This week, the National Union of Journalists is running a campaign called ‘Local News Matters.’ As a journalist, it’s hard not to agree with its principle aim: To remind people of the importance of local journalism.
Their method, however, appears to leave a lot to be desired. The showpiece of their campaign was a Parliamentary launch for a piece of research called ‘Mapping News in Local Democracy’. A large piece of the research appears to update a previous piece of work about how well local councils are covered, which I’ll cover in a later post.
The research has been done by academics so should carry with it a rigour which impresses parliamentarians. Like the dozens of other campaigns which pass through Parliament each week, the NUJ-backed research is designed to get key messages across to MPs and hopefully influence policy. Nothing wrong with that, but it would be good if the messages were based on fact.
Not surprisingly, the issue of perceived clickbait – not defined by the report but the tone suggests they mean ‘stuff other than the stuff we think local journalists should do – is raised. To that end, this stood out to me:
“Finally, the growing anecdotal evidence of clickbait-heavy local journalism, reductions in public-interest journalism such as court and local council reporting, and increasing amounts of non-local reporting (for example the North-East England-based Newsquest title The Northern Echo published 527 articles about, or mentioning, Real Madrid between 1st January 2016 and 8th March 2017,30 and in the same time period published 992 articles mentioning Kim Kardashian31 – that is 2.3 articles per day) means that there are serious grounds for concern about the extent to which digital local news is per- forming the traditional – essential – role in their local communities. Further research is urgently needed to establish the possible effect of these trends.
Could this possibly be true? Could former Northern Echo Peter Barron’s warning shot as he left that there was a risk that regional journalism was being harmed by clickbait coming true at his old paper? Is local reporting being replaced by writers filing about US TV stars from an office in Darlington? Er, well, no.
Intrigued by the claims, I went to the Echo website and searched for Kim Kardashian. There are, indeed, lots of stories about that famous family. But click on any one of them and the byline rather gives the game away. They come from the Press Association.
I don’t know how Newsquest’s systems work, but it’s very common for publishers large and small to take feeds from PA of national and international news and publish them automatically online. It’s not that different from the PA feeds which were available when I worked in Newsquest newsrooms, other than that back then they were there for print, and would be tasted before appearing on a national news page, or a features page if it was more showbizzy.
Such feeds will never rival local news for page views – but they help add to the mix on a website to keep people longer. Is it clickbait? That depends on how you define clickbait. Is it a viable alternative to local news? No. It’s just the online manifestation of the national news mix which has appeared in print for decades.
What about the Real Madrid reference? Is that more of the same? Sort of. Real Madrid do indeed appear in the Echo’s archive, and a lot of it is from PA.
But Real Madrid also appear in a number of locally written stories, often relating to a player who plays locally, and in a fair few cases, referencing the fact that Rafa Benitez, manager of Newcastle United, used to manage there. Based on the researcher’s method of using an archive search to determine the volume of non-local ‘clickbait’ all these stories apparently have no local relevance:
In other words, they are local, they are relevant.
Of course, the MP the NUJ asked to lead the evangelisation of this report in parliament, Helen Goodman, is an MP local to the Northern Echo and will therefore know that this part of the report is a distortion of reality.
I believe as much as anyone that local journalism matters. I believe it’s essential we have grown up debates and discussions about the survival of local journalism into the future. It deserves better than cursory archive searches being used to make sweeping claims about ‘important’ local journalism being sacrificed for ‘clickbait’ when it takes anyone with a passing interest no more than two minutes to prove that isn’t the case.
There’s a fine line for a trade union which prides itself on standing up for journalism between raising concerns about what it sees as the industry’s failings and actually doing the industry down unfairly.
Is it too much to ask that when discussing the future of journalism, we have a debate grounded only in facts? Further research is always welcome, but of a quality which stands up to basic scrutiny.