Why it’s time for politicians to take the local media more seriously

parliament

Politicians like to speak warmly of the regional Press. Part of the community, essential for democracy, a trusted source of local news – the platitudes are as varied as they are oft-repeated.

But elections – especially general elections – seem to bring out the worst in our national politicians, and they seem to be getting worse. Bearing in mind that prime minister Theresa May’s main reason for not doing televised debates was that she wanted to spend more time actually going around the country, this election should, in theory, be one where the local Press is treated with the respect it deserves.

Is that the case? Not in all cases. One of the websites I work with, Cornwall Live, today reported that a request to film the PM while in the county had been rejected because, apparently, ‘Cornwall Live’ is ‘print.’  Is that how the PR community in Westminster still see the media, split up into different camps based on what we used to do maybe 20 years ago?

It would be unfair to say the Tories have failed to do anything for the local media. The Manchester Evening News got an interview this week, while she wrote for the Coventry Telegraph at the weekend. And Labour’s record with the local media is far from impressive this time out.

But isn’t it time for the local media to get a better deal generally? Of course, I would say yes. 

There’s been some suggestion today that journalists faced with restrictions on what they can do when reporting a political royal visit should just refuse to report on it. To me, that’s the worst thing you can do. It might reduce the impact of the visit – but if press officers are prepared to treat the local media with such contempt, do they really care about local coverage? – but the real loser is the reader.

Ah yes, the reader/voter

And it’s the reader – or rather, volume of readers – which should really be forcing a rethink amongst those trying to get any political leader’s message across during this election. If you look at the media through the lens of how the industry was shaped 20 years ago, you’d probably argue the local Press was in a sorry state. Fewer newspapers, fewer journalists, fewer readers.

But look at what the newsrooms which still produce the Cornish Guardian, West Briton et al do now and it’s a very different picture. These are newsrooms working live across a seven-day week producing one of the country’s fastest-growing news sites. It’s a picture mirrored across the UK.

Most of the newsrooms I work with now reach more local people every day than at any point since the 1970s. The loyal, local readers – as in those returning most days – dwarf the print readerships over which those disconnected with our industry still obsess.

The growth isn’t driven by clickbait, or by publishing hit-and-run copy designed to drag people in and then, ultimately, disappoint. It’s been driven – in the case of the 80-odd websites I work with – by becoming reader-centric at every turn, building a relationship with readers which seeks to inform rather than tell, share rather than shout.

As a result, for any political party seeking to turn a swing seat to its advantage, speaking to the local Press shouldn’t be an awkward afterthought, or something to negotiate two questions around, it should be the first thing on the planning list. I would say this, of course, as I work in the regional Press. But in this case I don’t say this out of pride for my sector of the media, but because it makes sense when you look at what it is politicians are trying to achieve on their royal visits.

Senior politicians visit places which they think they can win, or which they are keen to keep hold of. The 2015 general election was sadly characterised by David Cameron using various places in the UK as little more than backdrops to make his points in the hope of getting on to the 10pm news. The local Press got just one minute with him when he went to Yorkshire, for example:

examiner

Of course, a strategy of saying as little as possible to the local Press is one which increases the chances of not being tripped up. But as the Examiner front page above shows, and the open reporting on the challenges faced by Cornwall Live today proved, it has the ability to backfire.

Are local voters really going to be converted by a closed-shop public appearance in which the local Press are excluded from all but the odd question? Or would a more sensible approach be to actually spend time with the local Press, and make sure the views of the political party becomes part of that day’s conversation between the journalists and their readers?

It’s worth saying the Tories aren’t alone in this strategy of treating the local Press – and its readers – with something approaching contempt. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was happy to pose for selfies at his campaign launch in Croydon, but said no to questions from the Croydon Advertiser.

Turn back time

Contrast that with 2005, the last elections I worked on as a reporter. Tony Blair had few concerns about being re-elected, but his office still agreed to a request from the regional party to take questions from readers of the paper I worked at then, the Lancashire Evening Telegraph based in Blackburn. Those questions were submitted in advance, with a photocall and interview arranged in Downing Street. The LET maybe sold 30,000 copies back then.

On the day before the election, Labour were getting nervous about the Rossendale and Darwen seat in the paper’s patch. Sky TV were treating it as their bellwether seat and had based presenter Kay Burley there for the duration of the campaign. Blair swept in on the even of the election, and his PR people hunted the regional Press out. We got 10 minutes with a man who was in the final hours of his third election campaign as leader. Nothing was off limit.

The current approach of ignoring, or barely tolerating, the local media ignores the relevance the local media has in the lives of far more people than we did in 2005, and the live, instant relationship we now have with our readers. Snubbing our journalists, or restricting their activities, is to treat our readers with contempt.

In defence, the Tories said: “Theresa May has so far taken four times as many questions from journalists as floundering Jeremy Corbyn while his cabinet can’t even answer basic questions about how they would pay for his nonsensical policies.”

A sentence which sums up the problem neatly.

The best thing we can do is report what’s happening and let readers decide. As so many readers of Cornwall Live will have been doing today.

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