Conference Reporter

June 12, 2024 (Updated )

Few people can claim to know their local area quite as well as Josh Sandiford. During the last two years, he has been shortlisted in the Young Journalist category at both the Regional Press Awards and Media Freedom Awards for his work reporting in and around Birmingham.

Currently on sabbatical, Josh was a key figure at BBC Midlands, a senior reporter at the Birmingham Mail, and a freelancer for The Guardian, The Observer, and The Big Issue. Journo Resources spoke to Josh at the Student Press Association’s National Conference 2024 to ask him about a day in the life of a regional reporter, why knowing your patch is still so important, and how regional news is keeping up with the times.

How were you involved in student journalism while at university?

I was at The Mancunion and, it’s funny, there’s a story that Ethan Davies, the old editor-in-chief of The Mancunion, likes to tell. On my first day of university, before I went to any classes or lectures, I went to the student newspaper because I just knew that was what I wanted to do. He’s got this memory of me bursting into The Mancunion office and saying: “Is this where I come to volunteer and help out?”

I started out as a reporter for The Mancunion. They just couldn’t get rid of me basically — I was the sort of person who was always there to do any kind of story that came up. They made me breaking news reporter in my second semester of first year, after that I became investigations editor and I was really, really proud of my time. I think we published something like 18 investigations in 20 issues — we did really, really well. After that, I became deputy editor, which was the highest position that an undergraduate could hold, because our editors were paid full-time.

In regional news, how much of what you’re going to have to do that day do you already know when you wake up in the morning?

It can depend. No day is the same, which is excellent and I’m sure everyone always says that, but it depends. If you’ve got a job booked in, you usually know what you’re doing and you know you’re going out to interview people. You know that you’re going to be out for most of the day and where you’re going to be but, I would say nine days out of 10, you’ve got no idea.

Journo Resources
"The thing about regional news is when the nationals leave, you're still there – people know you. You can't do a job [or] do people over and then just buzz off back to London because you're going to have to ask those same people questions in the future."
Josh Sandiford, Former Journalist at BBC Midlands

That is the beauty of it, really. It works for me as a job because every day is different and I like the fact that I don’t know what I’m going to be doing. You find yourself writing this story and at the end of the day, you think: “I had no idea I was going to be doing that at the start of the day”. It’s a brilliant job and that’s why that’s why I love it.

What are some highlights of the reporting you’ve done?

I’ve done all sorts. I’ve chased Chinese spies around Solihull, I’ve gone and tried to retrace the steps of Tom Cruise to try and find him, I’ve gone cycling on jobs, I’ve investigated why there are mysterious bridges in certain places, I’ve been sent to Wales to see what’s happening with I’m A Celeb — loads of completely daft and bonkers stuff. Once I went to a Jaguar Land Rover press event and they let you drive cars around the track and it’s excellent.

But then highlights can also be really quite poignant things. I spent a lot of time covering the case of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes, a six-year-old lad from Solihull who was murdered by his parents. It was a massive national story and it was unfolding on our patch.

Journo Resources
Journo Resources

One of Josh’s front pages (L) and reporting (R).

The biggest story that I ever did — and it was a massive story, it led every single paper and led the News at 10 — was the case of the Babbs Mill boys, four boys who died after falling in a frozen lake. That happened five minutes from my family home where I grew up and so I was the first on the scene.

I knew everyone, had all the contacts, and was able to tell a story in a way that nobody else could really. The highlights are also quite poignant; that is undoubtedly a highlight of my career because it was a huge story and it was a privilege to work on it, but at the same time, it’s really, really sad and it’s an awful case to cover. You’re covering it as a reporter, as a journalist, but at the same time, you’re a member of that community, so it can be really quite emotionally taxing.

The thing about regional news is when the nationals leave, you’re still there — people know you. You can’t do a job — you can’t do people over — and then just buzz off back to London because you’re going to have to ask those same people questions in the future.

What keeps you drawn to regional news?

