The general election and local press: Is 2015 the dawn of a new era?

parliament

Comments made by Annabelle Dickson, the political editor of the Eastern Daily Press, that the local press could help decide 200 marginal seats at the General Election were met with the to-be-expected dose of scepticism/vitriol from commenters on Hold The Front Page last week.

But as the General Election campaign gets under way, I don’t think any local news organisation should shy away from setting itself the aim of helping decide the general election locally.

Over the last few general elections, there have been two schools of thought within political spin doctor circles about the local press. The more enlightened remember that someone who actively engages in local news daily is probably more likely to vote. The more cynical, and these tended to be in the majority, began to tell many local journalists that they could take their place in the queue, and hope to grab a question or two after everyone else. Scale of audience, in their minds, justified that.

The 2015 general election could, and should, be different.

Size of audience

Since 2010, there is no denying that the regional press has grown to reach more people than it probably has done for 30 years. Print continues to decline, but the growth in digital audience is undeniable. The reach locally will be better, in many places, than for decades.

This is the general election where the regional press needs to make the most of that. The right tweet, linking to the right political story, can reach many more people, more easily, than any tool we’ve had, as journalists, at our disposal, at any time in the history of journalism.

Of course, there are plenty of people who will point out that those same tools exist for any blogger or political party too. But the hard yards, day in day out, of reporting local affairs and local news in a way which can be trusted, is something many people respect, even if they don’t buy the paper or visit the website daily.

When we report, people expect it to be right.

The challenge for journalists entering the general election is to make sure politicians respect that, and respect the regional press more as a result.

Learning from Sky News

Sky News gave us a glimpse of the future in that respect in 2005. In 2005, it sent Kay Burley to Rossendale and Darwen, a swing seat in Lancashire (and where I now live). Sky’s presence forced parties to send ministers and shadow ministers to a constituency most would struggle to place on a map. Issues which were national were put into a local context to make the visits relevant to a national audience.

The size of the local audience regional newsrooms can now lay claim to – and the number of people they can reach – means that politicians should be taking local press more seriously. In that sense, the Sky News effect in Rossendale and Darwen in 2005 should play out across the country – only without the need to have a national broadcaster on the patch.

For that to happen, however, the regional press needs to stand up for itself. It shouldn’t be enough to grab three questions at the end of a visit, or be given a trite insert name of place platitude in the hope it will trigger a page lead the next day. A big name visiting should only get coverage if they are saying something worthwhile which means something to local people. Politicians need to earn the coverage they get – not assume just getting off the train and shaking a few hands gets our attention

Avoiding the death embrace

A harsh, but true fact: Politics bores many people, and so to does the coverage of politics. The ‘he said, she said’ tit for tat and political speculation has its place, but it’s not what drives people to the ballot box. Audience data I’ve studied bears out the fact that people are interested in issues, not institutions. They are interested in what something means to them, not the hyperbole emitted from political parties.

This is a huge opportunity for the regional press. While the national narrative will often focus on the personalities, and the political parties will work hard to shape the national agenda with their issue of the day, the regional press has the free rein to focus on the issues which matter to local people.

There is a widening gulf between people are politicians, and there’s a danger that the media ends up on the wrong side of that gulf. It’s less of an issue for the local press if journalists set out hold those seeking election to account on the issues which matter to local people.

The Yorkshire Post published its manifesto earlier this month. Trinity Mirror, the publisher I work for, attracted thousands of people to a very detailed, local, survey of issues to devise manifesto statements for many of its titles. Both projects are examples of the way local newsrooms can attempt to close the gap between people and politicians by making a very loud noise about the issues which matter to local people.

But we also need to provide people with the ability to make decisions on who to vote for. Expect the 2015 general election to be full of essentially editionised national party leaflets which don’t really address issues properly in a local context. Again, this is an opportunity for the regional press. Look at this great idea from the Chicago Tribune from last year’s elections – making every candidate do a written Q and A. I can remember when the Teesside Gazette offered MPs the chance to answer questions from readers on rotation – with a commitment that anyone who didn’t take part would still appear, but with blank space where their answers appeared. It proved to be a powerful motivator.

It’s not about platforms

Since the start of the year, there have been many predictions about what this election is going to be remembered for. Some say it’s the first video election, others that it’s the social media election. Both are important, but for the regional press, this general election isn’t about a platform, it’s about the ability to hold politicians to account on behalf of the largest audiences we’ve had for decades.

The scale and reach of readerships is a powerful thing to have, but it comes with responsibility. Only foolish politicians will ignore it. And should the regional press not live up to expectations, there are many others out there for the politically engaged to turn to.

It is in everyone’s interests for as many people as possible to vote. By using our enlarged readership as a powerful platform to hold politicians to account, we can provide readers with the information which could reconnect them with the electoral process.

That’s my hope – and that’s why I think it’s entirely realistic to set having an impact on the ballot box as a goal for the regional press at the general election

I

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