Reflecting on the choppy waters of local news

by Michelle Arthurs

ENTERING the world of journalism is a little like being invited in to a publicly advertised but restricted sect. Everybody knows the congregation is there, but only a few get to glimpse the hooded meetings and private séances. Only it isn’t really that exciting. Well, certainly not local journalism. I couldn’t tell you a thing about the national giants (except that they obtain many of their stories from sponging off what the little guys produce). Local papers are often based in stuffy little offices where the telephones crackle and there are crumbs hiding in all the keyboards.

Starting out is all about showing your worth, cutting your teeth, and encouraging poor, unsuspecting members of the public to share an opinion on some vague issue, along with their name, address (tricky), age (trickier), occupation (if you’re wondering around town in the early afternoon – unemployed) and a copy of their face on your newly acquired/borrowed “journo-cam”. This is called a vox pop, and you will do many of them until you are considered senior enough to send a “workie” out to do them for you. (Be warned,you will never completely escape, so get off your pedestal if you think you’re above a vox pop.) The good old-fashioned vox pop will elicit groans around the news desk from time to time. But it is a crucial part of the paper. Vox popping delight is about getting out and putting real people on the pages.

In the same way, a news in brief (NIB) will have a reporter, mid-way through a complicated story, crying into their black sugared coffee, but it is the bread and butter of local life and local news. A 50-word short and snappy note might be a pesky task for a reporter, but for the local church holding a bring-and-buy sale, the dance group who won a competition or the nanny who raised a pile of cash for charity, it can mean the world.

When the city is sinking in the midst of recession, or the country comes to a standstill because a killer virus has spread through the streets, local papers will still be spreading the word on that new community hall, or the closing restaurant that spells “disaster” for the high street (which, or course is “dead” anyway as long as some local spokesperson will say it). National news will entrance the nation, but everybody wants to know what is happening on their doorstep.

There is something undeniably satisfying about reporting the news of a challenge met by a local person, or an event enjoyed by hordes (who flocked to it/and rain could not dampen their spirits…). Joining a community to rally against the injustice of a lack of bins/dog excretion invasion/parking charge fiasco has its joys as well. Pointing fingers at the figures in power can begin.

There is certainly a lot of satisfaction from those stories. It is just a shame that with that joy comes the morbid obsession with suffering, car crashes, fires that destroy homes and hospitalised children. There is something about knocking on the door of a victim and asking them to talk to the paper, knowing their story will be splashed on the front page regardless of how that makes them feel, which brings a weight with it, and that weight is not for everyone. Neither is the weekly deadline treadmill that sees the world, your focus and goals end and rebuild themsevlves on a weekly basis.

Working on a local paper has taught me more about communication, society and community than I learnt in the 21 years preceding the start of my short career. Taking on a job at a local paper was like plunging into the sea having never learnt how to swim – there were a lot of waves to deal with and not really any poolside assistance. Despite that I learnt a lot, far too much to fill only one blog piece. Possibly enough to begin the novel I always wanted to write before I took a job as a journalist because I thought I wasn’t good enough to be a writer. Having tested the waters, I think I’ll exit and head back to my initial career dream in the long term.

In the immediate future I’m off to try my hand at marketing, where goals will be longer, projects more complete, and I can engross myself with in online universe that seems to be taking over. I’ve got my worries about the future of the local rag. Despite that, I have every respect for the hacks that fill the pages that will adorn the fridges of parents and scrap books of young adults for years to come. Keep up the puns, the festival write ups and keep the council on their toes with the threat of that “blunder” headline, my ex-fellow-journos. Once a story teller, always a story teller, but I’ll resign myself to sharing tales of make-believe for the time being.

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