I think it was circumstance that I started on regional news. I started covering the area where I grew up and then this job came up, which was only over the road, and it was brilliant. It’s a great place to cut your teeth.

I did my training on local papers and the opportunities that I’ve had, I don’t think I would have had necessarily if I’d gone on to a national paper or onto a graduate scheme or training scheme. I’ve just found it a really good place to learn the trade.

What was your way into local news and how would you recommend other people go about that?

Just work experience, same as any role, it doesn’t matter if it’s local news or a national paper. The main piece of advice that I can give people is do as much work experience as is humanly possible. I know it’s not easy, because it’s expensive, it’s often unpaid, you often have to go to different cities and maybe spend a week and you’ve got to find accommodation. So I know it’s not easy, but even if it’s just a day.

If you live in Bristol, there’ll be the Bristol Cable, there’ll be Bristol 24/7, there’ll be Bristol Live. There’ll probably be outlets near you that you can just go and do a day on and just pester the editors. You know, someone once told me to buy an editor a cake to get into the newsroom. So just try to get as much experience under your belt as possible. I know that it’s not easy and it’s expensive, but just try, try, try.

Send one email a day to an editor or another reporter, and ask for coffee. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it adds up and over a number of months, you’ve sent emails to all these different people. Just chase up and pester people, because what’s the worst that can happen? They can say no and you’re no further back than you were.

Journo Resources
"Send one email a day to an editor or another reporter, ask for coffee. It doesn't sound like a lot, but it adds up and over a number of months. Chase up and pester people, because what's the worst that can happen? They can say no and you’re no further back than you were."
Josh Sandiford, former journalist at BBC Midlands

You’ve talked about how your patch is your life as well. How do you switch off from that?

It gets easier because you realise that most stories can probably wait. Often you will get a big scene that’s happened down the road — there’ll be a fire or a police incident or something. You just have to go and you have to be there. But also, I think the more you go into your career, you learn that actually some stories can just wait. It can be difficult trying to switch off, especially when you live there, but it gets easier I think.

It’s a privilege to work where you live, cover the area and people know who you are. You go to do your shopping in Morrisons and you see people that you did a story with before. I’ve actually been waiting at a bus stop before and there’s also been someone at the bus stop who I’ve done a story on and it’s really awkward. It’s like, ‘Oh how are you, how’s the mould, has it got any better?’. It can be difficult, but it gets easier.

What do you see for the future of that kind of local news?

It’s a difficult one because we see this proliferation of different models of regional news and local news. Places that are doing community funding, crowdfunding, there’s big conglomerates like Reach and it strikes me — with the caveat that I’m obviously relatively new in my career, I’m still quite young — but it strikes me that there isn’t a solution. Nobody seems to have found a solution to regional news. And not just regional news, but digital news generally.

I talk about Reach because I was there for a while [when working at the Birmingham Mail]; the majority of Reach’s income still comes from print. It’s putting stuff into digital, because print’s only going one way, but it strikes me that nobody has found a way to fund digital, online journalism.

It’s a question for people who are well above my pay grade, but it strikes me that if there was a solution, it would have been found by now and somebody would be doing it. I have hope because people are always going to need journalists, there’s always going to be a desire for news, there’s always going to be a hunger for people to know what’s going on in their local communities. But how you pay for it, I don’t know.

If there was an easy way of paying for and making money out of online digital journalism, somebody would have come up with it. Is it a subscription model? I don’t know. It’s a difficult one, and I don’t know what the answer looks like, but I do have hope because I think there are amazing people doing amazing journalism.

People in local communities want to know what is happening in their area and that will always be the case. So I have hope, but I don’t have the answers.

Fintan Hogan
Fintan Hogan

Fintan is the outgoing Editor-in-Chief of Roar News, King’s College London’s student newspaper. In 2024, he was commended by the Student Publication Association as the Best Journalist in London and given the Billy Dowling-Reid Award for Outstanding Commitment to Student Media. He will be starting an International Journalism MA at City University in September 2024 and in the long term he hopes to break into foreign correspondence or investigative reporting.