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Local News Matters - Local newspapers do matter. Period.

9 March 2020

Dara Bradley

"Uproar as NUIG female interviewees are asked about their menstrual cycle", screamed the sub-head on the front page of the Galway City Tribune.

It was under the blow-out headline, "Out of the Question", in the local paid-for weekly tabloid in the West of Ireland’s capital city.

It was a decent yarn - an exclusive - that revealed the local university, NUI Galway, was asking sexist questions about women’s menstrual cycles in pre-employment health assessment questionnaires.

Among the invasive questions NUIG asked prospective employees were: "Do you suffer with any problems with your menstrual periods? Do you suffer any breast problems? Have you ever been treated for gynaecological problems?"

For a publicly-funded university to pose such personal questions to prospective employees was bad enough. But the timing of the story’s publication in 2015 made matters worse.

It was an unfortunate coincidence for NUIG that its publication coincided with the cases of five women lecturers being filed in the High Court and Circuit Court. They were pursuing the university for gender discrimination, claiming they had been denied promotion solely because they were not men.

Initially, NUIG defended the pre-employment questionnaire. After the story was published, and was picked up by national and international print, online and broadcast media outlets, the third-level institute relented. It suspended its questionnaire, and introduced new pre-employment health screening without misogynistic queries. The episode also fed into NUIG’s equality taskforce established to review its gender-equality policies.

I recall this story because of the week that’s in it. International Women’s Day was celebrated on Sunday, and all this week the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is promoting its campaign, Local News Matters.  

It is just one small example of how quality local journalism does matter - and can make a difference.

While on the topic of local newspapers and third level institutes, it’s worth mentioning the superb journalism by the Limerick Leader that exposed an expenses scandal and misuse of public money by the University of Limerick.

UL sued the paper - it subsequently dropped that action - but without the bravery and doggedness of reporter Anne Sheridan, and the backing of her colleagues and editor, the whistle-blowers' claims may never have come to light.  

Most stories covered by the Galway City Tribune, Limerick Leader and local newspapers like them, are not 'sexy'. Most stories will not advance women's rights or gender equality in universities, or lead to changes in financial practices in third-level institutes.

The majority of stories go unnoticed by national and international media.

But that doesn't mean the news that appears in the pages of local newspapers - and on local radio stations - every week is any less important. Far from it.

Yes, you'll find trivial or 'silly' stories in local papers. And yes, sometimes local journalists striving to find a local angle on national or international events, can produce a hyper-local headline that borders on the embarrassing when viewed in the context of the wider event. Usually these front pages are held up to be sneered at by a condescending mob on Twitter.

However, the staple diet of most paid-for local publications - court cases and reports on council meetings - is vital to a functioning democracy. Without local newspapers, who will report on district court sittings?

And aside from this being a deterrent - in Ireland there is a shame associated with being named in 'the paper' for even minor offences - is justice really served if it is not seen to be served, and published? Would recommendations about process failures in the health system, for example, from the coroner's court, be implemented without publicity in local newspapers?

It’s the same for council meetings. Even under the watchful eye of local media, local politicians make questionable decisions.

Imagine what their decision making would be like without scrutiny of local media? Who else will hold to account local politicians and management of councils, who often have more effective power? The more transparency, and the more people know about what our politicians and policy-makers are doing, the better the quality of the decision-making.

It’s not just news where local media excel.

Sports sections of local newspapers provide unrivalled coverage of minority sports, as well as schools, underage and club matches that you cannot get anywhere else.

They also provide more in-depth coverage of the 'bigger' games compared with the nationals - The Mayo News, for example, has set the bar high in its pull-out supplements ahead of the county's flagship football team's championship matches.

Local radio provides a similar public service function, particularly for big sporting occasions; around the world on all-Ireland final day emigrants are glued to the commentary of Galway Bay fm or Kerry Radio or whatever.

From hard-hitting news stories gleaned from freedom of information requests or dogged journalism, to unrivalled coverage of courts and councils; and from lists of the winners of the local bridge game in community notes' sections, previews and reviews of amateur and professional drama groups in the arts pages, to match reports and previews of U17s rugby or GAA matches, and photographs of prize heifers in the farming sections, local newspapers have it all.

They not only provide the stories local readers want; they reflect the community they represent.

Leader of the 1916 rising, Pádraig Pearse said: "Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam" - a country without a language is a country without a soul. I believe the same is true of local news. A community without a local newspaper, is a community that lacks soul because local news truly does matter.

Dara Bradley is a journalist with the Connacht Tribune Group in Galway. A member of the West of Ireland branch of the NUJ, he is the cathaoirleach of the Irish executive council (job-share) and a member of the union's incoming national executive council (job-share).

Tags: , ireland, newspapers, local journalism, local news matters, local news matters week