Local news: the whats, whys and hows...a Herts Ad reporter speaks out

Reporter Laura Bill of the Herts Ad tells us about her job, the point of local news and something ab

Reporter Laura Bill of the Herts Ad tells us about her job, the point of local news and something about guinea pig car alarms. Picture: Archant - Credit: Archant

If you have ever used the phrase “slow news day?”, “how is this even a story?” or “another non-story” then you really need to read this article.

With time and resources in short supply our journalists have to work harder than ever while always ensuring balance and accuracy.

People are sometimes confused by what news makes our paper and website, and frequently air their criticism on social media.

Yet other times we are berated for not covering something so critical as somebody’s next door neighbour’s guinea pig keeping them up all night with its car alarm impersonation.

So then...what is news?

First day of journalism school – and no, we don’t just turn on a laptop and start writing these ‘Council overturns plans’ thrillers, untrained – tells us: “News is anything new.”

I’m so glad my employer paid the seven grand for me to do this course.

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Does that mean that anything old is not news? No. It means that there has to be something new about the already-existing thing. Example: A local man is teaching people to play the piano with their ears. That is new even if he has been doing said ear piano lessons for a while because most people play the instrument with their hands.

However, what would make it even more like ‘news’ is if one of his pupils has just discovered he can play piano with his nose as well as his ears.

Now there is also hard news. A car has crashed into a tree killing three people and a dog this morning.

That is definitely news.

And in between guinea pig car alarms and dead people there is a spectrum of other things that might make it to the printers.

How does a reporter find news? Emails, phonecalls, council meeting minutes, visitors to the office, social media pages, walking around the city, talking to police, ambulance and fire services and even stories we have written before can all be excellent stimulus for new stories.

When we get a potential news lead, we have to decide whether to pursue it or not as space is limited in the paper and we do not have enough reporters to write every story that comes our way.

Every single story we publish has to be true and has to be verifiable, which means it can be checked to be correct.

So if we are saying that a housing association has subjected a mother-of-two to a leaking lounge roof for six months that absolutely must be the case.

Sensationalising is not okay yet telling the story in an interesting and emotive way is. The two are very different.

We ask if there is a public interest angle to a story. That means “do people need to know about this?”.

We do not work for the police, the council, funded by your taxes or a charity. We are a business. We also serve our community and want to be there for you all.

Part of the role is to hold people to account; to make sure services are doing what they should be. Think Rogue Traders or Watchdog.

I have already used the landlord allowing the leaking roof scenario. That did make the front page, the housing association were given the right to put their side across and quoted in the story.

And, surprise surprise, the matter was dealt with very swiftly once half of our city had read about it. Shaming them into resolving the leak, if you will.

Sometimes a reporter might get involved and not need to do a story as the problem is quickly fixed. This might apply to a sofa being dumped in a park. We call the council and they remove the sofa. Problem solved.

Who makes the news?

We have what I would call our regulars.

St Albans figures such as panto legend Bob Golding, MP Daisy Cooper, The River Ver campaigners, local schools. We also tell the stories of the not-so-well-known individuals, for example, where there is an exceptional feat of charity or a heart-rending battle with an illness.

We of course also cover matters which might seem minor – like a parking charge increase – if they affect a large amount of our readers.

Outcomes of crime affect our community in a big way.

I am often asked why we haven’t named a sex offender or young offender in order to protect people. While it is a valid question, the answer is this: We have to follow legal restrictions.

We live in a country where human rights are fundamental and people are deemed innocent until proved otherwise.

So it might look like we are protecting someone when we are just working within the law.

We do three hour exams in how to report a magistrates hearing, a crown court trial, and how to not prejudice a trial once a case is active.

A case becomes active if certain things have happened and it usually starts with the arrest of a suspect, but not always, as they may be released without charge.

Similarly, something might seem irrelevant when it isn’t – a “non-story”, as it has been lovingly named by some of our critics.

If there is a police raid and nothing is found or a flat on fire where flames are quickly put out, we might write about that.

It might be that we have some brilliant photos or that the telephone has been ringing all morning in the office to ask why there are six police cars on Upper Lattimore Road.

We do this to inform you, our local audience, about things you might want to know about.

You have to trust us on this... asking me if it’s a ‘slow news day’ can be damaging to my over-caffeinated, highly trained and under-paid ego. Perhaps.

I mean, it’s not about me but while we are on the subject of me – I am a human being doing my very best and loving my job.

I often talk to readers early in the morning, late at night and at weekends just to help them out or reassure them of something.

I come from a family of national newspaper journalists and I CHOSE local news because I love the impact it makes and I love hearing people’s stories.

Which brings me onto this...everyone has the right to an opinion but balance is welcomed and abuse on social media is not.

Oh and another thing...quotes are not our views.

When we quote people we are doing exactly that. Giving them a platform for their voice. It does not mean the reporter or the Herts Ad agrees with the person.

You have no right to privacy where breaking the law is concerned so if you are arrested for drink-driving it may well be in our paper and that is not because we are mean and want to stop you ever getting a job. It is a historical practice that is part of our society and open justice system.

If something is in the public domain we do not need permission to tell the facts - the same goes for taking photos in public places.

If you decide to dress up as a cauliflower and run through the city centre singing a Kylie Minogue song to raise money, we may well tell that story. We might contact you for a comment. We might not.

I mean, entertainment is part of our function too, right? As the Beeb used to declare, we inform, educate and entertain.

When it comes to statistics, simply dumping information is not enough. We have to analyse the data we present, give it context and provide critical commentary by experts. For example, while Public Health England figures might appear to show a huge spike in local coronavirus cases, if you look at them carefully the increase is very small, and can be attributed to factors which a simple phone call or email can establish, thus giving a better perspective on the data.

Finally, we have our loyal letter writers and columnists. The former are entitled to their opinions as long as they aren’t defamatory, but don’t represent the views of this newspaper, so don’t hold us to account for their beliefs. And as for our column writers - Becky Alexander, Julia Jenkins, Rupert Evershed, and the various contributors to Faith Focus - they are also presenting their own opinions, albeit in a different format, but adding to the colour and content of our paper and website.

So the next time you feel the urge to publicly attack our stories and reporters, take a moment of reflection and consider what might have gone into producing the material you are so incensed about, and what the consequences of any outburst might be on the very human people behind the news.