Newspaper campaigning in a click-to-sign age: Why speaking truth to power is more important than ever

With print circulations going down, and tools online making it possible for anyone, anywhere to launch a campaign, how does a local newspaper ensure its campaigns still get attention and, most importantly, get results?

Simple: They innovate. And in this age of austerity, areas outside of London have perhaps never needed a campaigning voice which can turn heads as much as they do now

A rather remarkable thing happened the other week. The Northern Echo carried a splash which included the mastheads of pretty much every other newspaper in the north east. The Journal – its traditional rival – carried the same story. And it also appeared on the front page of various other daily titles – including the Evening Gazette in Teesside and the Sunderland Echo – and took up pages in The Chronicle in Newcastle and the Shields Gazette. And as the week continued, the same story was covered in a variety of weeklies.

The reason? As reported by Hold The Front Page, the region’s newspapers are lining up together to fight for a better deal for the North East from Government. In short, they feel they are being short-changed by Westminster, and there’s a lot of evidence to support that argument. Their solution is to see more power over public sector spending devolved to the region. It’s a very sound argument, backed up by political heavyweights such as Lord Heseltine, who has already identified £70bn which should be allocated to regional Local Enterprise Partnerships.

All for one...

All for one…

The campaign is well-timed, coming as it does so close to the spending review due to be revealed in the next few weeks. Vince Cable, the business secretary, has already dismissed the idea of handing over the £70bn to LEPs, arguing LEPs are dominated by local businessmen, who aren’t the right people to decide how public money is spent. He is also opposed to the recreation of regional bodies to spend the money, such as the regional development agencies which the coalition disbanded.

Such a campaign can be hard to win, especially if you are flying in the face of Government opinion. In fact, the devolution argument was hard to win when the previous government professed to be in favour of it. Lord Prescott bounded around the North East in 2003 supporting a regional assembly, and The Journal was a lone media voice in favour of an assembly. But the continued failure of those around Prescott to say what actual powers would be devolved turned voting day into a damp squib.

The Journal's leader column

Fast forward a decade, and within a week the papers of the north east appear to have turned a coalition which appeared to have lost interest in the regions into one which will at least look at devolving spending decisions.

Maybe newspapers working together like this shouldn’t be an innovation in 2013.

Most newspapers compete on professional pride rather than newspaper sales grounds these days – but the fact that these titles are drew attention. But that’s besides the point – and I can think of many campaigns which would have been won faster had newspapers worked more closely together.

It’s also a dozen or so titles on watch to make sure that the initial promises of Nick Clegg are turned into actions – and that’s perhaps the greatest attribute a newspaper can still bring to any campaign: Staying power.

Just ask the Hillsborough campaigners – they’re finally on the cusp of seeing justice done, and alongside them since day one has been the Liverpool ECHO. 

Press Gazette recently carried a feature on the ECHO’s Hillsborough campaign, quoting ECHO editor Alastair Machray:

What no one at the Echo would have believed was how that defence would end up spanning more than two decades before culminating in the moment of victory last year. So, how does a newspaper carry on the fight for so long?

“At every point where the world was losing interest, we redoubled our effort,” answers Machray. “When people are getting bored with something we have to reinvent it, refuel it and keep at it.

“The secret of a campaign of this sort is not to wait for moments to happen but to make sure that people don’t lose interest and that’s when we have to work hardest.”

In short, despite all the challenges the regional press faces, it still remains the one true local voice that is fighting for local interests. And in a climate where we see those parts of Government furthest away from Whitehall taking the biggest cuts – councils were praised by David Cameron prior to 2010 as ‘places Whitehall could learn a lot from about efficiency’ yet have been hit by some of the hardest cuts – that fighting spirit is more important than ever.

And just as relevant too. Three newspapers – The Manchester Evening News, Bradford Telegraph and Argus and York Press – launched campaigns to save their local museums after the Science Museums Group, which took over running the museums after budgets cuts in 2010, announced one was likely to close. It won’t come as a surprise to learn that London’s Science Museum isn’t on the at risk list.

The Manchester Evening News first broke the story – and launched an online petition. For anyone familiar with the slow drip drip of petitions being returned through the post to bolster a campaign, this will come as a revelation: 30,000 signatures in 48 hours. Again, innovating to get a quick response. Will the Science Group listen to 35,000 signatures? You’d hope so.

museumfight

Will the M.E.N win its campaign? I suspect it will, and like the cross North East campaign, and the Hillsborough campaign, it’ll be because the importance of an established newspaper brand getting behind local people and speaking truth to power. Sometimes that’s with a campaign which instantly resonates with people, on other occasions it will be on issues which perhaps don’t prompt pub talk on Friday – like the Daily Post’s ‘right to tweet’ campaign. But it’s more important than ever that we’re able to show readers we’re fighting for them, by fighting for what matters to the future of their area.

And that’s why the proposed state regulation by another name of the press is so dangerous: Do you want to live in a country where truth can be spoken to power only when the power is prepared to listen? Because that’s what Hacked Off are driving us towards – and that’s a very scary place to be. 

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