Local journalism’s biggest challenge is still waiting to be solved

Here’s my prediction for 2019: We’re going to spend a lot of time talking about how to fund local journalism. Not perhaps the most remarkable of predictions – and certainly in the same league as that of BBC Media Editor Amol Rajan, who says he doesn’t expect the Cairncross Review into quality journalism to save a single local newspaper.

Or this one from Jay Rosen in the US, echoing the thoughts of Rasmus Kleis, predicting that nobody is going to ride to the rescue of journalism:

Cheery huh? But in focusing, as we so often do, on solving the economic problem local journalism faces (actually all journalism, but perhaps most acutely in local journalism), we often neglect to the problem which sits behind it: Whether people care enough about what we do in the first place.

We’re nigh on 20 years into the digital revolution in local news, but maybe only a decade into local journalism truly understanding it was in the middle of a revolution. It’s easy to put local journalism’s woes into two chapters: Before the internet, and after the internet. While splitting history into two distinct parts works for the world’s best-selling book, it doesn’t really help us solve journalism’s challenge.

For all the change the digital era has brought to local journalism, the most fundamental impact it has had has been the debundling. Again, that’s hardly insight of the century, but too often we look at it only in financial terms. Property went to rightmove, jobs went everywhere, motors went to autotrader, and along came the likes of Facebook and others to jumble up the verticals further.

What we haven’t spent enough time talking about is the content debundling which occurred at the same time. And it’s only when you spend time thinking about that that it becomes clear that the relationship journalism needs with its readers, it may never have had at all.

As a paperboy in the early 1990s, my bag of Lancashire Evening Posts (and the odd Lancashire Evening Telegraph for the Blackburn fans living on the outskirts of Chorley) got significantly bigger on Thursdays and Fridays – jobs night, then motors night. Not just bigger papers, but more copies too. Why did some people only want the paper on a Thursday or Friday night?

As a trainee reporter, one of my tasks used to be taking incredibly long amateur sports reports and chop them into a size which worked for the space we had. Then along came the internet, and the ability to blog and post literally every cough and spit of a game, and the amateur match reports began to dry up on our email. Shouldn’t that have told us something – or warned us about something at least?

And here’s one that has always baffled me: Editors who would launch a campaign or do a front page which they knew would cost sales, but would wear the decision almost as a badge of honour. “It’s the right thing to do for the brand/community/town etc.” Maybe so, but why should doing the right thing mean fewer people want to read the newspaper, or pick it up on that day. We still see it now, with some journalists taking a bizarre pride in their stories not being read. People don’t really need to read my work…

The content bundle, aligned with the commercial bundle, created a business model which served local journalism very well, but which also allowed us to paper over the cracks when it came to our relationship with local people. Sure, local people like the idea of their local newspaper being around – you only have to look at the out-pouring of support for Johnston Press titles when the company briefly went into administration last year – but the idea of paying for one when the bits they like are available elsewhere? Not so much.

Cairncross should hopefully make life a little easier for local journalism – although how remains to be seen – but it can’t solve local journalism’s biggest challenge: Being valued by a public which feels it needs local journalism. That’s a problem which is probably decades in the making, and cuts through so much of hot air we hear about local digital journalism: We need to make people want the stuff we think they need.

It’s not enough for the industry to talk about the importance of local journalism without changing the public’s perceived need for local journalism. It would make us no better than the local councillors who shake their head at the 30% turnouts but then do chuff all to get more people to the polling stations the following May.

Even if Cairncross was to come up with a funding solution which provided a reporter in every council, courtroom, NHS boardroom, CCG meeting and quango discussion in the country, it wouldn’t solve journalism’s biggest challenge: Making readers seek out the stories about these important issues.

For as long as we had a model which bundled content together, and revenue to the content, accidental discovery was maybe enough to give oxygen to such content. Accidental discovery was probably really never enough. We need to find a solution for that.

Local journalism’s real challenge is decades old. The hurricane of change that we call digital just uncovered it. It was there all along. How we solve it will define our future. Accepting it’s not a new problem is just the start.

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