“I wouldn’t want to work in local news,” I overheard a student saying at an event recently, “It just sounds so… boring.” Yet, in the past week on my local news website alone, we’ve covered a murder, looked at how the homeless need help over winter, seen a huge lorry spill tonnes of beer across a road and interviewed a protester who climbed into a tree to stop it being cut down. Sounds really boring, doesn’t it?
The hours may be dreadful and the pay poor to begin with, but local newspaper journalists have some of the most exciting jobs out there.
Of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but here’s exactly why that student was wrong and needs to stop being so snooty about their career options.
There’s Never A ‘Typical Day’ In The Life Of A Local Journalist
As a local journalist, you get to see the most incredible, hilarious, heartwarming, and even horrifying stories unfold right in front of your eyes.
Rather than being chained to your desk as a national journalist having to churn out as many stories as possible, you can go out and meet real people, and see their raw, unedited lives.
You get the chance to tell the stories which the nationals wouldn’t have the time to explore, and when you reach your desk on a Monday morning you often have no idea what you’ll end up writing a story about.
Want to know exactly what you should be paid for your work at a local or regional paper? Check out our salary rates page for up to date reports on pay from around the country.
One week you could rush to the scene of a stabbing to work out what happened, the next you could challenge a councillor about the latest round of dreadful cuts. Or perhaps you could hold a hospital to account for its dreadful conditions, or maybe you end up in court to cover a murder case or inquest.
Of course, it won’t all be that hard-hitting. You instead may find yourself having a lighter week where you visit a dog therapy centre, ride the Cadbury Creme Egg bus, or even be frozen as a type of new beauty treatment. You may even get the chance to travel abroad.
Some weeks will leave you drained, others will leave you angry at the unfairness of life, but lots will make you laugh more than you ever have.
I’ve even shed a tear or two after some particularly heartbreaking interviews. Just think of the job as the ups and downs of life but in the extreme – it’s quite the rollercoaster; until you become a hardened, cynical hack, that is.
It Gives You Loads Of Great Stories For The Pub
Picture this: it’s a Friday night and you go for a drink with your friend, who is a project manager, and you ask them how their week has been.
“Oh you know, managing projects,” they say, and you quickly move the conversation on.
If you’re asked the same, you can tell them about the murder trial you covered, the huge protest you followed, or even the local pub’s popular parrot which was found dead in the bottom of its cage clutching a pork scratching (RIP).
No week is the same either, so when you come back the following week for drinks with your mate, you can tell them about different stories, while they’re still managing the same project. No offence intended towards project managers. I’m sure you probably get paid triple what I do…
Other added benefits include giving you an edge in the drinking game Never Have I Ever (I bet no one else has been to the gym with Davina McCall) and teaching you pointless pieces of information which randomly come back to you during Trivial Pursuit and pub quizzes.
There Is Room For Progression
In all seriousness though, it is worth asking what can a job in local news can do for your career, other than helping you snag a free pint from that bloke who thinks you’re hilarious. Well, let me start the list.
Firstly the job gets you qualified, which can get future you ahead of the game. You may have done your NCTJ Diploma in Journalism at university or as a postgraduate or fast-track course before starting in local news, but your workplace will pay for you to take your National Qualification in Journalism (NQJ) or equivalent, which you take 18 months into the job.
Many people now claim you don’t need an NQJ (or even an NCTJ to get a job in journalism), but while this can be true, an editor is still more likely to hire a person who has a piece of paper which says they understand how not to get sued than a person who just claims to be fine. And good shorthand is vital for interviewing and court reporting.
Once qualified, you can also ask for more money as a senior reporter – and could be promoted to a chief reporter or try your hand at an editing role. Because teams are a lot smaller at local publications, you’re also likely to get more responsibility (and therefore experience) than you would at a national. For example, I get to select the top story of the website I work for every day, whereas only people at the very top levels of nationals would have that responsibility.
Or, if you do decide you want to try something new, national newspapers will look favourably on your experience. The salary in journalism does get better after you qualify, so it’s worth sticking it out if you can.
You Have The Freedom To Build Your Niche
While you’re on your way to qualifying, you really have the chance to work on the stories you’re interested in.
Of course, part of being a local reporter is you have to be prepared to cover just about anything, but if you’re looking to specialise in something, you can easily build that into your reporting providing it’s relevant to your area.
For example, earlier this year I wanted to write about 100 years of women’s suffrage, so I researched a local angle and created this project. Another time I survived on £1 of food a day, which is all some people have to live on.
It’s always great for your publication to be writing stories which no one else is covering – all in all your editor is likely to be quite on board with helping you forge your specialist path.
You’re At The Grassroots Level Of Reporting
The reality is, although national reporters look like they have a lot more exciting things to write about, a lot of their stories come from local newspapers initially – whether that’s the idea itself or they’ve syndicated the whole thing.
So why not be the person who creates and cultivates those stories? It’s your chance to do those real things on the grassroots level such as knocking on doors, submitting FOI requests, and carrying out investigations.
These things are what will make your CV stand out when you apply for jobs in the future, and these are the stories which the nationals will want. Local reporters often see their work in the likes of the Sun, the Mirror and Mail Online.
Want more top tips to help your CV sparkle? Read our in-depth guide from guru Jack Dearlove.
You learn so much in those early years of reporting. One day you’ve got an angry reader shouting down the phone at you, another day you’re having to coax a difficult press officer, and sometimes you have to remain calm while speaking to an emotional, grieving parent. You don’t just learn how to write stories, you learn how to handle people, too.
And the world is always changing. We all know local news is moving away from newspapers and more towards digital, so you need to be on top of your game in knowing what readers want and how to make it appealing and clickable. It goes without saying these are also great skills to add to your CV.
Get That Warm Fuzzy Feeling Inside
Of course, you could argue all journalism is helping the public in some way, by telling them things which are going on in the world they wouldn’t otherwise know about, or exposing scandals.
But in local news, you can help people closer to home and see the impact you are having in the community first hand. A lot of this is because readers feel they can make direct contact with their local publications by calling them or dropping them a Facebook message in a way they couldn’t with the nationals.
For example, Stoke on Trent Live has won multiple awards for its ‘Swim Safer’ campaign following the tragic drowning of a teenager while he was swimming with friends, and the Sheffield Star recently launched a campaign to end knife crime in the Steel City. These are just two ways in which local news can make a huge difference.
And even if you don’t do something massive, when you help get a dangerous section of road repaired or someone thanks you for raising awareness of an issue, it still gives you that warm fuzzy feeling inside.
So if you want some amazing life experiences, to build your career and the occasional warm fuzzy feeling, you should put local news back on your job applications list.
Sian Elvin is a content editor and social media guru for the Kent Live news website. She won the Kent Young Journalist of the Year award in 2018 has also been named one of 30 journalists under the age of 30 to watch in the UK. Formerly deputy editor of student paper the Boar, she is passionate about helping students get into journalism and is also a trustee and mentor for the Student Publication Association.