“The well-documented squeeze on local journalism, including cuts to staff numbers, pressure from social media and low pay is bound to affect the nature and quality of local news.
The Grenfell Tower tragedy is one shocking example of this. In November 2016 two residents blogged about the possibility of “a serious fire in a tower block”. Why wasn’t this warning picked up locally? The Kensington and Chelsea Chronicle, which had covered residents’ concerns, closed in 2014 and content migrated online to Get West London. Although the Kensington and Chelsea News reopened as part of another group, its sole reporter couldn’t afford to live in the borough and remotely covered the patch from his home in Dorset.
In the case of the vice-chancellor pay story [broken by local newspaper The Bath Chronicle], while to some it looked like a David v Goliath tale of a local rag taking on a giant local employer, the biggest challenge was possibly my newspaper’s business model. To attract advertising, reporters must strive for web hits – it’s a daily pressure in our newsrooms. Like all in Trinity Mirror, the Bath Chronicle is “audience-driven”, meaning that if a story is not getting enough clicks there’s no justification for continuing to cover it.
Even though it was clear there was an audience for scrutiny of the university’s upper echelons, the risk of reader fatigue was always there. I had to ensure that every story took a new and engaging angle and use a different picture wherever possible. I also used social media and tweeted each article directly to 40-odd interested people for them to share or comment.
Last year the BBC announced it had set aside £8m to fund 150 “local democracy reporters”, who will work for qualifying regional publishers and will cover council meetings and public services. It’s a clear attempt to strengthen local reporting, and hold politicians and services to account. The investment should mean that more important stories are covered and may ease pressure on local newspapers as they struggle to pursue leads that need long-term attention. If we don’t hold powerful institutions across the country to account, who will?”