what is ‘newsworthy’ to their local audience. However, it’s not about some people thinking something is a non-news story, it’s about how the negativity might affect your core audience. It’s all well and good writing about an injured dog, but how many people really care when compared with how many think ‘this paper’s getting worse’, when they read it and stop buying it? If I saw fire engines in my street and there was no visible sign of any house burning to the ground, I wouldn’t really care why they were there. And if I did, I’d ask my neighbours, rather than trawling local newspapers and websites in the vain hope of finding out.

  6. What about the old phrase “News is whatever someone, somewhere *doesn’t* want people to know?” By that standard, none of these stories qualify. I’d like to see more journalists taking that approach, even those on local papers.

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