Friday, 8 June 2012

Local newspapers are great and you should know it

Most journalists who have never worked at local newspapers have no idea how great local newspapers are.

Some will say local reporters only write about school fêtes, giant sunflowers, endure boring council meetings to write a down page (the second most important story on a page, usually about 200 words’ long), and churn press releases. That’s one way of looking at it.

When I used to work at a local newspaper, what I saw was a newsroom full of people who knew their trade inside out. Reporters who did a sterling job covering court cases, and who could build an argument and present it in front of a judge to have a court order lifted. Reporters who gave local councils, NHS Trusts, and police a hard time, if they chose to hide their murky business from the public. Reporters who would work the longest hours during the week and yet volunteer to work at weekends (because of the money as well – we all had to pay our rents).

Local newspaper newsrooms are where reporters learn to be reporters. They learn how to deal with people and become welcome at their homes; they learn to be compassionate when listening to their stories, and to identify the issues that are important for local communities. They are the ones, despite the hard times and severe cuts in most newsrooms in the country, who are closest to the public.

If you are a local reporter, you need to talk to people to get stories. You need to get to know the busybodies, the politicians, the shop owners, the community leaders and as many local people as you can.

That is precisely the reason why so many national newspapers look to local newspapers for stories.

It is hard for the public to notice when a story has been sold by a local newspaper to a national. It’s usually done via news agencies, but reporters also sell their own stories sometimes.

Consequentially, it is hard for the public to know when local newspapers have been shortchanged.  But it happens a lot.

The most recent example I can give is happening to my old paper, the Streatham Guardian. Their reporter Rachel Blundy (who writes the whole newspaper by herself) landed an exclusive that was reproduced by the Daily Telegraph, with no credit and no pay.

I don’t particularly like or agree with the story, but it pains me to see young talented local reporters being robbed of the credit for their hard work. When Rachel contacted the Telegraph news desk, according to her, they said there was nothing they could do.

Well, I have a couple of suggestions: 1) you can give her a byline on your website, and 2) you can pay her the appropriate fee for a story that goes in print (as this one did).

I have emailed the reporter whose byline appeared at the top of the story, Richard Alleyne, to ask if the story came from a news agency. I’ve had no response yet.

If the story came from a news agency, I understand from speaking to Rachel that, whichever agency that was, they were not authorised to sell it on the Streatham Guardian’s behalf.

Unfortunately, this dismissive and disrespectful view of local papers has been growing for a few years now.

Due to the attitude of most national newspapers - including the Guardian, the Telegraph and so on - it is highly unlikely that local newspaper reporters, despite their training, knowledge and capability, will end up in staff jobs at those newspapers.

To add insult to injury, they constantly have their work lifted by nationals, with no credit whatsoever.

With all due respect to many young national reporters I know, who are very talented, the reality is that newspapers have been taking on kids straight out of their MA courses, from top universities, with no real work experience. By doing that, they are not only filling their newsrooms with inexperienced reporters, they are putting themselves at risk (remember the reporter who tweeted a juror’s name and made a trial collapse), and denying those who are trained and experienced an opportunity to work at national level.

I know one extremely talented award-winning reporter who was given shifts at a national, after nearly four years working at a local paper. When she started, her colleagues, who mostly fit the category above, told her she would have to “up her game now” because that wasn’t the same “as some local newspaper”.

All I can say is, despite the prejudice, she is so great she’s been wiping the floor with them. But that doesn't make it any less absurd that this is the view being perpetuated in national newsrooms nowadays.

I wish editors like Alan Rusbridger, James Harding, Tony Gallagher and others would change their minds about turning their newspapers into exclusive clubs for those who have the privilege to go to top universities. They might claim local newspapers are dying, but ignoring the gold that comes out of them is only hammering another nail in their coffin, and denying reporters from a multitude of backgrounds a chance to work for a major title.

It would also help, of course, if they recognised they benefit from the good work done by locals, by always paying them for their stories or not forgetting to credit their reporters.

But since it seems unlikely things will change, my advice to local reporters out there is, if someone steals your story, give them a hard time. Your hard work is worth a lot, so don’t let them get away with it.


  1. I sympathise with your points but it's not quite as straightforward as you're portraying it. So here are three points of my own:

    1. Local papers have stories in them every week that originated in the national media and they don't credit or pay those national sources and journalists.

