So, with the dust finally settling on the general election and its fallout, what takeaways are there for the regional press? Here are a few thoughts which have been knocking around in my mind…
1. Paranoia rules on the campaign trail: This was arguably the most stage-managed general election of all time, and in many cases, regional journalists lost out as a result. The Tories were by far the worst (but maybe had the most to lose), with demands of questions in advance before being told which one question to ask. And that was when the Tories were in a good mood – other regional journalists reported just getting to look at the PM or chancellor. But every cloud has a silver lining….
2. All hail the undecided voter: If the 2015 general election campaign was the most stage-managed, it was also the one which will be remembered for the number of undecided voters. And that’s a huge opportunity for the regional press going forward. As politicians become more remote in their campaigning as they try to ensure they get their message across, journalists have the opportunity to answer the questions: “Is that true?” and “What does this mean for me?” That’s not just wishful thinking – audience data from the 2015 general election suggests articles and content which helped people make sense of the political headlines, promises and spin were very popular.
3. And people do care … if they’re asked: Our job surely isn’t just to tell the news, it’s to sell it’s importance to people too. The 2015 general election was a great example of how taking the time to create stuff you want people to engage with helps to tell people that something is indeed worth engaging with. Digital tools helped massively here, with things such as Johnston Press’s What Matters to Me video site, Local World’s ‘Who should I vote for’ tool and Trinity Mirror’s ‘my manifesto‘ project all examples that people will engage with politics, if they feel they are being listened to. And the regional press is better placed than most to do that.
4. And suddenly, politicians care too: It’s easy to sideline journalists if political spin types put their mind to it. It’s harder for them to do that when journalists are clearly acting on behalf of their readers. Yes, I know that principle should be a given, but we are where we are. The Teesside Gazette used the ‘My Manifesto’ project to great effect to get politicians to engage, with even the interview-shy Prime Minister answering each manifesto demand one by one. We’re harder to ignore where we’re channelling the views of our ever-larger audiences.
5. The age of the live video feed is here: If journalism is, at least in part, about showing people what goes on behind doors which aren’t open to the public, then Sky News help the industry take a huge leap forward with its live feeds of over 150 election counts. Using tech which cost in the low thousands, it streamed live footage from key counts across the UK onto its website. There’s no reason the regional press can’t do this too – indeed, some did. It’s an example of how deploying video can help bring readers closer to action we otherwise take for granted.
6. The advertising boost: I remember only too well an advertising director telling me in 2010 about conversations with a major political party ahead of the election. The political party’s message was broadly: “We don’t need you any more. We’ve got the internet.” Fast forward to 2015, and regional newspapers found themselves very much in demand for advertising space. Indeed, to the extent where rival political parties found themselves crying foul when they didn’t ask the right questions at the right time. While it was a reminder that the line between advertising and editorial isn’t as obvious to readers as we assume it to be as journalists (and that’s an even bigger challenge online by the way), the role of the regional press’s advertising teams on the frontline of political battle was a sign of its ongoing relevance to local audiences.
7. The Tories are back, and here comes devolution: The Tories are moving fast on their promise to devolve power from Westminster, with Manchester at the front of the queue as far as English regions are concerned. The challenge for the regional media – be that regional press, BBC or independents – is making sure that proper opportunities for scrutiny are built in too. Governments of all political colours have failed here in the past. Examples include academy schools (not subject to FOI like council-runs schools for several years), Foundation Hospital Trusts (no right to attend meetings) and the clinical commissioning groups (almost impossible to penetrated). All are examples of pledges to take decision making closer to voters, but all reduced chances for scrutiny. All, compared to the shift in power planned now, seem relatively small, so there’s a very real risk we need to be alert to.
8. Michael Gove in charge of FOI? Oh dear: Ex-education secretary Gove should be a champion of transparency, what with being an ex-journalist. Sadly, his track record is more that of poacher-turned PR person, if the attempts to dodge FOI at the DfE by using ‘personal’ email accounts to discuss government policy are anything to go by. And now he’s in charge of FOI as justice secretary. It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that further steps towards open government might stall as a result.
9. All change at the communities department?: Eric Pickles always talked a good fight, but always seemed to come up short when it came to dealing with troublesome local authorities who felt the rules didn’t apply to them. Be it councils continuing to publish their propaganda newspapers weekly, or councils dodging the £500 spending rules. Will his replacement, Greg Clark, finish off what Mr Pickles promised?
10. And finally… If you haven’t read my posts on why the general election of 2015 should be remembered as the year the regional press came of age online, or the one about things we can learn from hyperlocal sites, then now is your chance…