Local News Matters - Let's tell people what we do & why it matters

  • 07 Mar 2020

Seamus Dooley launches the union's local news matters week of action starting today.

by Seamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary

During the Brexit debate, journalists visiting the Irish border could not resist the temptation to reach for Churchill's description from 1922 "The whole map of Europe has been changed … but as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again." Many also reached, as visiting journalists often do, for local newspapers to gain an insight into life in the region.

Tip O'Neill's great phrase "all politics is local" informed some of the best writing on Brexit and it was instructive to see local journalists addressing the information deficit and focussing on the local impact of seismic pollical developments of global significance.

Journalistic visitors to Enniskillen relied heavily on the Impartial Reporter, it was founded in 1825 and is one of the oldest newspapers in Ireland. It's an institution in Enniskillen and serves Fermanagh and South Tyrone, with additional sales across the border into the Irish Republic. Edited by Sarah Saunderson, the paper is an example of the importance of solid local journalism and reflects community life beyond the Churchillian cliché.

What has marked out the Impartial Reporter in recent years however has been the commitment of its deputy editor Rodney Edwards, who has devoted endless hours to a long-running investigation into historical child sexual abuse in Fermanagh.

Edwards shone a spotlight on allegations of sexual abuse over many decades and this sparked a major investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland leading to a number of arrests. That live investigation is ongoing and is a striking example of how local newspapers can make a difference.

Quality journalism does not just happen. It requires resources. It requires brave journalists. And it demands supportive editors and publishers.

Our Local News Matters campaign is an opportunity to celebrate quality journalism and to speak not just to ourselves but to our readers and audiences and to those who engage with us. More importantly it's an opportunity to highlight our work and to engage with those who may not always read our newspapers or listen to local radio.

The decisions taken by elected councillors and planners have a direct impact on the quality of life of families, the actions of health and education boards and committees profoundly influence the services which we receive.

Yes, far too many media organisations do not have sufficient resources to attend local authority meeting, never mind time to analyse development plans, navigate obstinate freedom of information regimes or study impenetrable strategic reviews.

Slashed editorial budgets and shared editorial content between sister titles means less diversity not just in opinions but in what is covered and how stories are reported.

As the desire for market share and higher profits prevails over editorial values – journalism suffers, with a consequent impact on democracy at local and national level.

The unrestrained power of the market combined with political cowardice and an abject failure of imagination in dealing with technological advances and changes in consumer demand have contributed to an undermining of quality local journalism.

And it's not just political coverage that is suffering. Court reporting takes time and demands resources. Sport, the lifeblood of local journalism, is of major importance to our communities yet staff and freelance budgets are under constant attack, as well as provision for photography.

Many media owners believe that media organisations have a right to exist as they wish in a free market and to do as they wish, subject only to the laws of the media jungle. If we believe that journalists have a right of access to information, that journalistic sources and the right to freedom of expression should be protected we must also accept that rights and freedom also bring great responsibility.

The concept of a public space is understood in the case of broadcasting. I suspect few would argue that there is not any value in public service broadcasting – although even that concept is under threat from commercial forces who argue that the ability to broadcast is a commercial activity which should be facilitated rather than regulated in the public interest.

If we recognise the need for public service broadcasting is there not an argument for the state to proactively promote and encourage public interest journalism? At a minimum the state could assist through taxation measures. We also need to discuss how we can promote a diverse media, how the media can reflect our multicultural society, how we can address the gender imbalance in our newsrooms, enable ethnic minorities to have a voice and take their place on screen, in our newsrooms and on prominent digital platforms.

Governments can play a role in nurturing quality journalism and an independent media. And I take with a large dose of salt the concerns of publishers who are concerned about state interference while simultaneously failing to honour their own obligations. News organisations have a civic role in reporting local government, parliament, courts and public affairs if they are to fulfil their mandate in a meaningful way.

A growing number of local communities, in the UK and Ireland, are now at the whim of media conglomerates. The deterioration in terms and conditions of employment is having long term consequences for recruitment and on the quality of journalism but we are fighting back. There will always be a need for independent, verifiable information and for informed analysis.

Media organisations must respond to the challenge of emerging digital technologies with a commitment to and investment in editorial excellence. It is independence, the pursuit of excellence and a commitment to factual newsgathering and rigorous analysis which can ensure that local journalism remains relevant.

Local news matters – let's use this week to tell people what we do and why it matters.

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