The project I started in an attempt to benchmark the current state of play for the reporting of local councils has been running for a few months now, so it seemed timely to give an update.
I decided to look at this issue, using the HelpMeInvestigate tools, following the furore around this issue last year, and especially in response the vociferous comments on Roy Greenslade’s blog where readers were claiming their local papers didn’t carry out this type of bread-and-butter reporting any more.
It didn’t reflect my experience of working on regional and local papers, but I wanted to find out more by involving people from different parts of the country to widen pool of knowledge.
Sadly, the results so far don’t show a very healthy situation at those newspapers which have been analysed, with many seemingly pushing out local authority press releases or inserting the ‘usual suspect’ councillor quotes into stories which originate elsewhere.
Not all of the 31 people who’ve signed up to take part in this project have come to their conclusions yet, so perhaps it’s early days (or I’m an optimist!) but here’s the story so far with the first ten results submitted;
In alphabetical order and with a quote which I felt summed up what were often long, thoughtful posts from the participants;
- It seemed that the investigation at The Banbury Cake found it hard to find much news of any type, never mind council news. Perhaps a worthy subject for a different kind of case study for having quite so much advertising in this climate! “News coverage is by no means extensive, and although within the small space given to news, there are some council stories, they are either adapted from other group titles, or appear to be taken from press releases (not necessarily council press releases, but from other organisations who may have been involved with a council-run or funded scheme).
- Birmingham Post, Mail and Sunday Mercury proved to be a mixed bag. The weekly Sunday paper didn’t prove to carry much council coverage (Just one story) although that’s perhaps not too surprising given it’s off-diary raison d’etre. In general, Paul Bradshaw’s initial impressions included; “There is actually a reasonable amount of the news ‘hole’ that refers to the council in some way, however, almost none of the coverage is direct reportage, or clearly comes out of a council meeting or report” although this weekend he analysed a further two editions of the Mail and noted one 12 page edition with no council stories present.
- The Cotswold Journal appeared to be suffering from the pressures of having a large geographic area and a small staff when the coverage was analysed leading to the conclusion; “Hence a reliance on press releases or short, less detailed, stories. Where there are longer stories, human interest seems to be a factor – profiles are popular. Often, the council perspective seems to be a last minute insertion or an extra quote, rather than being the nub of the story.”
- I looked at the Darlington and Stockton Times and found it to be rude health as far as local council coverage goes. Being a regular reader, I can conclude that council coverage and council stories regularly make the big stories – often to the annoyance of the local authorities involved.
- The Lancashire Evening Post didn’t fare quite so well with little direct council coverage found and a lack of questioning arising in the comments, leading Ed Walker to the conclusion. “Like others I’ve been finding there is little reporting of council meetings, more stories are created from council press releases and then a few quotes from councillors. It’s also not clear when these councillors were saying these quotes, although the councillors title and ward are always attached.”
- The Oxford Times proved to do a lot of local health authority stories and provided a good service in a lot of areas but the analysis found it fell down on the local council: “We were slightly surprised by the findings, as we had been fairly confident that a newspaper of The Oxford Times’ size and status would contain a good amount of council coverage.”
- The Stratford-upon-Avon Herald showed itself to be strong on both the quality and quantity of council reporting with the investigator concluding: “There is a distinct feeling with this edition of the Herald at least, that this local newspaper and its readers recognise the role of local councils and aren’t afraid to write about them.”
- Sussex Express and The Argus were studied over four weeks by journalist Chie Elliot who found results in line with her expectations – about 4% of the content produced being council news (Note:the method of calculation used has provoked further debate, see full posting for more on this). She concludes; “When editors are under pressure to publish stories that sell papers (i.e. gore, crime, deaths, scandals) and move circulation figures upwards, stories about local government decisions, which are not controversial enough to stir a strong response from the reader, are likely to be given lower priority, or, might, at most, end up as a nib (news in brief) in a spare corner of the page.”
- The Wilts and Glocs Standard didn’t impress too much and, although there were quite a few mentions of councils and councillors (press releases?), the whole package lead the journalist scrutinising it to conclude: “There is little evidence, as far as I can see, of monitoring council meetings or writing more in-depth pieces about local politics.”
- The Whitney Gazette likewise appeared to be suffering from staff shortages as far as the journalist assessing it could tell, sadly concluding: “We did think that there might be a higher level of WODC (the local council) coverage in the paper, as the district council is based in Witney itself, and is a major employer in the town. But the Witney office is only open for fairly limited hours, and presumably there aren’t the staff in Oxford available to trek out to cover district council meetings.”
Outside of the work on HelpMeInvestigate, local democracy and access to that information continues to be under the newspaper spotlight in the north west.
And away from the mainstream media organisations, the push to open more data and democratise town halls continues apace in towns and cities up and down the UK, so it looks as if the reporting of local decision-making will continue to be a hot issue in 2010.
If you want to join this HMI project, sign up here. If you’ve any news about the reporting of local authorities please feel free to share it in the comments below or contact me direct, firstname.lastname@example.org.