When local reporters get short changed

by Thais Porthilo-Shrimpton

MOST journalists who have never worked at local newspapers have no idea how great local newspapers are. Some will say local reporters only write about school fetes, giant sunflowers, endure boring council meetings and churn out press releases. That’s one way of looking at it.

When I used to work at a local newspaper, what I saw was a newsroom full of people who knew their trade inside out. Reporters who did a sterling job covering court cases, and who could build an argument and present it in front of a judge to have a court order lifted. Reporters who gave local councils, NHS Trusts and police a hard time if they chose to hide their murky business from the public. Reporters who would work the longest hours during the week and yet volunteer to work at weekends (because of the money as well – we all had to pay our rents).

Local newsrooms are where reporters learn to be reporters. They learn how to deal with people and become welcome at their homes; they learn to be compassionate when listening to their stories, and to identify the issues that are important for local communities. They are the ones, despite the hard times and severe cuts in most newsrooms in the country, who are closest to the public.

If you are a local reporter, you need to talk to people to get stories. You need to get to know the busybodies, the politicians, the shop owners, the community leaders and as many local people as you can. That is precisely the reason why so many national newspapers look to local newspapers for stories.

It is hard for the public to notice when a story has been sold by a local newspaper to a national. It’s usually done via news agencies, but reporters also sell their own stories sometimes. Consequentially, it is hard for the public to know when local newspapers have been short changed. But it happens a lot.

The most recent example is happening to my old paper, the Streatham Guardian. Their reporter Rachel Blundy landed an exclusive that was reproduced by The Daily Telegraph with no credit and no pay. I don’t particularly like or agree with the story, but it pains me to see young talented local reporters being robbed of the credit for their hard work. When Rachel contacted the Telegraph news desk, according to her, they said there was nothing they could do.

Well, I have a couple of suggestions for the Telegraph: You can give her a byline on your website, and you can pay her the appropriate fee for a story that goes in print (as this one did). I have e-mailed the reporter whose byline appeared at the top of the story, Richard Alleyne, to ask if the story came from a news agency. I’ve had no response yet.

If the story came from a news agency, I understand from speaking to Rachel that, whichever agency that was, they were not authorised to sell it on the Streatham Guardian’s behalf. Unfortunately, this dismissive and disrespectful view of local papers has been growing for a few years now.

Due to the attitude of most national newspapers – including The Guardian, The Telegraph and so on – it is highly unlikely that local newspaper reporters, despite their training, knowledge and capability, will end up in staff jobs at those newspapers. To add insult to injury, they constantly have their work lifted by nationals, with no credit whatsoever.

With all due respect to many young national reporters, who are very talented, the reality is that newspapers have been taking on kids straight out of their MA courses, from top universities, with no real work experience. By doing that, they are not only filling their newsrooms with inexperienced reporters, they are putting themselves at risk (remember the reporter who tweeted a juror’s name and made a trial collapse), and denying those who are trained and experienced an opportunity to work at national level.

I know one extremely talented award-winning reporter who was given shifts at a national, after nearly four years working at a local paper. When she started, her colleagues, who mostly fit the category above, told her she would have to “up her game now” because that wasn’t the same “as some local newspaper.” All I can say is, despite the prejudice, she is so great she’s been wiping the floor with them. But that doesn’t make it any less absurd that this is the view being perpetuated in national newsrooms nowadays.

I wish editors like Alan Rusbridger, James Harding, Tony Gallagher and others would change their mind about turning their newspapers into exclusive clubs for those who have the privilege to go to top universities. They might claim local newspapers are dying, but ignoring the gold that comes out of them is only hammering another nail in their coffin, and denying reporters from a multitude of backgrounds a chance to work for a major title.

It would also help, of course, if they recognised they benefit from the good work done by locals, by always paying them for their stories or not forgetting to credit their reporters. But since it seems unlikely things will change, my advice to local reporters out there is, if someone steals your story, give them a hard time. Your hard work is worth a lot, so don’t let them get away with it.

This piece first appeared at A Load of Selkie.

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2 thoughts on “When local reporters get short changed

  1. lima curtis says:

    So true, my colleagues and I at Trinity South are constantly seeing our work reprinted without a byline in The Evening Standard.
    When contacted they say there is nothing they can do.

  2. Very true; the nationals lift our copy – almost word for word sometimes except the embroidery they add – without so much as a by-your-leave. What annoys me almost more than anything is the byline of someone who’s just copied and pasted the fruits of someone else’s work appearing in the paper.
    I met a broadsheet newspaper reporter while on a job once and he had no idea how local papers worked. His question: “Don’t you have the wores” and his astonishment when I said a key skill of any local reporter was finding a front page story when there wasn’t one on deadline day said it all!

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