I have a well-worn – some would say now boring – story about one of the unexpected consequences of digital journalism at a local level.
It goes a bit like this: Ten years ago, if someone was murdered in Huddersfield, the Examiner would ‘own’ the story. The Yorkshire Post might do a bit on it, BBC Radio Leeds would report on it, and it might make the local TV news. But the Examiner would be the place to get the most in-depth coverage.
It would need to be a particularly newsworthy murder to trouble the pages of a national newspaper, let alone result in a reporter being sent to the scene by a national news organisation.
Then along came ‘the internet’ and, more recently, social media, and all of a sudden, any significant local crime story is instantly homepage news for any media organisation keen to catch a few clicks from people on search, or page views from their followers on social media.
You can substitute the Examiner and Huddersfield for the name of any newspaper and the town it serves for the purpose of this story.
I’ve no problem with that approach. We’re in the business of getting audiences wherever we can find them. It’s how the free-to-air journalism model works, and stuff which catches people in the moment is stuff which helps pays for the stuff which might be less popular, but all the same essential.
Making sure we get eyeballs on that essential content is, well, essential. Using popular content – sometimes derided as clickbait by some ultra-purists – to fund mission journalism isn’t a sustainable way to preserve mission journalism. Audience in its own right is.
So the challenge for local newsrooms when a big story breaks is to own it in a way which makes us stand out from all those who might drop in to cover the story. Doing that presents a way to build a relationship with local readers, which lasts long after the cameras, liveblogs and attention of national media have moved on elsewhere.
A great example of this was shared with me by the Oxford Mail last week after I did the first ‘life is local’ collection of front pages. Remember the Didcot Power Station explosion? It was a year ago last week. It went largely undocumented, but here’s the Oxford Mail’s coverage:
It’s this sort of stuff which makes local journalism so special – and should safeguard its future in a distributed media world where every headline has to fight for attention in its own right.
Local newsrooms need to know how to reach an audience of scale to survive, but engage with significant parts of that audience in a way which ensures their work becomes as indispensable a part of a reader’s local life as the local supermarket.
Can it happen? Yes – so long as local journalism stays true to its community and is prepared to keep responding to what local readers show they want.