COMMENT 

The importance of local journalism

In today’s digital age, one of the biggest challenges facing journalism is how to ensure high-quality content remains a priority.

By Richard Reeves

The importance of local journalism
Aaron Walawalkar’s investigation into the rough sleeping crisis in Redbridge subsequently raised £21k for a crowdfunding campaign designed to address the issue. Photograph: Jon Tyson on Unsplash

With growing numbers of the public opting for digital platforms as their primary news sources, the Cairncross review highlighted how quality journalism is now more important than ever.

Today’s readers live in an era of divisive politics and fake news, underscoring the vital need for public-interest news from trustworthy sources. Local journalism is crucial for sustaining a functioning democracy.

Many local newspapers, however, are under pressure to maintain profit margins, which has led to publishers reducing investment. There is also a need to offer opportunities for underserved, local audiences to get involved with news. The HuffPost Listens in Birmingham project demonstrates the success of these engagement schemes, but cost and time constraints prohibit many local publishers from offering them.

The two sides of supporting journalism

Identifying the key challenges to quality journalism is the first step to raising awareness. With the support of organisations such as AOP’s Journalist Advisory Board (JAB), alongside the Google News Initiative, these issues can be brought to light and plans for change can be implemented.

To effectively sustain high-quality journalism, AOP created the JAB to pinpoint the most pressing issues faced by the industry. Through the JAB, senior editors from major publications, including BBC, HuffPost, and The Independent, identified the two most challenging areas – public perception alongside skills and development. The industry can begin to resolve these concerns with both internal and external education, supporting a cultural shift towards sustainable journalism.

Ensuring readers are able to recognise premium publishing has never been more important.

Public perception of journalism

Ensuring readers are able to recognise premium publishing has never been more important, due to shifts in consumer habits and behaviours. Loyalty to singular news brands is declining and the majority of content is consumed off-platform, making the source more obscure. This issue is compounded by the arrival of new formats, such as podcasts, which further contribute to a decline in brand awareness.

Combined with these developments in reader habits, there is also a growing scepticism of journalism among the general public, influenced by a growing anti-media bias. This perception is not helped by what appears to be a lack of understanding about journalism’s purpose and the full process behind it. Educating the public on how content is created and discovered is one way to effectively reduce the stigma and negative perceptions attached to the news, alongside the professionals producing it.

For local newspapers, greater public trust can be achieved through journalists engaging with the community as a story develops and generating further content. Although cost and time limitations can hamper most publishers from implementing this, local journalism holds great value for communities – as exemplified by the case of Ilford Recorder journalist, Aaron Walawalkar. Aaron’s investigation into the London Borough of Redbridge’s rough sleeping crisis subsequently raised £21k for a crowdfunding campaign designed to address the issue. The surrounding community supported the cause as a result of the exposure, but Aaron claimed the biggest challenge was establishing trust. Journalists therefore need access to the tools and mentorship that enable them to develop, nurture, and hone skills such as building rapport with the local community and the other essential skills necessary for breaking down barriers in the journalistic process.

The demands of contemporary journalism need to be addressed from the outset.

Skills and development

With the media industry continuing to evolve rapidly, it is vital for journalists to keep apace of new developments. Given the nature of today’s media, this would entail not only a ratified training system, but ongoing opportunities to progress throughout their careers.

The demands of contemporary journalism need to be addressed from the outset. This can be achieved by establishing stronger consistency across journalism courses, with educational bodies adhering to industry best practices. Throughout their careers, journalists also need to be supported by a formalised mentorship scheme spanning all levels of experience. This scheme would allow the industry to bridge the current skills gap at low cost. As an example of how this would play out; experienced journalists would be kept up-to-speed on digital developments, while newly-qualified journalists are equipped with traditional skills, such as court reporting.

By defining a clearer, industry-wide sense of what is expected of journalists, the responsibilities that come with the role can be better understood. Access to centralised resources and a professional development scheme would also support the cultural change needed in journalism.

Drawing awareness to the importance of sustainable journalism and supporting it will ensure local journalists such as Aaron can carry out quality reporting. This offers huge value to communities, giving a much-needed voice to otherwise unrepresented people or issues. To make this happen editors, journalists, and digital experts must come together to build journalistic skills in digital publishing. The JAB is a starting point, and events such as ‘Raising standards and building trust in quality journalism’ by the AOP and Google News Initiative are steps in the right direction. It now requires active support and participation from journalists and wider industry players to address the challenges raised, and initiate a cultural evolution.