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Regional reporters on why their job is important: 'My superpower is that I know everybody down here'

What state is our regional media in, and do we value it enough?

IT’S BEEN A year when everyone has taken a hit, and though local media has not escaped unscathed, it has survived with the help of some creativity.

With no local court cases, sporting events, social or school activities for much of 2020, regional papers have been much thinner than usual.

“If somebody said to me a year ago: ‘Have a go at the year without any sport, without any court and without any local authority meetings, and let us know how you get on?’ I’d have thought that’s just not possible,” Dave O’Connell, group editor of the Connacht Tribune told TheJournal.ie.

“The local newspaper more than any other is about names and faces. We haven’t had a lot of them.”

Instead, covering the pandemic for local papers has been about the looking at the number of Covid-19 cases in the area and understanding how the virus has been spreading. It was also about covering the pressure local businesses have been under due to the coronavirus-related restrictions last year.

Other than that, it’s been about being creative about not having the usual events to fill their pages: “I know the Kilkenny People… given their nickname ‘The Cats’ – they had a double page spread of people’s cats.

“It’s fantastic, I thought ‘I bloody wish I had thought of that’. I think they called them ‘purr-traits’…” 

Financial squeeze

But despite adapting, survival is still a huge challenge, O’Connell says: “We’ve had the absolute stuffing kicked out of us advertising wise.”

For local papers that squeeze on advertising has put them under more strain when they already faced a financial crisis.

Ahead of an Oireachtas Committee hearing on the media held last year, a group representing independent local radio stations said its members “cannot wait” until the end of 2022 to ensure “the survival of Irish broadcasting”.

“If you do, it will be too late for many,” chair of the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland group John Purcell told that committee.

Darren Skelton, reporter at the Waterford News and Star, says that for local papers it’s about reviving an interest in the coverage of local issues, particularly among young people.

“We’re probably like the bottle of Guinness off the shelf: our customers are getting older and we need to find a way of tapping into the market who are getting all their news from Facebook.

“If the local paper dies, then we won’t have those local court cases anymore, we won’t have those pictures of the first time to school anymore that people are putting in the fridge. We won’t have those local stories.

And it is going – those papers are going. They’re trying to evolve, but they’re not doing it fast enough.

“I think even if people don’t buy it every week, they know that it’s there and that we’re keeping an eye on things.”

Access to a journalist

Regional media also plays an important part in telling the national story.

TDs often make their apologies for their latest mishap on their local radio station; if there is a tragedy, local reporters can act as a spokesperson for the community; and local papers are tipped-off on issues that the national media can miss.

“It’s about being accessible,” says Skelton, who broke the story of Waterford University Hospital’s overcrowded mortuary in 2019, reporting that dead bodies were being left on trolleys in the corridors of the mortuary, leading to closed-coffin funerals.

The Irish Times, which owns the Waterford News and Star, picked the story up and it subsequently received national media coverage. Then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that he regretted casting doubt on the story after it first emerged.

Now, the new mortuary building that was promised years ago has almost been built – a year and a half after Skelton broke the story.

Skelton says the accessibility of local reporters makes it easier for people to raise issues: “I get dozens of messages and calls every week, almost like a councillor would. ‘I have this issue in my house, or this issue with the hospital.’ 

“And sometimes those issues don’t even make it into the paper – we get a result by contacting the Council, which subsequently doesn’t want it in the paper and it gets done in some way.

And suddenly you think ‘Jesus, I feel like a councillor here’. I know the story is not going to go in the paper. 

Building contacts is, of course, vital for the job: “It’s the same with anything, we could certainly do with more whistleblowers”.

***

In the south-west, Seán Mac an tSíthigh  is, for all intents and purposes, a ‘Dingle correspondent’ for RTÉ and Nuacht TG4.

In what might be the most recent example of a local reporter’s importance, Mac an tSíthigh acted as a spokesperson for the area when the famous dolphin Fungie went missing in October

The trust between a local reporter and their community is “of course” valuable, he says: convincing people to talk on camera is less of an obstacle when the interviewee knows who is putting the microphone in front of them.

That gives us a better insight into what is going on in the region, and a proper look at any given issue, Mac an tSíthigh says.

“People can be afraid of the camera, especially in the regions I cover – the Beara Peninsula down in west Cork or the Iveragh Peninsula. They’re very, very rural areas that up until very recently hadn’t received a lot of coverage, simply because of their geographic location.”

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It also makes for faster reporting, too: “You know the area and the people so well, and you can quite quickly source your ingredients to create the final report.”

When you’re working in a specific area, or working in remote, rural areas, you end up having very, very authentic interviewees. You’re not speaking to spokespersons… you’re speaking people affected by the story speaking from the heart, and the viewer recognises that.

It can give you the inside track, he adds. “You know the people you can depend on to give you reliable information, which is a huge advantage.”

On local news in general, he says:

I feel that there’s a hunger amongst the public for these local stories, simply because quite a lot of news coverage is saturated with the same story. 

“It’s the the unique, the novelty story that generates an audience. The fact that it’s a local story is insignificant, because it’s telling the story of hundreds of communities throughout the country.”

If you look at food and drink in Ireland, he adds, the drive for more locally produced and crafted goods is increasing: “I think the same holds quite well for for news reportage”.

***

00004153 Gravediggers pub, April 1999. Source: RollingNews.ie

O’Connell says that the pandemic may have reignited the relationship between local people and their local newspaper.

“It’s up to us to come up with news, and it’s up to the readers to feed us that news. So inviting them to send in their photographs, but also asking them are there stories that we need to tell.

I think [the pandemic] has actually reopened the conversation between the newspaper and the readers.

Skelton says that the national media play an important role in elevating local stories to put a greater focus on an issue, and the local papers should not only be used for bits of ‘colour’. 

“For a local paper, we’ve had a huge amount of really, really strong front-page stories,” he says, mentioning a focus on issues at the local hospital in particular.

“And oftentimes, they’re just forgotten about… We do need that help of our voice being amplified by the national media.”

That link between local and national media is important – but it’s under severe strain. It’s at risk due to legacy debt from the financial crash, the challenge of social media and online, and trying to reach new, young audiences. 

There’s no forum or body to represent regional papers and how they should be developed or made more sustainable, either, which Skelton thinks there should be.

“People used to say to me, ‘you should be working for a national paper’,” Skelton said.

And I used to say, ‘well no, my superpower is the fact that I’m born and bred in Waterford city’. I know everybody down here – which can also be a crutch if a politician has done something dodgy.  

“It’s going to be really difficult for [national media] if local papers die out because that’s the breeding ground. Without those really good breeding grounds, the national media is in trouble.”

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