Don't devalue the role of regional journalism

In an otherwise fascinating piece in last weekend’s Observer, novelist Mark Haddon made one of those statements that will have caused many Press Gazette readers to howl in outrage.

Haddon, whose book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has turned into a worldwide hit, was explaining his view of writing books for children.

Despite JK Rowling’s fame, it’s a job, he said, that “still sits in many people’s minds somewhere between reporting for the local paper and doing watercolours of cats”.

By that, presumably, Haddon meant it is a job of no great worth. One that involves amateurishly footling around, presumably at flower arranging competitions and meetings of the Women’s Institute. Not quite the real thing.

Since when did the regional journalist’s role sink so low in the public’s estimation? True, the dailies and mornings don’t sell in the massive numbers they once did.

Yet if an intelligent, presumably media-savvy, man like Haddon places those who fill their pages so low in the evolutionary chain, then the industry is in some trouble.

There is, of course, no shortage of ways to counter his point of view.

But let us limit ourselves to one area that occupies much of our coverage this week: campaigns. As Dr Michael Temple, head of journalism at Staffordshire University, points out in his recent study, campaigning journalism in the regional press fulfils a vital need in communities across the country. It tackles matters that engage readers and makes important differences to their lives.

More practical and focused than they have ever been, regional newspaper campaigns raise awareness of issues where politicians are failing. Issues that are in many cases matters of life and death.

Take those discussed by Chris Maguire on page 18 in his piece on how to fight a winning battle. Safety of women clubbers on their way home. Reduction of street crime. Awareness of cancer. He could have added fundraising campaigns on special baby care units, air ambulances. Or those that have countered racism or heroin use by young children.

It may not be life-risking reporting from the front lines of Baghdad (although let’s not forget that plenty of regional journalists did just that last year).

But it’s a damn sight more important than much of the stuff that can often fill national newspapers’ pages. Or painting watercolours of cats.

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