Local News Matters - Celebrating & supporting local journalism

  • 13 Mar 2020

Week after week journalists at local papers and radio stations cover the stories and amplify the local voices that would not receive that attention otherwise.

by Carolyn Farrar, leas-chathaoirleach of the IEC and editor of The Irish Journalist.

Local journalism matters more today than ever, when journalism and journalists seem to be under threat as never before.

With glib and untrue cries of "fake news" thrown around like weapons, led by prominent world political figures, the attacks on media trustworthiness sometimes seem like attacks on truth itself.

The public relies on local journalism to be its eyes and ears, holding our elected representatives and unelected officials to account. An informed electorate is vital to a thriving democracy, and strong local journalism is vital to an informed electorate.

I'm a member of the NUJ's Derry and North West branch, a large territory including all of County Donegal and stretching across a section of Northern Ireland from Derry to Omagh, and south to Fermanagh. This vast and largely rural area is home to a strong tradition of local journalism carried out, as is the case across the island of Ireland, under increasingly difficult conditions.

Would the horrific allegations of sexual abuse, hidden for many decades in County Fermanagh, ever have come to light were it not for the powerful investigative work of The Impartial Reporter in Enniskillen, a newspaper serving Fermanagh and South Tyrone? Their stories sparked a major investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

Week after week journalists working at local papers and radio stations cover the stories and amplify the local voices that would not receive that attention otherwise.

When local authorities hold meetings, local journalists are there on behalf of the public, not just reporting what happened on the day but often providing the context and background for the decisions made. Local reporters attend the court sittings that would not receive coverage from national media, but are of particular significance to their local readers.

When Donegal communities are affected by flooding, an increasing occurrence in recent years, local reporters are out in their communities, putting a spotlight on problem areas. When seasonal wildfires break out, local reporters are on the ground in Donegal with the local people who work with emergency services to protect their communities' people and homes, recording the damage and the stories of heroism.

Using traditional and social media, local print and broadcast journalists provided indispensable coverage of the most recent elections in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. And throughout the year, local print and broadcast media bring the drama of local sport to fans back home.

When we face larger crises, such as Brexit and now the Covid-19 pandemic, local newspapers and radio stations keep us apprised of what it means on the ground in our communities.

And we cannot talk about the importance of local journalism without talking about local news photographers. The women and men working for those media outlets fortunate and wise enough to still employ staff or freelance photographers provide an invaluable record of a community's people, places, and events, both joyous and tragic.

But the reduction in photography staff is just another example of the reduced resources plaguing local journalism.

It is important for people to recognise that the stories whose links they share online require the same resources to produce as the stories that appear in the print edition of a paper, or on a local radio station.

While no one would consider walking into a newsagent, putting a newspaper under their arm and walking out without paying, there still seems to be a certain reluctance to pay for the same information if it appears online. As an industry, we need to find ways to change this mindset.

In the same way, media owners and publishers must understand that drastic cuts are not the way to profitability. Good journalism requires dedicated reporters and photographers, supported by editors and publishers. Good journalism costs, but the cost of letting quality slip is even higher.

We will always need local journalism, even as the platforms through which we consume it change.

A couple of years ago I was made redundant along with two other colleagues. I was so moved by the messages I received from people, citing one story or another and the difference it made to them. I am still so grateful to everyone who contacted me. I felt like Tom Sawyer, listening to speakers at his "funeral".

But more than that, it brought home for me the importance of the work of local journalists, and its impact on the communities we serve. Across the NUJ, local journalists are keeping faith with their readers and listeners, covering stories that would not be covered otherwise. If those outlets were to disappear, who would take their place?

There's a meme going around with a bitter sting: "First they came for the journalists. We don't know what happened after that."

Local journalism should be celebrated, but it must be supported. Local news matters.

Carolyn Farrar, a freelance journalist, writer, and editor based in County Donegal, is leas-chathaoirleach of the Irish Executive Council and editor of The Irish Journalist.

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