Local news: Are we losing ‘the first draft of history’?
What you need to know:
Yes, news business is very complicated, especially at this time of changing technology. Still, it is worthwhile to ask how local news can find itself back in the mainstream media and how communities can be made to appreciate and pay for it
Two weeks or so ago, I got a call from a reader who wanted a Daily Monitor newspaper of March 1995 that featured a story about macabre events in a village in Syangu, Lumino sub-county in Busia District. The community apparently had scheduled a meeting and they needed to refer to the newspaper and the specific incidents as recorded then.
Much earlier this year, I was given a copy of a petition to Uganda Wildlife Authority from a community leader on behalf of victims and survivors of man-eater crocodiles that terrorised villages along River Sio (or Suo as locals know it) in Busia District in the mid-1990s. The river marks the boundary between Uganda and Kenya. The petition was laced with cuttings of Daily Monitor newspaper pages that reported the incidents.
These two examples are perhaps the best illustration of the popular journalism maxim that “local news is the first draft of history”. Local news was always an important part of the newspaper. In Uganda’s newspapers of yester years, a page was provided for every region – eastern, central, northern and western. Then there was a page or two for city news, and several pages for the “big” national news events.
Today, space for local news has hugely diminished, if not disappeared altogether. As I wrote this column yesterday morning, I looked at both daily newspapers to see how much space had been devoted two local news that day. Only one page in New Vision captioned “Community News” with three stories, and in Daily Monitor, two pages; one captioned “Regional News” with three stories and the second page captioned “Regional Feature” with one long grey story.
The long and short of this is that today, the local stories alluded to in the first part of this column would struggle to find space in the lone page of local news unless they were very big in the judgement of “national” editors. New events in the four regions of Uganda are today summarised on one page!
The result is that many mundane stories of events in the countryside are forever lost since they don’t get documented by media. They are all over on transient social media! Where they do, especially for television, they are captured in comic news programmes such as Zungululu, et al so the elite city audiences can get some comic relief and what next to deride the villagers with!
How did we get here? Many reasons but one of them is market journalism, an increasingly popular area of media scholarship.
Because of the focus on the market whereby market values override the traditional news values, mainstream news becomes increasingly commercialised and saturated with entertainment and market values/practices. This leads to emphasis being put on audience segments that bring value directly as consumers through content that titillates them, or on audiences that can be sold to advertisers.
Abundance of this content is what has, in part, crowded out rural audiences or local news from mainstream media to one or two pages. The other reason, of course, is the desire for media houses to cut the cost of collecting local news.
Interestingly as media abandon local news, many audiences get frustrated with it [media] because it ceases to connect and inform them on local issues that matter to them. A recent study in the US that sought to understand “what do people want from local news?” documented frustration from people who notice their local outlets are often running or airing stories about news in other places, and none about their places.
On the occasional story about their places, usually when a crime of misfortune happens, this is what they had to say: “…disproportionate focus on crime in their communities creates a wholly inaccurate depiction of what it’s like to live in their areas. They say they can’t trust journalists who show up for negative stories if they don’t see them coming around for the positive stories as well.”
Yes, news business is very complicated, especially at this time of changing technology. Still, it is worthwhile to ask how local news can find itself back in the mainstream media and how communities can be made to appreciate and pay for it so that the first drafts of history are not lost.
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