“Apart from the shit pay and the long hours, it’s the best job in the world.” So says the journalist working on a local weekly newspaper who is sitting next to me at the Regional Press Awards.
Really? What with job cuts, strike ballots, office closures, central subbing, distant managements, daily deadlines being yanked forward, falling sales and disappearing ad revenues, working in the regional press could be seen as a bit of a nightmare.
But as the awards ceremony event unfolds, you realise that despite all the disruption in the sector, one thing hasn’t changed: there are still great stories covered by the local press. Many are based on the unique access regional papers have to their readers who because a journalist is from the local Echo or Chronicle will let them into their lives and tell them their stories.
The weekly reporter of the year, Gareth Davies, of the Croydon Advertiser, who is also on my table, tells me: “What I love is telling someone’s story. I still get the buzz every day. It’s being connected direct to people’s lives and knowing they will be poring over every word.”
I was a judge for the Young Journalist of the Year and Best Front Page. Ben Leo, of The Argus, Brighton, won the young journalist award for entries including an investigation exposing how an energy company encouraged its sales staff to sign customers onto the most expensive tariffs in exchange for higher rates of commission. The policy was changed after Ben’s story was published.
Front page of the year went to the North-West Evening Mail for its ‘Hear Our Voices’ splash of a mosaic of a baby’s face, made up of thousands of tiles, each of which was a picture of a local person who had backed a campaign to save a local maternity hospital. The campaign succeeded.
All these are examples of journalism that makes a difference and matters to the local people who read the titles. To highlight this point, the Newspaper Society marked its annual Local Newspaper Week in May this year with the slogan “Making a Difference” featuring 30 of the best campaigns in the regional press: “highlighting the power of local newspapers to campaign for positive change in the communities they serve”.
Here’s a sample:
* Camden New Journal: Save the Whittington
Objective: To halt plans to sell off half the Whittington Hospital in Highgate. The secret plan was revealed by the CNJ before even local MPs knew. Result: The plans were ditched after a campaign that included sustained weekly coverage, support from local celebrities, a march to the hospital and protest film.
* Cumberland and Westmorland Herald: All Hands to the Pump
Objective: To stop Cumbria County Council reducing the number of fire engines in five towns in the county. Result: The fire engines were saved after sustained coverage in the paper, a petition signed by 13,000 people objecting to the plans, and a protest rally.
* Hull Daily Mail: City of Culture 2017
Objective: To have Hull named UK City of Culture for 2017. Result: The paper held online polls, produced a glossy magazine promoting Hull, visited the previous winner Derry and went to the House of Lords. When Hull won, the Mail produced a 16 page wraparound supplement.
* Manchester Evening News: Save Our Science Museum
Objective: To save the Museum of Science and Industry which was threatened with closure due to funding cuts. Result: The museum was saved after almost 40,000 MEN readers signed a petition backed by local politicians, historians, educators and MPs.
* Yorkshire Post: The Hidden Epidemic
Objective: After it was revealed that loneliness was a major problem in the region, the Post campaigned for all local authorities to write loneliness into their health strategies and encourage more people to volunteer to help. Result: The Post staged a regional summit on the issue attended by 100 experts and got the backing of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham.
At the Regional Press Awards, the Scoop of the Year entries included revelations that teachers at a school in Derby were being ordered to wear hijabs; how a Mayor’s consort was a liar and fantasist; background on a vigilante murder in Bristol; the last interview with a man convicted of the manslaughter of six children in a house fire; how a rapist was tracked down in Hawaii; and an investigation into loan sharks.
The awards also demonstrate how important the regional press is at digging up stories that are then taken up by the national media.
For example, an incredibly moving picture of a father holding his son who was in a coma after a cycling accident has featured in the national press with stories stressing the importance of wearing cycling helmets. It was taken by Anna Draper, of the Lincolnshire Echo, who was named Weekly Photographer of the Year.
Draper, accepting the award, said: “I'd really like to say thank you to the families who let us in. I took a photograph of this boy who was in a coma and they didn’t know what was going to happen to him and that family was brave enough to let people like us go and take photographs and tell their stories."
