What local elections tell us about the future of local journalism

Like many journalists no longer reporting, election night brings with it a pang of envy. The long hours waiting for something to happen, the many tells of what might be about to happen (counting voting stacks, judging body language, noting who has suddenly left the room) and the snacks. If you’re lucky, the council provides them. If you’re not, well, thank goodness for 24-hour petrol stations.

This year’s local elections were dubbed ‘Super Thursday’ due to the volume of elections which took place. Last year’s – cancelled due to Covid – were rolled over a year so we had perhaps more elections on one day than ever before.

And there’s been plenty of drama. The quotes have been amazing. The interpretation less so. No local election should be an assessment of Keir Starmer’s performance as Labour leader (a byelection, on the other hand…), nor should the Tories taking Nuneaton be a mandate for Boris Johnson’s policy agenda (that would be the 2019 general election, of course).

That too often, the Westminster bubble annexes local elections to support particular narratives, or local politicians who’ve failed to win favour hide behind ‘the national picture’ is a huge worry – and perhaps explains why fewer than 40% of adults in Greater Manchester bothered voting at all. And Greater Manchester is far from alone in this regard.

The audience data I’m seeing suggests that interest in local government is growing – year after year, more people see the stories about who is standing, who has won, and what they’re promising. Is this because more people are actively seeking it out or because they’re stumbling across it while reading other stuff? It probably doesn’t matter – that it’s being read is surely a good sign.

What election night reminded us of is the importance of the industrial nature of local journalism.

We often debate whether journalism is a profession or a trade. Wags throw in “calling” too. Truth is, it’s all three/four. Most importantly, however, it’s an industry that is at its most powerful when it has an industrial strength.

Within that industry there should be all sorts of ownership models – non-profits, memberships, small businesses, large businesses. Any organisation that is committed to the future of journalism should surely be welcome.

What election night demonstrates is the importance of an industrialised journalism, one which succeeds if its journalism is read, and appreciated, by readers. A journalism which seeks out people, rather than waiting for readers to seek out the journalism.

The real-time Tweets from thousands of local journalists, on the ground and in the room, and paid to be able to provide both fact and instant context, is made possible by an industrialised journalism. Election night is both a niche pursuit – how many ‘normal’ readers stay up any more? – and a demonstration of the power of local journalism’s ability to inform at scale.

Too often, the debates around the future of journalism dismiss the role of large, profit-seeking companies. “Their model is broken,” you’ll hear critics cry. Yet their journalism is being read by more people than ever before, and it’s these organisations investing the most in journalism at the moment. Newsquest’s £1.5m last week (50 jobs), or the c.150 digital local news jobs Reach (the company I work for) has created since December.

In the case of Reach, Chartbeat has been remarkable to watch this weekend. Alongside the established brands such as WalesOnline, the Liverpool Echo, ChronicleLive and the MEN, huge numbers of readers have been getting local election coverage in counties like Yorkshire, Hampshire and Northamptonshire. That’s important civic journalism reaching more people than ever before.

These are newsrooms which are always on, which have strength in depth, and can get important stories in front of readers who might not be looking for them. Newsrooms which write for anyone and everyone, and which are relentlessly reader-led.

Scale matters in more ways than one. Larger companies, especially under the umbrella of organisations such as the News Media Association, can make a louder noise about the support the industry needs. Against the huge tech companies that have become the gatekeepers of reader attention, they can make a stronger impression. In the face of councils who’d rather do without the hassle of public notices being seen, they can make a noise. Against councils and the press offices who constantly try to control public debate about civic issues, they have the ability to by noisy.

Politicians, local and national, are happy to attack the credibility of journalism and journalists when they don’t like what they’re reading. Maybe the politicians of Bristol who subjected the local democracy reporter Adam Postans to childish and petty ridicule in the council chamber didn’t expect a full-throttle response from his title, Bristol Live and the Bristol Post, in response. That’s what they got – and it’s proof that scale of organisation can be empowering for journalism too.

Thursday night’s local elections were further proof of that. The audience is reading – how do we get them voting?

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