Regionals win campaign for readers' votes

Local
coverage, guaranteeing authority and credibility, remains most relevant
during an election campaign, says Bob Franklin, author of an academic
study

LOCAL NEWSPAPERS became part
of the 2005 election story following a front-page Guardian report of a
dramatic encounter between John Prescott and a local journalist in
Gwent. Angered by the reporter’s questions, Prescott fumed: “I’m a
national politician. I don’t care about the Welsh situation. Bugger
off, you amateur, and get back on your bus” (The Guardian, 21 April).

The deputy prime minister’s robust remarks were not only
ill-advised, but loudly “off-message”. For the past 20 years the Labour
party, along with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, has
targeted local newspapers as valuable vehicles for carrying party
messages to local readers and voters.

Five months earlier,
election coordinator Alan Milburn underscored the point by declaring
that the 2005 election would be “as much fought locally as it is
nationally” (The Guardian, 11 November).

Two days before
Prescott’s outburst, Independent journalist Stephen Glover had
complained about politicians courting local journalists to the
exclusion of national reporters: the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts had
been denied entry to a Conservative event in Gloucestershire that was
“limited to local journalists” (The Independent, 18 April).

Local
newspapers have considerable appeal for politicians during an election.
There are lots of them, they are widely read and when the circulation
area of the newspaper overlaps closely with the constituency boundary,
local papers reach a very high percentage of voters in that electoral
area. More significantly, local papers still enjoy the trust of their
readers, which guarantees an authority and credibility for editorial
content.

There are other more strategic attractions. For parties
which wish to avoid sensitive national or international issues such as
Iraq, local newspapers offer a haven rarely subject to journalistic
hi-jack, since the editorial focus is primarily on local issues.

Local
newspapers, moreover, are less resourced in terms of the number of
journalists available to cover the election story and, Glover claims,
local journalists are “sometimes less probing and, dare one say, less
politically knowledgeable than their national newspaper colleagues”,
making local newspapers potentially more receptive to party spin.

For
many local journalists, a general election is still a significant
occasion that delivers national politicians and celebrities to their
patch, eager to be interviewed.

Undeterred by his clash with John
Prescott, journalist Mark Choueke believes general elections are a
“brilliant time for the regional newspaper journalist” (The Guardian,
22 April).

Perhaps this explains why election coverage in the
local and regional press in West Yorkshire was extensive in 2005, with
papers such as The Yorkshire Post averaging 17 election stories
(including four letters) in each of the 30 issues across the campaign
period, while reporting in national media has declined dramatically,
with mid-market and red-top tabloids offering only a quarter of their
2001 coverage.

In weekly paid-for papers the news salience of the
election story varied but remained high, with the Spenborough Guardian,
Dewsbury Reporter and Heckmondwike Herald averaging 15 stories per
issue, while the Morley Observer (three) and Wakefield Express (two)
offered less editorial space to election concerns.

Interestingly,
the newly launched Leeds Metro could not match the Post but still
averaged nine stories (including two letters) in each campaign issue.
The scope and character of local newspapers’

coverage certainly
bears favourable comparison with national reporting, but has changed
across the past 20 years, as the findings of a Nuffield Foundation
study – which analysed coverage in 30 local and regional newspapers in
the West Yorkshire region across the last five elections since 1987 –
illustrates (see box).

Coverage in 2005 revealed four broad
patterns or trends. Firstly, journalists’ assumption that readers will
be bored by the election is reflected in their coverage. The Halifax
Courier, for example, reported a local hotel which offered “Escape the
Election Breaks” for readers who were “really fed up with the election
campaigning” (20 April); the Leeds Metro identified the Lake District
as another “election-free zone” for people who wanted to vote but
“shouldn’t have to put up with it every minute of the day”

(12
April); while the Spenborough Guardian reported the failure of a
Question Time-style event when only three questions were submitted by
voters. “Apathy defeated the event” the paper claimed. “The public
seems to be turned off by politicians and their trade” (15 April).

Local
papers identify a lack of trust in politicians (particularly Tony
Blair) and scepticism about the political system (especially postal
voting) as the two key causes for this apathy.

“Lack of trust of
politicians is behind voter apathy,” the Spenborough Guardian headlined
on 15 April, while the Yorkshire Post reported the case of a “former
Labour party councillor jailed for three years and seven months for
rigging postal votes in a council election” under the headline
“Councillor jailed for poll fraud” (9 April).

