Worry about quality first — the proof is there that profits follow
By Dr Rachel Matthews, Principal Lecturer in Journalism, Coventry University
Which story from the local media will you remember from 2018 and why?
The stories I remember most are the ones that didn’t receive coverage. Local to me tend to be local government stories — I do feel that the skills around scrutinising local authority processes are not evident in my local paper (Newsquest if you’re interested). Similarly, there has been very little coverage of the state of school funding, which is a huge issue in my rural county because it is among the worse funded counties in the countries. These are easy-to-find stories.
What has surprised you most about local journalism in 2018?
That commentators are finally twigging that the social role of local journalism is really important — and probably too important to be left to the vagaries of profit.
The examples I cite above are precisely why we need efficient, effective local journalism which speaks for and to communities. It’s not just a case of filling space between ads.
Interestingly there is also research which is linking the above the profit — or at least to enough profit to be sustainable — mainly based on practice in other areas of Europe. This strikes me as a promising trajectory.
What do you see as the biggest challenges facing local journalism in 2019?
Funding the above. The tension between profit and public service has stretched local journalism beyond breaking point. If share-holder companies want to continue to justify their practice in terms of social good there is a job of work to be done in terms of revisiting the idea of what products which serve communities should actually look like — rather than being entrenched in an established way of working.
What advice would you give to local journalists planning for 2019?
Think consciously about what you think your job is and then think what sort of journalism might follow from that.
My experience is that most local journalists really value the idea that they make a contribution to communities, but newsrooms are pressured environments and there is often very little time for reflection on if they really do that.
What do you hope will happen in 2019?
That the conversation about the value of local journalism gains the recognition it deserves beyond industry and us few academic stalwarts.
What can local editors to make their newsrooms more attractive to students or people considering entering the profession?
We get on really well with our forward-thinking editor! Our difficulty is engaging students in local news. The point above would help to counter that.
What do you think local newsrooms are doing wrong at the moment?
I think the emphasis on technology has shifted local newsrooms away from the purpose of their practice.
In essence a local newspaper is a relationship with a community — the mode of delivery of that relationship is secondary.
But an emphasis on digital means that newsrooms can see things like UGC content as contributing to their product — when in fact they may add little to that relationship. Thinking back through why people value local newspapers would, I suggest, impact on news judgements and news practice.
If you had one piece of advice for a local editor, what would it be?
Worry about the quality first — there is growing evidence that the profit will follow!
Dr Rachel Matthews is Principal Lecturer in Journalism, Coventry University. Dr Matthews’s research is on the past, present and future of the local newspaper. In particular, Dr Matthews focuses on the relationship between local newspapers and communities and sees this as being at the heart of a sustainable future for titles. Dr Matthews is an NCTJ-qualified journalist and worked in the regional newspaper industry for 15 years in various roles including reporter, news editor, sub editor and deputy editor.