It is difficult to imagine how any sort of effective local democracy could function without the work of regional press journalists covering affairs at a local level.
But research carried out by Press Gazette has revealed that across the country there is a perception that fewer and fewer journalists are stepping across the threshold of their local town hall.
Press Gazette asked a cross-section of local councils how press coverage of meetings had changed over the past decade. Most said it had worsened – none said it had improved.
This ties in with research carried out by the NUJ as part of its Journalism Matters campaign, which claims that the number of reporters sitting in local government meetings has significantly dropped in recent years.
The union claims that most local newspapers now do not have a regular local government correspondent.
One reporter from a Newsquest title told the NUJ’s researchers: ‘At one of my previous papers, it was not unusual for an entire borough to be covered by just one or two reporters. For that reporter to have read through every agenda and covered every meeting would have taken most of their contracted hours each week.
‘In practice, agendas would be given a quick scan, and most meetings deemed not worth attending. Instead, we relied for many of our big political scoops on being tipped off by disgruntled politicians – or more often, residents with an axe to grind. I dread to think how many good stories we missed as a result.”
NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear highlighted the dangers that he sees with this approach. ‘Without reporters scrutinising the work of councils, or holding to account those running our local schools, hospitals and community organisations, democracy will suffer, participation in the democratic process will wither and journalism will fail in its duty to the communities it should be serving.
‘Reliance on corporate or political PR is no substitute for journalists probing, challenging and scrutinising the decisions of those who act in our name.
‘But that kind of journalism costs money – and too many companies are denying the newsrooms and thereby their local communities the resources to do the job.”
Richard Orange, a journalist at Lincolnshire-based news agency Orchard News Bureau and lecturer in public affairs at the Lincoln School of Journalism, warned that if newspapers were unwilling to report council proceedings, council officers would fill in the gaps through official newsletters and websites.
‘It’s a double-edged sword. Some councils are using the internet to produce information services. Lincolnshire County Council is now using webcasting for all of its main meetings – it’s not quite BBC Parliament, but it’s the council doing it and not the newspaper or a broadcast journalist.
‘Editors are growing away from the view that papers need to report everything.’
Orange said that the decline in local government reporting was closely linked to a drop in interest about council stories among readers. ‘Lincoln City Council and other councils produce newsletters which are very favourable [to themselves], but most of them go straight in the bin when they arrive.”
Orange has been campaigning for Lincoln Council to allow filming of council meetings, something now allowed at its monthly cabinetmeetings.
Edward Welsh, media director for the Local Government Association, said there had been a clear decline in the reporting of council meetings.
‘Obviously it is important that the public find out about what councils are doing,’he said. ‘The LGA supports vibrant local newspapers to ensure that accountability is going on and that open government happens – we are all in favour of that. We are as concerned as the industry itself about the decline of newspapers.”
Welsh began his career as a reporter on the Grimsby Evening Telegraph and covered council meetings which often ran until 2am. Part of his job now is to encourage local media to report on local government in different ways – but not necessarily in the traditional council meeting style.
‘It’s not just about meetings in cold town halls with terribly long agendas – we want to encourage councils to better present themselves to the media as affecting peoples’ lives in many different ways. So the council can be seen as a source of lots of stories. Take trading standards, for example – is your pint a full pint? Can you get a good plumber?
‘Of course it’s sad that journalists don’t go along to these meetings and contribute to open government. It’s also very important that people know the full width of what it is the council’s doing. Then they might go out and vote in an election.”
Eric Gordon, editor of the independent free London weekly Camden New Journal, said he believes borough council meetings are a vital source of news – as long as you pick the right ones to cover. He argues that while there are many important committee meetings and council panels for journalists to attend during the week, some full council meetings are just ‘political theatre”.
‘[The lack of local government reporting] is partly because of a limited number of people. Largely I would put it down to the employment of fewer people on each paper.
‘But then there is the question of whether councils are worth covering. Tony Blair described Prime Minister’s Questions last week as ‘political theatre’, and that’s what a full council meeting is.”
But he added: ‘Committee meetings should be covered – how the hell can people know what is going on in their borough if we don’t?”