For all the talk of the general election (still over a month away), for many local newsrooms, the more immediate focus is on the elections which take place next week.
Normally, this would be the quietest election year in the local government cycle. Generally speaking, in England it’s only county councils which should be holding elections this year (there are also council elections in Wales and Scotland). However, the machinations of Tory policy have rather turned that on its head.
As well as Theresa May’s decision to go to the polls for a general election just a month after millions have voted in the local elections, we also have a set of elections taking place in urban areas (which were due to be spared polls this year) for elected mayors.
The Mayoral elections have the potential to be historic – they will create roles which will be in control of millions of pounds, with some power being devolved from Westminster too. How aware and engaged people are, is, however another matter (and something I’ll write about later this week).
The role local newsrooms can play in engaging the public in local elections shouldn’t be underestimated. Whereas maybe a decade ago when newspaper sales and election turnouts were on parallel decline trajectories, local newsrooms now reach more local people than at any point in a generation. That success is built partly on getting better at writing the things people want to read, but it also offers an opportunity to say to readers: “We think this is interesting, won’t you give it a go?”
There are two ways of achieving this that I want to share this week. The first is broadcasting of live election hustings. In Cardiff this week, WalesOnline (through its social brand CardiffOnline) hosting a live hustings with the people who could be running Cardiff Council in a week’s time:
The Manchester Evening News also hosted hustings this week ahead of its mayoral elections:
Facebook cops a lot of stick for being responsible for the challenges local news faces locally (not without merit in some circumstances) but both of these husting events, held on websites and Facebook at the same time are a reminder of the impact local journalism can have when it uses the tools available to it.
The Facebook Live mechanism enabled WalesOnline and the MEN to reach ‘passive’ readers in their Facebook feed – ie readers who had no intention of attending a hustings event, but who watched as a result. Will they vote as a result? Who knows – but both are a great example of local journalism using its online popularity to promote democracy.
The Birmingham Mail was another title to livestream hustings – but I also liked the video the Mail did ‘backstage’ afterwards, giving people the chance to ask specific questions to candidates in a more interactive, instant way – a brilliant add on to the main livestream:
Another tool at the disposal of newsrooms is, of course, the front page of the newspaper. Whereas building an online audience offers us a chance to encourage readers to read something ‘important’ as well as the things they’re actually reading (encouraging readers to eat their veg I’ve heard it described as) putting the ‘important’ on the front page can run the risk of alienating the readers (and the newspaper sale) altogether.
Across the titles I work with, we’ve been using Google Surveys to reliably poll readers on their thoughts ahead of the Mayoral elections (more on that in a couple of days). The results, used in print and online, have helped put the Mayoral campaign on the front page:
The General Election in 2017 is being described as the ‘social media election’ (making it the third general election to carry such a title). For local media, it has all the makings of being the election where local news can make a difference, if the tools available in print and online are combined and harnessed.