City halls corruption or racoon cats? Both have their place in local journalism

Newspaper owners have been cutting staff at the expense of good-quality journalism


On John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, the American satirist showed a spoof trailer for Spotlight, a film about reporters at the Boston Globe who uncovered the scandal of sexual abuse by clergy in the city.

The scene is a news conference where a doughty reporter has a scoop about corruption at City Hall, but it’s his colleague with a picture of a cat which looks like a racoon, or maybe the other way round, who catches the attention of the news editor.

Because it is all about ‘clickability’. Who wants to read a hard-hitting report about corrupt city councillors when you could look at a cat which looks like a racoon?

Back to real life, and a young reporter on the Croydon Advertiser has taken redundancy…and has not gone quietly.  Gareth Davies’s newspaper had been recently taken over by Trinity Mirror. He left in disgust because he says he can no longer do the investigative journalism that has won him many awards.

‘A paper with a proud 147-year history is reduced to being a thrown together collection of clickbait written for the web,’ he said on leaving.

Lee Marlow has also lost his job, just over a month after being named feature writer of the year for a third year running at the regional press awards. Trinity Mirror decided to dispense with him and the rest of the Leicester Mercury features team.

Davies and Marlow tell a similar tale, backed by others who have written to the Press Gazette, of newsrooms cut to the bone, staff with huge workloads and a shift to the quick and dirty journalism of listicles and trivia.

Specialist journalists covering courts, councils, health authorities and schools are becoming a dying breed.

The newspaper industry is in crisis. Advertising revenues are low and are being scooped up by Google and Facebook. People have become used to not having to pay for news.

The response of newspaper owners has been to cut staff and costs often at the expense of investing in quality journalism. So people notice that their local paper isn’t as good as it used to be.

For the staff it means low wages and long hours. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report ‘Journalists in the UK‘, found that one in five journalists earned less than £19,200 a year, likely to be at or below the living wage for many; 83 per cent of journalists in their mid- to late twenties earn less than £29,000, an income that makes buying a property a significant challenge.

Older, experienced journalists are almost glad to go when the inevitable next round of redundancies are announced, worn down by years of not getting a pay rise and having to grind out ever-increasing numbers of stories. This leaves the burden on inexperienced staff.

Last year NUJ members working on Newsquest-owned titles in south London voted to go on a ten-day strike because of redundancies and to persuade management to pay trainees a living wage. This summer, an unofficial recruitment freeze has created a desperate situation, with two newspapers being produced largely, or entirely, by unpaid interns and students on work experience.

That is why the NUJ is asking people to support its Local News Matters campaign. Democracy is under severe threat if voters do not have access to the information they need to make decisions in local elections.

This is compounded by the non-existence of choice; take-overs and mergers have led to the situation where four publishers account for almost three-quarters (73 per cent) of local newspaper titles across the UK.

It’s not that NUJ members don’t like looking at pictures of cats which look like racoons. They do.  But they believe there should be room for the (more expensive) serious stuff as well.

They believe newspaper owners, many of whom are making a profit and paying their executives handsome wages, should start to take responsibility for producing well-funded journalism so that our members can be the local watchdog, keeping tabs on the decisions made by local politicians, defending local services, supporting the local football team and giving a voice to the community.

The union is doing its best to fight for quality local newspapers with a breadth of news, features, sport and comment. We have called for a short, sharp inquiry which will hold newspaper owners to account and which will look at new business models for providing local news.

Despite all this gloom, good journalism is still happening. Journalists still want to get the stories, they care about their communities. The Manchester Evening News’s special report on a catalogue of long-term failures at Greater Manchester’s biggest hospital trust, by social affairs editor Jennifer Williams is a case in point.

We must ensure that there is always a place for this type of quality journalism in newspapers, as well as pictures of cats which look like racoons.

Frances Rafferty is the National Union of Journalists’ communications & campaigns officer

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