    2. Most agencies have reciprocal arrangements with the local papers in their areas. They use stories in return for allowing free use of their own stories and, even more often, pictures. Maybe this is the case with the agency that pushed the story you speak of and the Streatham Guardian?

    3. You can't copyright news. No-one owns it. Once it's out, it belongs to everyone - so why should I, if I am a national newspaper, pay a fee to repeat that news when it was not produced originally for me and others are talking about it? Where is the dividing line between my national newspaper and the many bloggers who will have blogged about that story? How about the tweeters and the people talking at the water cooler? Of course, it's about fair play, rather than the law, and - in my experience - it's the agencies, not the nationals or locals who are doing all the taking and none of the giving. National papers are often generous beyond what is necessary in terms of paying small tip fees if the source is deemed worthy,

  2. Genial, pequena amiga. Adorei o texto! Lembro da questão agência pequena vs agência grande no meu mundo publicitário.


    Dindo Bebê

  3. Michael, if you read the Streatham Guardian and Telegraph stories you will see they are word for word the same. No one "owns" news - but people do own their actual writing. Simples.

  4. Thanks Mark and I absolutely take your point. But I wasn't referring specifically to this case. I was making the point that the general theme of nationals re-using local news is complex.

    There is a copyright issue if the Telegraph story was a cut and paste job from the Streatham Guardian. So there is easy resolution with reference to the law. Words can be copyrighted and that is a different issue. No-one, least of all me, would argue a word-for-word copy is wrong. That debate has already been settled.

    However, I'm not arguing against that and I don't think Thais was referring to clear cut cases of cut-and-paste copyright breaches. I think she was referring to the times when national newspapers use local newspapers' stories and change the wording to protect themselves from copyright claims. I imagine Thais would argue that national newspapers should credit and pay the source of the news simply because they found it, and that the Telegraph should have credited Rachel Blundy even if they had added their own quotes to the story, regardless of the fact that she chose to make it public elsewhere.

    I think this is what we are debating. Thais, I'm sure, will correct me if I am wrong and she was limiting her argument to national papers copying words, sentences and quotes.

    1. Michael, thanks for the comment. I was actually referring to copy and paste jobs, but it would be a good exercise for newspapers to at least credit another newspaper as the source of a story, if they're going to re-write the story, but use the quotes, for instance.

      If they're not going to use the quotes, and just follow up the story with their own quotes, then they don't have to credit, in my opinion. In that case, they're just re-hashing, but not strictly copying somebody else's work.

      If it's a breaking news story, for example, the story itself doesn't really belong to anyone, but if someone gets an exclusive picture, or an exclusive interview (i.e. with the family of a murdered person), then I think they deserve credit (or payment) for their work, even if others are going to reproduce only the picture or the quotes.

  5. Thais, thanks for clarifying and apols for misunderstanding. I certainly don't think there are any grey areas re. cut and paste jobs. It's also an issue that has been debated and settled by our law-makers.

    A picture, of course, cannot be reproduced without permission - so that's a debate that has also already been settled and legislated upon (if you'll excuse my sloppy grammar).

    I agree to an extent regarding interviews, although - again - this is already dealt with by copyright law. If you take large, identifiable parts of the interview word-for-word, it's a prima facie contravention of the law. However, if Usain Bolt gives an interview to Runner's Monthly advocating the use of performance-enhancing steroids, how long - if at all - should the world's media feel obliged to refer to that publication? What of he repeats the claim on Twitter as soon as the publication comes out? Etc, etc. Grey areas.

    1. I see your point. When I say quotes, I mean quotes from an exclusive interview. If a newspaper will reproduce them on a story, I think it's only right the reporter (or newspaper) whose exclusive it is, should get credit. It shows respect for someone else's hard work and I think it's good practice as well.

  6. Dear Michael,
    Re your comment below:
    1. Local papers have stories in them every week that originated in the national media and they don't credit or pay those national sources and journalists.
    It is extremely rare that a local paper will have a story that started in the national media, unless perhaps some matter of government policy affecting their area that may have already been covered by the national media but that is not the same as an exclusive story. I have worked in a big local paper for one year and have never seen us follow coverage in nationals