Every week brings the news that a local newspaper is closing. The main reasons are usually cited as increased production costs and falling advertising revenues. But could the truth be that they are no longer interesting or relevant enough for their dwindling readers?
A few weeks ago sister site Featureworld received a distraught phone call from one of our interviewees. Her story had already appeared in a national newspaper and their website – where it was credited copyright: Featureworld.co.uk. But a local newspaper had lifted the whole story and without contacting any of us to check it was even correct, simply printed not only all of the Featureworld copy but also the family’s personal photos (minus the copyright, which must have been sliced off.) It then appeared on the front page and page three and even on their website where our photos were offered to the public to buy.
On contacting them they claimed their lawyer immediately came back claiming because they are part of this bigger national newspaper group, they have the right to download any copy and any photos that appear on this national newspaper website. Their editor added a reporter did call at the interviewee’s home but ‘was unable to contact them.’ So they went ahead and published anyway.
This was news to Featureworld which has been supplying stories to the national press and worldwide for the past 15 years and never had any story lifted. And indeed, following action by us, the whole story was swiftly removed from local paper’s website and an apology with monetary compensation was sent to the interviewees.
But the issue is why would any local paper want to act in this way? On its Wikipedia site, the paper says it is a community newspaper. So it’s hard to understand why when the interviewees went to the paper to complain themselves, there was initially no apology from its editors forthcoming for printing a photo of their young son without consent. In fact they claim they were pretty much told ‘tough’ and sent on their way.
Sadly although this experence with this particular paper, whose Sunday edition closed in 2007 after falling circulation and whose recent ABC figures show its circulation is down by 7%, is an isolated one, issues with local papers generally are becoming more prevalent. People might imagine their nice local paper would be keen to serve their community but although somehow the local press appears largely to have escaped the scrutiny of the Leveson enquiry, for some time now we have been forced to advise all Featureworld interviewees never to speak to local newspaper journalists.
This follows a number of incidents of harassment of interviewees by local newspaper reporters who continue to ring people even when they have clearly said no. And earlier this year, after an interviewee asked if we could place her story in her local paper, and we sent that local paper copy and a photo for free (on license and with the proviso copy was unchanged) it appeared with the child’s primary school in the piece along with the family’s full postal address. Needless to say the family – now understanding why we warn never to deal with the local press – wrote a letter of complaint to the paper. “It’s this sort of journalism that gives the industry a bad name,” wrote the father to their editor.
Then every other week Featureworld receives an email from someone who has spoken to a local paper and posed for photos, only to find that paper has flogged it to every national publication going – without telling them.
With all this effort spent, you might think local papers would be full of news – but strangely they are not. Twenty five years ago I was a senior reporter on a local newspaper and regularly I got into my car and drove around my area meeting people. I searched out local stories and if a local story did appear in a national newspaper, I didn’t just copy it (without checking!!) I endeavoured to find my own angle on it – something readers could only gain by reading my story. Incidentally I was the ONLY reporter on my patch but filled more pages than there are in the whole edition of some local papers these days.
Now, however, it seems your average local newspaper reporter just sits in front of a computer scanning national newspaper websites for stories from their local area that have been found by others. Or lazily copy pasting in press releases from local businesses who still advertise in their paper.
And more often than not the style of writing, layout and presentation of stories is stuck in the 1950s – only because many can no longer afford their own photographer there are even fewer photos than there were then. Why local papers don’t ask interviewees to send in their own lovely pictures as we do for magazines and newspapers I have no idea, but I suppose that is too much trouble. Incredibly I have as an ordinary person, sent stories to the local paper via their websites – I have yet to receive a single reply. Don’t local papers check what is sent via their websites?
It would be terribly unfair of me to say the above applies to every local paper as clearly there are some fantastic publications that continually churn out indepth, well researched (checked!!) copy along with stunning photos. There are editors who care about their local community and who have masterminded fantastic campaigns. And there are editors who like me, when I worked on the local newspaper, would not dream of upsetting a young family from their local community. They will believe losing just one reader would be one too many.
But many seem to have forgotten the reason why people buy a local newspaper. It is not to read the same story they have read in their national paper that day but to read about local issues. The planning, roads, house prices in the area, articles on people who are in the local community, the local court appearances, what is going on in local schools … as I know from my own experience, there is a wealth of exclusive stories within every community if only you bother to look.
Then rather than splashing out on an expensive lawyer to defend your reason behind printing personal photos without the interviewee’s consent, you might consider sending a bunch of flowers and admitting you might have overstepped the mark, would be more appropriate and raise your profile within your local community.
Have you had a problem with a local paper? Or do you have a great local paper in your area you would like to credit? Tell us about it below. All comments are moderated prior to publication.