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Why local journalists matter: Shaun Lintern

10 November 2014

Shaun Lintern

Shuan Lintern HSJ      My name is Shaun Lintern…and I’m a journalist.

This is apparently something one should think twice about admitting in public when according to Ipsos Mori’s veracity index only one in 5 members of the public trust us to tell the truth.

Ironically, this is largely down to media stereotyping and Hollywood but some of it speaks to a deeper issue for the industry - a significant part of the public just don’t believe in our independence and ability to speak truth to power anymore. Post Leveson trust in the media, whether it be national media or local is an issue none of us can ignore.

Local journalists have always enjoyed a better level of trust from their readers. They are usually at the heart of their communities; they live in the same streets and send their kids to the same schools as those they write about. But this is being eroded with the growing number of branch offices being shut and single-handed journalists working on industrial estates about as far from their high street as you can get.

These are the economic realities of companies driven by maintaining profit margins at any cost rather than figuring out how to actually create a successful business model. How then can these journalists maintain the trust of their readers? How can a newspaper command authority when it makes silly mistakes due to a lack of local knowledge? That is a recipe for a declining readership, plummeting staff morale and sinking public trust in your brand and ultimately reductions in the profit margin the company was so keen to protect in the first place.

The impact of this on local democracy and citizen engagement can’t be overstated. Local journalists are a seldom recognised but crucial function of a healthy free society. Somewhere tonight a town council will be holding a meeting and a young, underpaid but nonetheless enthusiastic journalist will be sat alone watching from the press gallery - an under-valued guardian of our democracy we cannot lose.

Editors and media owners must value this role and trust in unique local content not re-written national stories “top and tailed” with a local angle.They must invest in their journalists, give them the time to spend getting exclusive ultra-local valuable content and crucially give them the time and intellectual space to critically appraise it and pose questions and analysis so that readers benefit from that. We have had decades of cutbacks and the dawn of churnalism, and all it has done is drive our readers away. The dawn of the digital age when everyone can have a half-baked conspiracy theory and opinion means the need for considered, informed and accurate coverage has never been greater.

Around 11 years ago I was given an opportunity to help setup a paid for weekly newspaper against an established title. There were just a handful of us and we were told the paper would fold in six weeks. But we concentrated on providing what the local community wanted, restoring the “hatched, matched and dispatched” section to the backpage rather than sport which had been imposed on our rival by its new owners. The paper ran successfully for more than 5 years before being sold on.

As the local journalist who helped to expose the scandal of poor care at Stafford Hospital and who ultimately became a specialist health correspondent as a result, I’ve watched the industry cut back on specialist expertise. Crime, health, transport, education, even local government specialists are endangered species with their beats covered by inexperienced, poorly supported but cheap replacements who might fill column inches but leave readers feeling short-changed.

Investing in specialists and providing the training and time for them to flourish in their roles will always mean world-class exclusive local stories. These specialists will become local celebrities, their coverage respected, their analysis given weight and the readers feeling like they have a quality product. This will produce a stronger better standard of local democracy.

The business model for newspapers needs to change, we’ve got to stop just printing a newspaper and expecting the public to buy it. Most businesses market their products but when was the last time we saw a local newspaper advertise its top-class journalism as a reason to buy it. Instead we seem to prefer giving away seed packets! We need a commercial focus on content-driven subscription services, local business association with the brand, trading on the respect earned by its content.

The issue of trust ultimately also has to be one that rests on individual journalists too. We all need to live up to the ideals of our role and make it worthy of such a lofty title as the ‘fourth estate’. Whatever the problems journalists face whether it be bullying editors, short-staffed newsrooms or scandalous low-pay it is no excuse for us to abandon our own integrity. Journalists have to take responsibility for what they produce; machine gunning FOI requests to all your local councils and labelling it an exclusive investigation is not the stuff of Watergate. Neither is ringing a press office and asking only “for a comment” rather than asking an actual question. Preferring to cut, copy and paste a press release rather than taking the time to read the report it is actually based on isn’t journalism either.

This isn’t easy, I’ve worked as a solo journalist in an office with editors demanding copy and it can be incredibly hard to maintain your own standards. But when it mattered I got out of the office, I knocked on doors, I met my contacts and I followed up their tips. I spend an awful lot of my time writing about the culture change required in the NHS after the Stafford Hospital disaster and I see real parallels with journalism. We need greater personal responsibility but also wider industry leadership from our editors and owners.

Every day local journalists do valuable work. In my own career I’ve helped to catch murderers, raise money for numerous good causes, I’ve held to account those in authority when they have let the public down and I have given a voice to people who turned to me as their last resort to get some justice. It is happening every day across the country, but we cannot take it for granted. We have done for too long.

A free press is troublesome, it’s loud, it’s partisan. But it is also indomitable in its pursuit of the truth and making sure those in a position of power don’t forget who they really work for. This freedom is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness. The industry needs to change and earn the trust of the public. Stronger regulation and personal integrity should be embraced as an opportunity while at the same time we make sure politicians play no part in that regulation and we safeguard fundamentals like the Human Rights Act and the confidentiality of our sources in the public interest.

I’m not sure if all of this is incredibly naïve, but I believe it and I believe in journalism and its potential for a positive impact on our society.

Tags: , local newspapers, specialist writers, health journalism, democracy