Why a local newspaper’s court and council coverage won’t persuade readers to pay for news online

I read a brief from the Society of Editors conference the other day where an editor- a mate of mine, actually – told his assembled audience:”What we produce is niche. Nobody else sits in our courts every day. Nobody else scrutinises our public bodies”. It’s stirring stuff and I’m sure his audience swelled with pride but it’s just not true.

Joe Public may not be sat in his local crown court every day, but don’t assume the average local newspaper is a regular visitor either. And forget crown court for a moment – how many daily papers staff a magistrates court on the off-chance something might happen? Weekly papers may get to mags courts a little more often but as local (ie. in the same town as the newspaper office) courts close and the service becomes more centralised so it becomes more time-consuming for a reporter to attend, and more difficult to keep track of what’s happening. Especially when you factor in charging for court lists – which is an absolute scandal in itself.

And there are lots of sites around that offer local/niche news and/or options for local campaigns – PitsnPot, ClickLiverpool, Lichfield Blog, the Confidential sites, the Talk About Local movement, Mash the State, the My Society sites to name a few. Newspapers that underestimate the reach and audience of these sites are making a mistake – and overlooking the fact that their readership has freedom of choice, and a healthy case of scepticism about relationships between the ‘local rag’ (a term I particularly loathe) and the local council.

What is niche anyway? Is it a category – news, advertising, lifestyle, property? or is it geography? Either way I wouldn’t say a daily regional newspaper is especially niche or local; surely the term is defined by ‘local to me’ and what’s local in Southport won’t be local in Speke. The best a daily newspaper can offer is a combination of broad regional and specific area articles that hopefully inform and entertain its audience. The gun and drug gangs of North Liverpool aren’t impinging on the social wellbeing of residents of Wirral’s more leafy burbs, where locals are concerned with whether the council is really going to close down multiple libraries and museums.

On Merseyside, Liverpool crown court’s press benches might be occupied on any given day by the court reporter for the Post&Echo, an excellent freelance journalist, a local news agency reporter and – if the case is big enough – regional TV.
Magistrates courts are covered as the staff rota and cases of note dictate; we very rarely cover the community justice centre, in the daily or weekly papers – somewhere niche (and very hyperlocal) news would be found, but who in our audience would pay for it?

My previous paper, the South Wales Argus (where I worked with the editor quoted above) paid a freelance journalist to cover Cardiff crown court because there was no way we could justify sending someone to a neighbouring city every day, especially as some days there might be four reporters rota-ed for the whole of Gwent, and 36 news pages to fill from a standing start. Something has to give – diary jobs and so-so court cases tend to be the first things dropped.

Apart from courts, journalists tend to be very good at stripping agendas to the bone, which means you probably won’t see them in every council/health service/fire authority/police authority sub-committee meeting either. If the council reporter has plundered of the agenda before a committee meeting starts, they might only nip in for the decisions they feel matter, and rely on their contacts to keep them informed of any other outbreaks of news during the meeting. The issue of open democracy and council coverage is one of the arguments PA is employing as it aims to start a public service reporting initiative [disclosure: I’m on the TM Merseyside project team working with PA on this; whether it gets off the ground, or runs in Liverpool, we don’t know yet].

Emily Pennink, of PA, and I audited a week’s worth of TM Merseyside’s daily and weekly titles to determine the scope of public authority reports they carried, showed a broad range of coverage in the daily and weekly TM titles for Merseyside, Cheshire and West Lancs but also highlighted gaps.
From our findings:

In the week starting June 15 2009 the Liverpool Echo ran eight lead stories relating to councils and public bodies, while the more business-orientated Post ran 15 lead stories, including a splash.
This material is from various sources, such as council agendas and minutes, press releases, contacts and some meetings.  Of the weekly newspapers, four carried council-related stories on their front pages.
What an examination of current coverage in traditional print media shows is that the area is well served when it comes to the main public authority stories of the day.
News is generated by concerned residents, official reports as well as agendas.  Coverage of meetings in person is limited and coverage will normally focus on one or more item(s) and not necessarily reflect the whole meeting.
None of the main stories covered by the newspapers during this period appeared to come from council press releases which, judging from the press office archive material available online, were mainly concerned with non-contentious issues… in areas like the borough of Knowsley, which has no [dedicated local newspaper] council reportage is unlikely to be a fair reflection of life in the area.
It is clear that in Knowsley, and to a lesser extent the other parts of Merseyside, media organisations have yet to fully tap into local council meetings as a primary source for more in-depth coverage of an area.

One week overview of public authority articles (from meetings, agendas, minutes or press releases) in Trinity Mirror Merseyside daily  and weekly titles (June 2009 editions exeptions: * sample taken from September 2009 )
Matrix Table

Maybe I’m blinkered but I genuinely don’t think people will, as a rule, pay for online news and I’ve blogged as much before although some titles (such as weeklies, or specialist publications) may have more luck if they are hyperlocal, relevant and excel in what they offer. Readers may pay to access other services alongside news, but I just don’t see news itself as a big enough lure.
Also, just to take this argument to the extreme, if newspapers are going to hold themselves up as the moral guardians of what’s right, scrutinising public bodies and holding them to account, is it ethical that they charge for this benevolent service at all?
Just a thought…

6 thoughts on “Why a local newspaper’s court and council coverage won’t persuade readers to pay for news online

  1. Hardly any – a few nibs and some school photos in a weekly paper's Education section. We found: None of the main stories covered by the newspapers during this period appeared to come from council press releases which, judging from the press office archive material available online, were mainly concerned with non-contentious issues
    Of course, this was only a sample from one week and some of these titles (such as the Merseymart series) are free papers so don't have many news pages meaning press releases would be unlikely to appear.


  2. Leaving aside whether anyone would pay (or more to the point, whether enough people would pay), I'm more concerned about how it would affect the journalism itself.

    For me, most of the more exciting developments in online journalism are all to do with how it allows a paper to interact with its audience. I've said it before (possibly on this blog . . .) but put up a wall, and a big chunk of that audience – and value – disappears.

    Plus what are the ethics involved in charging an audience for content they've helped to provide? I can't see that going down too well.


  3. Ok we could fill the “democratic deficit” by televising all council committes in different channels on YouTube, and then letting the people who wanted to comment on the proceedings comment on the proceedings. Wouldn't that be a low-cost highly democratic solution to the problem of reporting council committee meetings? Local media brands could take feeds and sell advertising against them. I don't imagine the cost per resident would be more than £1/year in most Boroughs for this kind of effort. You'd probably have to send someone to cover courts though.


  4. @Balaclava65 You know, that's an excellent suggestion, and one that addresses some of the real issues of council coverage. I've noticed Sefton Council does stream some of its meetings on an ad hoc basis, and seems to be experimenting with audio too, which is an interested development by a relatively small authority.


  5. Interesting matrix Alison. On your point about paywalls, I feel v strongly that this information should be freely available to all. Surely it's an essential part of democracy that such information about decisions made on behalf of the public are available to the public regardless of ability to pay? The charging of information is also at odds with movements to free public data – in fact I can't understand why there hasn't been more of an outcry about that.Perhaps it' simply the case the issue hasn't been highlighted before.


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