Vital role for the Regionals
Who will tell these stories if not the regional press via its 1,100 newspapers and 1,700 websites? The nationals no longer try and cover the whole country in the way they did when they had offices in Manchester, northern editors and stacks of regional correspondents.
The fashion now is for London-based reporters to do hit-and-run pieces slagging off various towns, cities or whole regions. A Guardian feature predicting the North East was going to end up like bankrupt Detroit caused outrage. AA Gill in the Sunday Times Magazine has made a specialty out of offending people. He managed to anger the Welsh by describing them as “stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls” and claimed Norfolk was “the hernia on the end of England” before bashing Grimsby and Cleethorpes. He wrote that Grimsby was "on the road to nowhere" and Cleethorpes was "horror-film empty" with "hunched and grubby semi-detached" homes.
Grimsby MP Austin Mitchell responded: "This is crap journalism at its worst. George Orwell came north to express support for the poor and the downtrodden. Now journalists come north to laugh at us."
I love Twitter and the internet but the important news in my area about planning, proposed cuts to health services and local government still comes via my weekly newspaper.
Tom Welsh, the co-author of Essential Law for Journalists, who died in April, was a great supporter of local newspapers, editing titles in North London and the North-West, and he strongly believed they should play a key role in holding to account local elected representatives and public officials.
He was a champion of press freedom and was delighted when local journalists got up in court and quoted Essential Law to challenge wrongly imposed reporting restrictions or took on local councils trying to exclude the press from meetings.
Regional papers play a vital part in maintaining press freedom and keeping an eye on local politicians. The kind of role reflected on by Archant South West managing editor Judi Kisiel in her final column after retiring from the Weston & Somerset Mercury after 25 years.
She wrote: “We set out to become a campaigning newspaper, fighting small and big battles that really mattered in the town. A high point was in 1992 - we gained the top accolade when reporter Andy Sambidge was named the UK Press Gazette Campaigning Journalist of the Year. Our campaign against a Mayor-elect who resigned after we revealed his dubious role in a planning application won the day.”
Kisiel also told how The Mercury clashed with local MP Jerry Wiggin. “In a ‘leader’ column we called for his resignation when he tabled amendments to a Bill in the name of Sebastian Coe MP without asking him. Sir Jerry retired from politics at the next election.”
Success for the independents
This year’s Regional Press Awards also showed how independently owned newspapers can hold their own against the big regional groups. An encouraging sign for those who believe local papers thrive when they are locally owned and managed rather than being part of big corporations.
The Burgess family-owned CN Group in Cumbria, won weekly newspaper of the year (above 20,000 circulation) for the Cumberland News and Daily / Sunday Newspaper of the Year (below 25,000) for the Carlisle News & Star.
The independent free North London weekly Camden New Journal won Campaign of the Year, beating entries from the big city dailies in Newcastle and Hull. While the award for Daily / Sunday Newspaper of the Year (above 25,000), went to the Express & Star, Wolverhampton, another independent newspaper, owned by the Graham family.
There’s something else about the Regional Press Awards. A togetherness and generosity you certainly don’t get at the British Press Awards for the national press. As Nick Ferrari, the presenter of the regional awards noted: “National journalists would rather give their teeth without anesthetic before praising anyone else in the room.”
I wouldn’t want to gloss over the challenges faced by local newspapers trying to adjust to the digital age. One award winning weekly editor at the event told me. “We feel a bit like Tarzan swinging between print and digital.” No one knows if there’s going to be a safe landing.
There has been a tendency to trivialise the regional press and poke fun at underwhelming stories like “Whitstable Mum in custard shortage.” But, in an era dominated by the hacking scandal and at a time when some journalists are trapped in online bunkers writing endless stories about Miley Cyrus’s bottom, it is refreshing to see that good, honest journalism written by committed journalists is still alive and well in the regional press.
It is something the battered British press can be proud of. Shame about the “shit pay” though.
All pictures (expect the Lincolnshire Echo one) by: Nick Carter, MagStar Ltd