Ignored by the party leaders? Maybe local journalism needs to come off the fence

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Local journalism has long been proud of its impartiality when it comes to covering elections. But in failing to see that it’s possible to offer endorsements while still providing balanced coverage, aren’t we effectively making ourselves irrelevant in the most important local conversation of all?

An investigation into the access afforded to local journalists by political parties was published The Bureau of Investigative Journalism on Friday. It concluded that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn were short-changing local journalists during the general election.

This won’t come as a surprise to many local journalists – indeed, the Bureau began looking into the issue, and spoke to dozens of local journalists, on the back of hearing about Cornwall Live’s experience with prime minister Theresa May early in the campaign. May’s people refused permission for the website to film the PM, and kept reporters well away from much of the visit.

The Bureau concluded that May has done interviews with regional media, but often has little of substance to say. Plymouth Herald chief reporter Sam Blackledge summed up the experience I’m sure many have experienced brilliantly here. Corbyn, on the other hand, has done fewer interviews, but has given better answers according to some.

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I’ve seen examples which contradict both conclusions – May certainly delivered an answer to ChronicleLive’s Mike Kelly when he opened a press conference with a zinger of a question, while Corbyn made it quite clear he had no intention of talking to BBC North West Tonight when he visited Salford, and the subsequent package on the evening news (which I can’t find online) should shame the Labour Party.

But there’s no denying it’s becoming harder with each election that passes to get the national parties to take the local press seriously. The election of 2005, when I interviewed Tony Blair the day before the poll as was impressed by his apparent depth of knowledge about local issues, seems much longer ago than the 12 years which have passed. Cynics at the time said ‘he was just well briefed.’ These days, even that would be nice.

So what do we do about it, and why is this the case? I suspect local interviews are seen as a potential banana skin to be avoided at all costs. Much better (for the campaign) to be seen in Huddersfield, in front of a hand-picked audience of factory workers, preaching about issues which match the surroundings than risk actually engaging in those local issues.

Noisier than ever – but silent too?

Yet our journalists reach a greater audience than at any point in the last 30 years. Mike Kelly’s question to the PM in the North East was read and viewed online by many more people than would have bought the paper say 15 years ago – and the thousands of people who still buy the paper today, too. Local politicians get it, which is why so many have been keen to get involved with online hustings held by local newsrooms, watched by many thousands of people.

And political parties understand that print still packs a punch – as demonstrated by their use of wraparound adverts in print. They are prepared to pay to reach our readers, so why not treat our journalists, the people who reach more people locally online and in print every week than anyone else, with a bit more respect?

Maybe we’d carry more clout at party HQs if we were more than just a vehicle for reporting the election, but actually stated who we thought would do the best job for our local area.

Engage, inform, and …

Yes, I know editorial impartiality is something we treasure, but we also pride ourselves on fighting for our communities and informing our communities.

Last week, the Wolverhampton Express and Star got journalism’s watchers chattering with a rather punch editorial column which suggested the titles was coming out in favour of the Tories. Not so, said editor Keith Harrison.

I don’t generally like leader columns in regional papers, especially daily ones. Too often, they are forced to offer a view on something which doesn’t really warrant a view, or they bend over backwards to offer several sides of an argument, concluding with something trite like ‘The important thing, of course, is that all views are heard.’ So the Express and Star editorial was at least honest. The fact it provoked a debate within journalism speaks volumes for how generally placid our opinions are.

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It’s not unheard of for regional news titles to advise readers how to vote. I’m sure I’ve read regional newspaper leaders advising on how to vote in the past, but can’t find any at the moment. Certainly, plenty of titles urged readers to vote ‘Remain’ last year, Scottish titles took sides in the independence referendum, and I remember briefly working on The Journal in Newcastle which vigorously urged people to vote in favour of a regional assembly in a referendum in the early 2000s.

While defeat in that campaign was emphatic when the public vote came, there’s no doubt it did the title the power of good amongst its core readership, partly because it demonstrated the workings out it had undertaken to get to its position. Those workings out were compiled by journalists who week in, week out study what is going on locally, get to grips with what could change, what needs to change and the promises which are being made.

Endorsements, not bias

And that’s the premise that the American regional newspaper tradition of endorsing candidates is built upon. It’s not knee-jerk, it’s considered and involves months of planning. Just look at the list of endorsements made at the Chicago Tribune. Imagine if newsrooms here did that for every council seat at election time. It would require a much greater level of engagement and justification from every council candidate than we get at the moment.

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The Dallas Morning News endorsed Hillary Clinton for president last year, breaking a 75-year run of not endorsing a Democrat. The reaction was very public, including protests at its offices and cancelled subscriptions. I met editor Mike Wilson shortly after, and he was inspiring to listen to when he talked about he sought to turn the protests into a conversation.

“Certainly we’ve paid a price for our presidential recommendation, but then, we write our editorials based on principle, and sometimes principle comes at a cost,” Wilson said in an email to Poynter. “I’ve had a lot of conversations with readers lately, and I respect their views and their right to disagree with us. The most important thing to us is that they vote, even if it’s not for our favorite candidate, because democracy doesn’t work if people don’t vote.”

What’s striking about the American newspaper endorsement approach is that it doesn’t define their coverage. An editorial board will choose who the title endorses, but that won’t then become a standpoint for every reporter to work towards. At least three newspapers in Montana pulled their endorsements for a Republican candidate last week after he ‘bodyslammed’ a Guardian reporter. The Republican still won, and is off to Washington.

Damian Radcliffe, one of the few journalism experts who uses an academic approach to truly study changes and trends in local journalism globally, concluded in a recent project that if small newspapers [and for that, I read local news] are to survive, they need to stop just being passive observers of news. I agree. In an age where everyone can have an opinion and amplify through social networks, it seems odd that the people most expert in determining what should be best for local people remain quiet.

In some ways, journalism and democracy hug the same iceberg. The less people are engaged in democracy, the less likely they are to value our work. Taking a neutral standpoint might avoid tricky conversations with people who disagree, but at least we’d be playing a more active role in democracy – advising people based on our research, our knowledge and our passion for our local areas.

Daily, I see reporters expressing political opinions on Twitter and Facebook, because they are human beings. It does not call into question the ability of their titles to be fair and balanced? I don’t think so.

There would be flack, there would be stick, and there probably would be abuse. But journalism will only survive if it gets better at being part of an ongoing conversation, and as Wilson showed in Dallas, people can be poles apart but still capable of a grown-up discussion.

We aren’t going to shame political parties into talking to us. But the size of our engaged audience can be used to carry an informed message, and ensure a new level of political scrutiny and accountability. If that were to happen, I think it’s a safe bet May’s answers would be a little more interesting, and Corbyn’s diary would suddenly have more time for the local newsrooms which reach, and engage with, the very people they need to win over.

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