Give me a local reporter any day…
A leaked memo from the Chief Executive of Local World, the UK’s third biggest regional newspaper group, has caused a fair bit of controversy recently.
He believes that new technology will allow weekly newspapers to be put together by one person in a “small number of sessions” by “skimming online content” and dailies will be created by a “handful” of office-based staff.
The essence of their business – which is what journalism seems to be becoming – is, no surprise, content. “It drives our commercial activity and so our newspapers, our websites and our content must take pride of place in Local World’s agenda.”
This will mean a high reliance on user-generated content and a small team of office-based staff putting together heavily templated newspapers.
Local World talked about the “content harvesting process”, with journalists inviting organisations and services such as the police forces to publish all their press releases and other information directly on to the websites, so that the publisher acts as the main conduit for information of every type.
Templated pages may cut costs, but they won’t reverse falling circulations. In fact it will only serve to drive readers away in bigger numbers.
Under Local World’s ‘vision’ there will be nothing to choose from other than press releases as there will not be enough journalists to do anything other than copy and paste the latest missive from the council about how great they are.
As a former journalist I know only too well that good regional news, or content, often begins with readers’ pleas, claims or complaints about those same organisations, which need careful exploration.
The plan is that the journalist will embody all the traditional skills of reporter but also become sub-editor, editor-in-chief and publisher.
Yes, all journalists should be able to do so much more than was once the case. The old demarcation lines are now largely obsolete in any newsroom.
But what’s missing from this grand plan is the journalist as reporter – the person who digs for news that the police, hospitals, schools and businesses would rather didn’t get published.
I know this may sound strange coming from someone in PR but one of the fundamental roles of journalists is one of holding people, institutions and local councils to account. And as a result of this, what they do report is more influential.
Sometimes as PRs we may criticise journalists because of the way they cover stories but they approach them factually and, when they have time, research the information properly and do ask the right questions. They are trained to approach them in a balanced way.
If local news becomes a free for all, where any organisation can publish information directly without any consideration, we are in dangerous territory.
It would pose a huge threat to the PR industry. As good consultants we go through several of those journalist editorial checks and balances ourselves to make sure that any copy being drafted and issued by the client is “right”. There could be a number of problems if people start taking on the role of PR themselves without any thought, experience or accountability.
The problem with citizen journalists is there’s no balance or controls and, more importantly, there’s no right of reply.
Peaches Geldof’s Twitter error of naming the women who were abuse victims of the Lostprophets singer and Sally Bercow’s gaff about Lord McAlpine, demonstrates the dangers of unmonitored publishing through unintentional ignorance, lack of awareness, and lack of time to check facts properly.
On local newspaper websites, stories and sources have been researched, written, subbed and edited, as well as undergone certain levels of journalistic process and the fact remains – local newspapers are still influential.
Yes, circulation is declining and many clients see it as not big numbers in terms of audience reach, but local newspapers are still important for PR.
I don’t know what the future will hold but I do know that local news reporters, not content harvesters, have a valuable role to play in reporting the news, shaping our local knowledge and positively influencing the beliefs and awareness in communities.