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Should local papers have led on Jackson’s death?

The sight of regional papers splashing on national and international news always generates a fair amount of debate among journalists. For many, who see localness as our unique selling point, following the national news agenda is something that goes against the grain.

I recall an incident on one of my old papers a few years back when a regional political splash got knocked-off the front page by the fall of Saddam Hussein. It was a hugely controversial decision in the newsroom, but the toppling of that bronze statue in Baghdad in 2003 was one of the defining images of the decade, and it was always going to be a hard call to put something else on the front that day.

Over the past few days, the debate has been put into fresh perspective by the regionals’ coverage of the death of Michael Jackson. As we reported on HoldtheFrontPage

last Friday, many regional dailies made the decision to splash with the late-breaking story in the knowledge that early editions of the nationals alongside them on the news-stands had missed it.

But some HTFP readers were predictably less-than-impressed. One visitor to the site commented tartly:

"Has is not occurred to anyone else that Michael Jackson is from Indiana – not Derby, Birmingham, Coventry, Leicester or Dorset."

The best piece I have so far read about this perennial dilemma for regional editors has come from the Leicester Mercury’s Keith Perch

This is what he wrote on his blog:

At the Leicester Mercury, we see ourselves as a local newspaper. We report on Leicester and Leicestershire and rarely stray beyond these boundaries other than to put a local angle on to national or international events. But sometimes, things happen that are just so big that it is impossible to ignore them.

Princess Diana’s death, the country going to war, 9/11, the London tube bombings, Lockerbie, the Hungerford and Dunblane shootings – these are all examples of things which are not local, but which are so enormous in terms of public conscientiousness and reaction, that I believe a newspaper not leading on them looks odd.

I don’t think Michael Jackson’s death comes quite into the same category despite the level of reaction, but, nevertheless, we took the decision late on Thursday evening to lead the paper on the night’s events. Why was that? It was at least in part because it happened so late that I thought that it might miss the early editions of the national newspapers, but it was also because I felt that it was a big enough story to mean that it would be the only thing people were talking about the next day.

Was that the right decision? I don’t know. Many other regional papers disagreed and didn’t change up and it’s too early to see what effect it had on our sales figures. However, I would say that when I saw the bills in the streets later in the day, I felt the decision was right.

 

I think Keith puts his finger on the issue here when he says that not leading on stories as big as the death of Jackson "looks odd." No doubt my old boss felt the same about the fall of Saddam.

Yes, localness is the USP of the regional press – but in this global village we now inhabit, there are times when international = local and local = parochial.

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