Bristol Does Local News

Last night I took myself into Bristol for an event organized by the National Union of Journalists. It was a kick-off for a national campaign aimed at highlighting the importance and value of quality local journalism. There is, perhaps, and argument to be made that this campaign is a decade or two late, and should have taken place when local news services first started getting decimated, but at least new new entrants have sprung up to fill the gap which made for an interesting discussion.

The event took the form of a panel discussion with a truly huge panel. My apologies if I have forgotten anyone, but I recall representatives from the following: the BBC, ITV, Made in Bristol TV, the Bristol Post, the Bristol Cable, the Chew Valley Gazette, Vocalise, the Voice network and the NUJ head office. Conspicuous by their absence were Bristol 24/7. Apparently editor Martin Booth was taken ill during the day and was unable to arrange for a replacement. There was no one there from BCFM Radio. Most of my management at Ujima was at St. George’s for the Courtney Pine concert. I wasn’t on the panel, but I’m sure I could have contributed had I wanted to. More of that later. Also in the audience were two local MPs (Thangan Debbonaire – Lab and Charlotte Leslie – Con), plus three of the candidates for the new Metro Mayor post (Leslie Mansell – Lab, Stephen Williams – LibDem and Darren Hall – Green).

The traditional news outlets all reported a decade or two of constant downsizing. The television networks have made use of new, lightweight technology to train their reporters to do without a cameraman and sound technician. The newsroom at the Post has been reduced to around a third of its former size. They all insisted that they had maintained standards. Some of the audience, including on my Twitter feed, begged to disagree.

The main reason for the change has been loss of revenue streams. Companies such as estate agents, car salesrooms and so on, plus job and home rental adverts, have all migrated to the internet. The Chew Valley Gazette, a weekly paper serving villages in North Somerset, survives mainly because the local broadband service is so bad that local businesses still advertise in print.

While the panel and online peanut galley might debate the quality of existing services, the existence of new, competing services suggests that the public is not entirely happy with the incumbents. Some of the competition is fuels by technology changes. Made in Bristol TV succeeds where previous attempts at local TV failed because it has access to the cable network, giving it far better distribution than previous attempts (I can watch it at home via Sky). The same is true of community radio stations such as Ujima which are available online, and for papers such as Bristol 24/7 and the Cable which can have large amounts of online content to supplement their paper editions.

However, new services do need financial support. Ujima and BCFM rely on advertising and on volunteer staff such as myself. The Gazette is staffed mostly by part-timers. Vocalise, which is distributed free to mainly immigrant communities in central Bristol, is also run by volunteers. I was impressed by Richard Coulter’s Voice network of hyper-local newspapers — each serving just one small area of Bristol — which apparently pays its staff.

The content of the news provided was clearly an issue. There are obviously things that the old guard does well. There was a lot of praise for Geoff Bennett, the Post‘s court reporter, who spends every day following local trials. Other outlets tend to rely on his detailed work for their own reports. There was concern that elsewhere content was being written at a national level and syndicated to local news services, though the Post‘s editor assured us that he was still employing reporters to follow both local soccer teams.

The audience had difficulty separating concerns about local news services with national issues, and to be fair the panel sometimes got confused as well. One question from the floor asked why newspapers these days spend so much time soliciting comment from ill-informed celebrities such as Piers Morgan rather than talking to people who could give expert comment. Ellie Pitt from Made in Bristol TV made the reasonable point that far too many potential commentators are unwilling to give an opinion, whereas the professional big mouth will have an opinion on anything. Against that I’d note that expert commentators tend to want to explain things in detail and present both sides, whereas the media wants a simple and controversial statement.

An issue that was less touched upon was the question of what was reported. Some of this was implicit in the concentration on local news. The national media has little interest in what happens outside of London. The Post will cover what happens in Bristol, but to find out what is happening at St. Werburgh’s Community Centre, or the Malcolm X Centre in St. Pauls, you need to read Vocalise. Only the Gazette will report the results of the Chew Magna Dog Show.

However, there are still plenty of holes in the coverage. The panel, while it did have several women on it, was entirely white save for the woman from Vocalise, a paper which specifically serves immigrant communities. I badly wanted to ask the diversity question, but as a white person myself (albeit one with other diversity credentials) I felt nervous about doing so. Thankfully a Somali man sat near me did the job. The panel made the usual excuses about inability to get specialist staff. Only the NUJ rep seemed to take the question seriously and talk about recruitment, but that’s only part of the problem. If non-white people can’t get the required qualifications, or feel they have no chance of getting jobs, or are afraid of discrimination at work, or think they will be asked to create news solely for white people, then you still won’t solve the problem.

Other minorities have similar issues. I suspect that I might be the only local journalist planning on doing in depth coverage of the Women’s Cricket World Cup, despite many matches being played in Bristol. An approach has been made to Made in Bristol TV about doing an LGBT show, but apparently they have no interest in serving that community. The Cable, being community-owned and focused, is much better at this sort of thing, and I’m pleased to see Bristol 24/7 ramping up its LGBT coverage.

Despite my reservations, I think this was a very useful event. What was clear is that a single panel wasn’t close to covering everything we might have talked about. There was easily enough material to fill a one-day conference. Hopefully the NUJ will look at doing something like that. We do have a thriving journalism course at UWE that could get involved as well.