This week I was proud as a Scaramanga* with a worm, when my Writing the Message Online students at Hallam started scooping the local media.
First up was Adele Norris who reported on an armed police raid at a University of Sheffield lecture theatre on Monday morning. She quickly got the facts on her Sheffield news blog together with video footage. Hot on her tail was another reporter but not from Sheffield Star as might be expected. Instead it was JUS News, a news website run by journalism students at The University of Sheffield.
Adele was quick to tweet her blog post and saw the viewing statistics soar minute by minute.
By the late afternoon there was still no sign of the story on The Star website, despite their offices being around the corner from the police activity and a very loud police helicopter hovering over the area. Who knows why the The Star took 24 hours to report the story when university students managed to get it online straight away – even a student based at the other end of the city centre. Perhaps The Star website was down that day or perhaps they were overwhelmed by two other breaking stories of a murder in Sheffield and a dead body found in the street, or perhaps they didn’t view it as breaking news.
Thursday evening and another of my students was breaking news online ahead of the mainstream media. An explosion in Featherstone led to 100 people being evacuated and a ball of fire towering into the night sky.
Shaun Ackroyd tweeted his frustration that he couldn’t get to the scene because he was at work. But despite not being on the precise location he managed to get factual information together and quotes from eyewitnesses who came into his shop for refuge. He quickly blogged the information and was the first online news source to have quotes from the public, giving a much more personal account than the BBC report.
As with Adele he saw his hits rapidly climbing with 50 views in just 15 minutes. He also tweeted updates and via Twitter I was able to direct him to further bits of information on Facebook which he quickly added to his post.
Even from a 140 character tweet I could tell Shaun was excited and caught up in the moment of reporting a breaking news story.
It took me straight back to my days, only 18 months ago, working on a regional newspaper.
There is nothing better than being caught up in a live breaking story and being ahead of the game, knowing you are first with the facts, quotes and pictures that people will be talking about for the next week.
Although the national press or TV stations may seem far more glamorous what most students (and the public) forget is that 90% of journalism begins at a local level. Unless it is MP expenses or an outbreak of war in a foreign country it is stuff going on in our villages and towns, right on our doorsteps.
It is a well known fact amongst journalists that the vast majority of stories in the national media start off in local newspapers. The pyramid structure means that local hacks slave away at great stories only for them to be taken up by the TV a week or two later, or snapped up by The Sun, Daily Mail or Telegraph who then take all the credit for breaking the story.
In reality the local paper has done all the groundwork, made the contacts, run the story but then the nationals swoop in and offer a lump sum of money for future exclusivity from the story subject matter. In most cases the local reporter gets nothing – no payment, no byline. But no-one can ever remove the smug satisfaction and sense of achievement that that was the story that I broke.
The best stories start local. Gruesome murders, saucy sex scandals, bizarre animal antics and fireball explosions, all happen in our communities and are excellently reported by the local papers and to a certain extent the radio (note my press bias here).
I still remember the thrill of my first horrendous murder case in Wiltshire, the tentative interview I did with a rape victim and then a few weeks later with the man acquitted of her rape. Then there was the interview with now Chancellor George Osbourne as he visited Northampton and obviously knew nothing about the town. The bizarre visit to a Cocaine Anonymous support group and the countless ambles through stately homes by lords with too much time of their hands. Most of this happened within my first couple of years as a journalist, and there was certainly no hanging around with throwing you in at the deep end.
Local journalism has to be applauded as it is the backbone of news in the UK and that is why is so important that journalism students grasp the nettle and act on breaking news as soon as it happens. It is not about getting good marks, or passing modules, it is about enjoying the thrill of an evolving story.
Too many times I hear undergraduate students at both Sheffield and Hallam saying ‘I would go into journalism if I could earn more money’. This is such a sad indictment of our times. Journalism is about doing a job that you love, that soon becomes a lifestyle and a life view rather than a job. Any journalist who wants to work just 9 to 5, should just shove off to PR as soon as possible (and believe me they will). You don’t do journalism for the money, hell you shouldn’t really do any job for the money, but especially not a job that is so fundamental to the foundation of democracy and is damn fun and exciting at the same time.
*Scaramanga is my cat and she loves bringing in worms as gifts.