Three words can strike dread into the hearts of trainee journalists, and many working reporters: Local government finance.
If journalism should be about making the important interesting, there is perhaps no greater challenge.
This is a task made even harder over recent years as local newspapers have cut back on staff. The municipal reporter, sitting scribbling notes at long council meetings, is now largely a thing of the past.
Having spent over 20 years teaching NCTJ students public affairs, I’m well aware of the challenges of trying to impart essential but complex material in an engaging way.
But it has never been more vital. Local authority funding is now the political and economic front line in a way that it hasn’t been since the poll tax.
And the fresh faced, underpaid local reporters sitting in front of their computers around the country need to understand not only the workings of funding arrangements, but also the local and national political context in which they operate.
While the national debate over the deficit and cuts can quickly become abstract, it is at a local level that decisions become a reality and have a direct impact on people’s lives.
As we start a new financial year, councils facing difficult choices over funding – from libraries to social care, setting council tax, fixing roads and dealing with homelessness – are warning that they are increasingly struggling to provide services on which local people rely.
And with campaigning under way for the local elections on 2 May, local politicians from all parties are keen to place the blame on national decisions.
It is a story likely to grow in political importance over the next two years as we head towards the 2015 General Election.
It falls on local journalists to explain the debate, engage readers, listeners and viewers about why it matters, and highlight the human impact on local people.
I hope we have equipped this generation of local journalists to meet the challenge.
- Amanda Ball is a senior lecturer in media law and public administration at Nottingham Trent University and is the NCTJ’s principal examiner.