Being 'local' is anything but a simple formula

One of my first newspaper editors, controlling a series of titles across a massive London borough, had his own unique way of measuring the success of his editorial service.

Every Friday morning, out would come his yardstick. He would count the number of faces in every photograph.

Anything more than 200 was a good week; fewer than 120 would give him a face like thunder and ruin his weekend. And ours.

He grew up in an era where the visit of the “local photographer” was an event to be cherished. Where a personal camera was a Brownie 127.

Before the digital onslaught. Before Facebook and YouTube and file sharing.

Rather like a Newcastle United supporter relishing the arrival of Sam Allardyce because at least a long-ball strategy is better than no strategy at all, this editor needed some mechanism, however imperfect, to judge the success of his title. Hence the picture count.

But he was wrong. Because all around him, his slice of London was changing rapidly. Immigration, transience, social mobility, the loss of big employers, rootlessness, fragmentation.

People moving in who knew little – and cared less – for existing structures and organisations.

Local had changed its locale. In the words of Patrick Swayze in the film Donnie Darko, that honest and conscientious editor was looking for love in all the wrong places.

Since the Sixties, with small newspapers corralled into larger groups and corporations, with editorial operations relocated, with deadlines driven by centralised printing schedules and a consequential reliance on predictable news sources, it is at least arguable that local reporters and photographers have, like NHS dentists and the foot police officer, become less and less visible.

Conversely, the mantra that “local news” is the answer to declining newspaper circulations emerges with the regularity of the mythical phoenix. It’s flavour du jour at the moment with a number of publishers.

But, as my mother always says, fine words butter no parsnips.

So what precisely does a “local”

strategy mean? Does it mean content is defined by geography? Or social class? Or interest group? What is the size of each market and potential gain? Can advertising departments sell with that degree of rate-card flexibility and sophistication? And will they be targeted on total revenue or gaining share?

Equally, or perhaps more importantly, how is an editorial budget to be restructured to deliver the granularity that is implied by going “more local”? There’s a limit to what can be achieved through the recruitment of citizen journalists, correspondents, interaction, public feedback and other sources of what can often be perceived as cheap or free copy.

Technology has made the gathering of content easier, but more is not necessarily better. Can I be the only person to think that many of the blogs I see are overwritten dross?

Show me a blogger and I will show you someone who would prefer to be paid for what they have written.

Going truly “local” requires time and investment, because drilling down is more difficult than skimming the surface. It requires insight, judgement, expertise, experience, time and accountability, and can only be delivered from within the community and not by an editor, journalist or managing director passing through on their way to another job.

And for that reason, I suspect, the next decade will force a revision of the business model which has served publishers and shareholders so well post-Wapping. The margins they have enjoyed in two decades of plenty are under increasing pressure.

In many cases there is not much more they can take out of the costs structure. That implies a radically different approach. Whether big corporations are best-placed to micro-manage community publishing ventures is a debate for another time.

This article was requested ahead of the Regional Press Awards, where relatively smaller titles such as the Brentwood Gazette, the East London Advertiser, the Shrewsbury and North Shropshire Chronicle, the Ilford Recorder and the Hertfordshire Mercury will be measured each against the other.

These editors have one of the most difficult jobs in journalism, balancing the contrasting interests of a shifting readership. Take East London, for example, for successive centuries the clamorous melting pot of the world’s greatest city. Just how do you go “more local” in a patch which ranges from Brick Lane with its Bangladeshi and student population, to fashionable Spitalfields, home to Tracey Emin and Gilbert and George? Or Hertfordshire, the backbone of London’s commuter belt? Or Shropshire, one of England’s most sparsely populated counties?

If that’s the strategy then it is as tough as it gets. Being local used to involve standing outside funerals taking the names of mourners as they left. Or covering the Ladies Bright Hour (no doubt someone will write to say that they still do). Communities had an identifiable structure.

They could be easily found. Local pubs, church, the Rotary, working men’s clubs, Saturday football.

Time was spent on building networks of contacts, making regular personal calls. Editors were not changed with the regularity of managers at Manchester City.

Life in 2007 is infinitely more complicated.

The sociological map of England is in a million pieces.

If editors are to cope with it they will need massive and imaginative support from their managements and a clear and consistent vision of localised publishing in the 21st century.

Anything else is just spin. The legend of the phoenix is that the tears it sheds can heal wounds. If the challenges for newspapers are to be overcome by going “more local” then every teardrop will be needed.

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