But while local
papers acknowledge apathy, they typically use their editorials,
provocative columns and invitations to readers to pose questions to
candidates, to stress the significance of the election and the
desirability of their readers’ participation.

Secondly, election
coverage in the local press remains largely preoccupied with local
matters. In interviews, journalists routinely express their belief that
“a good election story is a local story”. Coverage of a new housing
estate, or the closure of a local factory, will undoubtedly enjoy
editorial priority above national issues such as taxation or the NHS.

Irresistible cocktail

When a political celebrity can be associated with a local issue, the editorial cocktail becomes irresistible.

Consequently the Halifax Courier produced a frontpage splash about
bullying in local schools, highlighted by the case of “Brave James” who
received a letter of support from Chancellor Gordon Brown, following an
incident of bullying at James’s school (4 April).

But the
editorial mix of local and national concerns is complex. In 2005, 70
per cent of election coverage in paid-for weekly papers emphasised a
local angle, but the Yorkshire Post – with a circulation area that
includes more than 100 constituencies – cannot afford such an emphasis:
more than 85 per cent of its stories focused on national electoral
concerns.

Readers’ letters similarly prefer to address national
concerns (85 per cent of letters), resulting in readers and journalists
too frequently talking past each other, rather than to each other, in
the electoral debate.

Thirdly, journalists typically respond to readers’ electoral apathy in two ways, which both result in some degree of trivialising or “dumbing down” of election reports.

Journalists try to leaven the electoral dough with quirky, amusing stories which retain an electoral content.

In
this tradition, the Leeds Metro carried a story about a company which
had produced a limited edition set of the three party leaders cast as
garden gnomes, under the headline – “Standing for Gnome Secretary” (26
April).

Tony Blair replete with shovel is portrayed “digging around for weapons of mass destruction”

while
a fanged Michael Howard warns intruders to”Keep Out”. Charles Kennedy
is captured sitting on the fence supping ginger beer.

A related
editorial strategy for engaging readers involves publishing highly
personalised profiles of candidates which result in human interest
stories, rather than outlines of candidates’ policy commitments.

The
Dewsbury Reporter, for example, described Muslim, Conservative
candidate Sayeeda Warsi, who has a seven-year-old daughter Aamna, as “a
Dewsbury girl born and bred – a local lass. Once a high-flying lawyer
with her own practice, Mrs Warsi is used to life in the fast lane and
certainly believes she could make it as an MP. She believes her
experience as a charity worker – she founded a charity for Asian widows
and orphans – will help her every step of the way” (8 April).

Finally,
local newspaper reporting of the 2005 election was markedly less
negative and fiercely partisan than national coverage. It was
characterised by a “balance of partisanship” in which the political
leanings of one paper were “neutralised” by the opposite political
leanings of another, generating a remarkably even-handed coverage
across the 27 newspapers published across West Yorkshire.

Expansive mailbag

There were interesting and notable differences within the various editorial sections of newspapers.

Journalists’ articles were invariably politically balanced, while
editorials and readers’ letters typically hammered the Labour party.
Columnists were allowed to let rip to generate an expansive mailbag.
Writing in the Yorkshire Post, Bernard Dineen had a field day
denouncing “Labour’s so-called immigration controls” and declaring
Gordon Brown’s “pledge not to raise income tax” to be “Labour’s biggest
lie”.

But in 2005, local and regional newspapers and the journalists producing them served their readers well.

They
offered an extensive, well-rounded and evenhanded account of electoral
events in their circulation areas that largely avoided the partisan
excesses of the national tabloid papers.

They addressed a
wide-ranging election agenda which explored international issues such
as Iraq, alongside the implications of national policy concerns such as
health and education, for the local area. Local newspapers offered
candidates a platform from which to announce their policy ambitions and
their readers a local forum for debate in their expansive letters pages.

If
measured only against the declining coverage which the national
newspapers offered the election, this is a valuable journalistic and
civic achievement.

Not a bad outcome for a bunch of amateurs that some politicians believe should stay on the bus.

Bob
Franklin is Professor of Journalism Studies in the Cardiff School of
Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University.

Additional research by Geoff Court and Stephen Cushion, research assistants at the School

Comments
No comments to display

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 + 19 =

CLOSE
CLOSE