Over the past months, regional journalism has once again had to deal with heavy blows. While that is nothing new, the negative trend continues. VRT recently cancelled the regional morning episodes on Radio 2 in exchange for a thirteen-in-a-dozen show. In the meantime, the East Flanders regional TV station AVS asked for protection from its creditors. And the Flemish Media Regulator expressed clear concerns about the situation of the local press. As a former regional journalist, my heart is bleeding. I am still convinced that regional journalism is more important than ever. But if regional media want to survive, they urgently need to believe in their own added value. Because that’s the only way to convince partners on the commercial side as well.
Deep down, I’m still a regional journalist. I miss the job. Being on the road in my own region, the social contacts, the fun facts… As a regional journalist, you are always the first to find out. And when the news outgrows its region, it is nice to know that you laid the foundation of something that later became a national news item. Regional journalism is something unique. From regional festivals where people welcome you with open arms to local politicians who are hard-pressed at a city council because of news you brought out. From the disbelief and incomprehension after a tragic accident or crime to feeling the joy among hundreds of celebrating Dilbeek residents because their own Sven Kums has won the Golden Booth. Regional journalism is an emotional rollercoaster..
Precisely that emotion is what people are looking for today. Storytelling is hot. And is the local journalist not the best storyteller? They know which stories catch on; what keeps people awake today. Even the big media companies have realized this. They believe their regional journalists are the perfect content creators to work on major branded content strategies.
Elections to name the “Best Café” or “Best Frituur” of Flanders were not created by Het Nieuwsblad out of editorial interest but resulted from a creative concept conceived in terms of a partnership with interest groups such as Horeca Vlaanderen or the Frituristenbond. The “Best Regional Products of Flanders” campaign was launched by Het Laatste Nieuws as advertising material for the VLAM, which wanted to highlight the streekproducten.be label.
Such concepts are conceived by creative strategists from the advertising cell within media companies. The execution, however, is in the hands of regional journalists who know the people in the street. It sounds simple, but it is a strategy that every company can learn from. Indeed, a regional, more personal touch can strengthen a national or international campaign.
Local stories ensure that national projects go viral and are supported by target groups. Kom Op Tegen Kanker, Rodeneuzendag, De Warmste Week… These are all initiatives that come to life thanks to local journalism (or content) that resonates with then men and women in the street.
Vice versa, local stories can also have great impact. Stories like baby Pia, harrowing scenes of refugees in Brussels, fraudulent practices or secret dinners of top politicians and real estate tycoons come to light every time a well-informed regional journalist picks up a story at the bar of a local café or during a chat after a city council meeting. And what first appears to be a small fait divers may just grow into a story that receives national coverage.
As a regional journalist, you are also there for the people around you. You help initiators by spreading the word about their project in the newspaper. But you may just as well give tips. In which restaurant can you eat the best regional dish? Which municipality is the best place to live? And where should you take the kids this weekend for a fun activity? Regional journalism therefore not only brings critical and compelling stories, but also provides a guide for those seeking more information about their region.
This is something companies can capitalize on to increase brand awareness. The launch of a particular product in a city, employer branding, or even tips for trips and activities. If your brand manages to bring content that adds value, the regional journalist is your partner in crime. As a brand, you can really focus on a particular target group and location by engaging the regional press. Just think of a fitness group opening a new branch in a certain village, or a car brand launching its latest electric model in your town.
Still, editors must be careful not to forget their news function in the search for commercial partnerships. “Making the newspaper is not what it used to be.” I often hear this comment from former colleagues who are still in the business. In their quest for readers, many editors are choosing content over news. Digital newspaper pages today are filled with entertainment and resto tips, while the well-researched, critical regional journalism fades into the background. A report on a turbulent city council will no longer be published, but you certainly score with a story about where to eat the best shrimp croquette.
Yet that shrimp croquette is now the hope of regional journalism. Just as newspapers cannot exist without advertisers, regional editors must also survive financially through partnerships by offering interesting content. The more brands will see this strategy as full-fledged, the better the chances of survival for regional journalism. And who knows, perhaps that will once again provide some financial breathing room for well-researched, critical regional journalism.