Why staying power means so much for local journalism

Manchester Evening News

Manchester Evening News

At first glance, there’s little to connect last week’s gas explosion in Irlam and the remarkable election court which led to the dismissal of Oldham MP Phil Woolas on Friday – other than the fact they took place within 30 miles of each other.

But if you take the coverage of each from two very different publications – the Irlam blast from the Manchester Evening News – and the Woolas story as handled by hyperlocal site Saddleworth News – there is one obvious link.

And it’s one which should cheer every local journalist: That sticking with a story pays dividends.

Starting first with the Irlam blast last Tuesday. It dominated the national news agenda from the moment it was first reported. The satellite trucks turned up, the live links from the scene were endless and there were plenty of reporters on the scene. But by 10pm, it was deemed to be worth little more than 15 seconds on the BBC National news.

I guess that’s a sign of how national and rolling news works sometimes – the exaggerated importance of breaking news, regardless of how few facts, can come at the expense of sticking with a story for more than a few hours.

But the M.E.N was there long after the cameras had been turned off, as demonstrated by its front pages on Wednesday and Thursday and the fact the stories relating to the blast continued to draw people in to the website in their 10s of thousands throughout the week. (Having access to the M.E.N’s web figures is what got me thinking about this in the first place).

Skip to the other side of Greater Manchester and you find Saddleworth News, a hyperlocal site run by ex-Sky journalist Richard Jones. It’s an excellent site and has covered the election court in great depth. Indeed, along with other local media, it was covering it long before it really caught the eye of the national media. There was a flurry of national interest as it kicked off, and then mass interest on Friday, when the shock result came in.

Obviously, I don’t have access to Richard’s web stats, but I suspect he’s enjoying healthy traffic on the back of it. It’s just a shame that when the BBC, so keen to show it is linking out at the foot of stories now, wasn’t linking to a local site ahead of those running wire copy.

Saddleworth News

Saddleworth News

Richard’s stories, like those elsewhere in the local media, are clearly written for a local audience. They have more than just official spokesmen in the them, and the same can be said for the Irlam blast coverage.

Proof that no matter how instant news coverage can be, or how much national interest a story can generate, there’s still nothing to beat local knowledge and sticking with a story for as long as your audience is interested?

4 comments

  1. David, many thanks for your kind comments here. As you suspected, Friday was the best day so far for the site in terms of stats with 1,495 unique visits. That compares with 350-400 on a typical weekday.

    I did a companion piece to The Day The World Came To Saddleworth on the blog I write about my proper job as a a stay-at-home dad – http://likefatherlikedaughter.blogspot.com/2010/11/thick-of-it.html – I have to take my baby girl around with me when I do interviews and so on, and she was in the middle of it all on Friday! She certainly put her own little stamp on events, as anyone who heard or watched the news will testify.

  2. Another thing that Saddleworth News does better than mainstream media is to try to actually understand the story. I think most media reporters have the double disadvantage of a) not having enough time to actually understand the story and b) not really caring.

    Richard sticks a relatively small geographical area, and because he tries to cover fewer stories really well rather than just give in the that dreaded “churnalism” which is taking over the media. The quality shows. And, of course, this is Richard’s patch. He’s in the community, and it matters to him if something relative small is wrong in the area. That isn’t a dig – I think it’s the little things in life, like double yellow lines in Dobcross, that actually do affect us.

    Of course, when a national story lands in his lap, like the Woolas story, Richard showed he could roll with the big boys.

    I think large media outlets are going to face more and more stiff competition as hyper-local sites like Saddleworth News get going. They may be limited in area, but they can match big corporations for skill and style, and they beat them hands down in local knowledge.

  3. Thanks for the comment. I don’t believe your point about most reporters not caring is a fair accusation to make. Most do, in my experience. I think we can all point to examples of churnalism and, again, in my experience, it’s less common than some people make out.

    I couldn’t agree more with your point about the little things mattering to people – you only have to look at the reaction on letters pages to see it’s the stories journalists might consider ‘small’ which rile people. I was reading a copy of the Bourne Local the other day – the letters page was full of back and forth over the opening of a new Costa Coffee and whether it was bad for the town.

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