Get in with the locals - only journalists can save journalism

FOR SEVERAL YEARS I chaired one of the NUJ's geographical branches. Whenever our patch's main newspaper group shed staff, the BBC's local radio station called me up. Its redoubtable drive-time host started these depressing exchanges the same way.

"What difference will these job cuts mean for the area?"

That was his question when the print moved to another city and he put it to me again when the production staff were let go. He reworked his enquiry slightly when the functions of the morning and evening papers were merged, and he reformulated his salvo again when the subbing was sent elsewhere.

Possibly my answers were no less repetitive.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

"Holding power to account is journalism's first duty, but no less important is the prosaic regular reporting", I would intone. "It is the civilising force that connects isolated individuals to society."

Justice is not done in private. A school's potential is unfulfilled if its influence stops at the gate. Councils whose work and personnel are unknown are not democratic. Like bees fertilising flowers, local journalism is the means by which the information is shared, thereby providing glue that holds communities together.

With each reduction in quality, the papers lose a few more readers. Outsourced print means the news is later, subbing errors revealing a lack of local knowledge have crept in, and much routine court and council work is unreported.

The broadcast would usually also feature the newspapers' editor in chief, who would try to make the best fist of the situation. Over time, I came to know my opponent socially - a talented and likeable journalist who had devoted his working life to the same papers. We sometimes continued our on-air debates over a drink, away from BBC microphones. He was more candid, but remained upbeat about the future. During one of those encounters he accused me of gloom-mongering.

"The papers you are running down will see out my working life - I tell you that for sure", he said with a flourish, as though he had hit upon a clinching argument.

If he is right, on the basis of normal retirement ages, that gives the papers five or six years - hardly an ambitious prospect for titles published since the 1880s.

I relate this tale because it is one that is replayed in every town where newsprint is read. If we, as journalists, want a future for local journalism, then we are the only people who will dependably make our case. We can't rely on the bosses (even those who are personally likeable). Even less dependable are the corporate executives who run Johnston Press, Trinity Mirror and Newsquest.

The NUJ's Local News Matters campaign is a platform for us to reach beyond our own ranks to build a constituency of community leaders and concerned individuals who share this view. MPs with speeches to report are potential allies. Likewise councillors who need public support for their initiatives. Spot-the-ballers, letters-page grumblers and egotistical business leaders are all potential recruits too. All must be built into a force that will rise up to affirm the importance to communities of quality reporting.

Succeed at this, and and local journalism will have a bright future. Whether we want titles to be treated as community assets, or for local news to be funded from ISP levies, or simply for corporate news leaders to up their ambitions - by gathering the communities we serve to join our campaign, we will gain the strength to succeed.