Local news reporting – no thanks

(note: this post was written some 36 hours before one of my NCTJ* exams. Therefore, my feelings towards the NCTJ and local news reporting in general are, at this moment in time, less than charitable)

When did you last pick up one of these? Courtesy of John Thirm, Flickr

Drudgery is something nobody wants to do for a career. I accept that, if you need the cash, you’ll put up with a lot. After all, having a roof over your head is infinitely preferable to a cardboard box. But in the context of journalism, I’m struggling to see why you’d put yourself in the firing line of local news.

Job prospects in journalism are at an all time low, with there being fully 1/3 fewer jobs now than there were ten years ago. This is not a healthy industry. Combine that with the spectre of employees at Newsquest mulling a nationwide strike, allied with plummeting circulation figures for hard copies and you begin to see the scale of the problem.

Set against this context of a collapsing industry is the local news sector. Now, you and I both know that local news operations are absolutely vital; as well as keeping locals up to date, the national media also rely heavily on them for generating their own stories. Unfortunately for local papers, falling circulation combined with papers that are often little more than advertising brochures with the occasional “missing dog” story tucked somewhere inside make them an ever less attractive prospect for the consumer. That, and you can normally find their biggest stories online for free – after all, how else do you expect the nationals to pick them up?

The long and the short of it is, there are precious few jobs available and for those that are going, you need to be a jack-of-all-trades (or have the NCTJ qualification, which amounts to the same thing). As well as the universal newsgathering  and reporting skills, you apparently need to be a media lawyer, a Westminster pundit, a local government expert (understandable) and be a web communications guru (social media, search engine optimisation, photography and video, etc) as well.

In my humble view, you simply cannot produce reportage and analysis if you’re constantly keeping up with all of these things. Take this report from the Harrow Observer on problems with new trains on the Metropolitan Line. It refers to them as “S-Class” (they’re actually called “S Stock”) and there’s no explanation of what a “sleet train” actually is (it’s a train fitted with special brushes that runs all night, when the Underground’s normally closed, and sweeps snow and ice off the rails).

Do I blame the hapless hack for these mistakes? Partly. On the one hand, fact-checking is every journalist’s personal responsibility, and it can’t help that the big newspaper companies are looking at moving their operations into regional “sub-editing hubs” despite the consequences. On the other hand, when you’re working alongside just five other people to fill a 56-page newspaper every single week, well, I can excuse some errors if you’re working under that kind of pressure. The simple fact, though, is that this sort of thing doesn’t do your reputation any good.

The Week, an organ I’ve singled out before on this blog, proves that educated and informed analysis is the future of journalism. Hard news is becoming an increasingly worthless commodity that’s instantly recycled and plagiarised by all of your competitors, removing the uniqueness of your scoops. In this market-driven era of journalism, no matter how good your local news reporting may be, if you can’t get a good price for it then there’s not much point in trying to make a living from selling it.

And so we come full circle – you’re slaving your guts out for below average in an increasingly hyper-competitive market. Your product’s suffering, you’re being worked harder and harder and expected to learn more and more skills that used to be the preserve of many others, and all the time everyone else is stealing your stuff.

Of course, the truth is probably miles away from this and my uninformed rant is just that, but hey, it was therapeutic and helped clear my mind for my law revision. 🙂

*The NCTJ is the National Council for the Training of Journalists. This mob run the very local-news-focused NCTJ Diploma, towards which I’m currently studying.

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About Gaz Corfield

B2B reporter, editor, potential entrepreneur, consumer of quality beers.
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