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Coronavirus and the Press: how local newspapers are reporting the global crisis

John Mulgrew

With Northern Ireland readers increasingly turning to news about Covid-19, the role of trusted media has never been more important... but the pandemic is taking its toll on the industry too


Undertakers dressed in Hazmat suits at the graveside of Enniskillen man Lawrence McManus

Undertakers dressed in Hazmat suits at the graveside of Enniskillen man Lawrence McManus

Mark Conway, editor of the Impartial Reporter

Mark Conway, editor of the Impartial Reporter

Undertakers dressed in Hazmat suits at the graveside of Enniskillen man Lawrence McManus

It's all about trust, says Mark Conway, editor of the Fermanagh-based weekly newspaper The Impartial Reporter. "We are established in the community and people trust us to tell their stories. And we know the people ... it's also really hard for us."

While we deal with the biggest global crisis in generations, it's never been more important to have trusted, local voices at the heart of communities.

When we look back at this period in a year or two, what will we use to help chart the struggle, the horror, the efforts of health service and frontline workers, the triumph over adversity?

In Enniskillen, The Impartial Reporter's coverage last week of the funeral of 93-year-old Lawrence McManus laid bare the now day-to-day impact of coronavirus: undertakers dressed in white Hazmat suits as they wheeled Mr McManus's coffin towards the grave at Cross Cemetery.

It's just one story, one person amid a crisis like no other, but it's every bit as important when trying to put a human face on a pandemic of biblical proportions.

In these cases, as mourners are unable to attend the funeral and wakes, and gatherings become a thing of the past, local newspapers can help in offering some solace to those who need it most.

Twitter has been - and still is - an essential tool in a journalist's arsenal during this crisis. Largely unable to leave our homes, it's often the first port of call when looking for information, or a new lead.

And while it can deliver us the latest updates from our own Department of Health, and both nationally and across the globe, by its very nature, the information is a breaking news blip: a flash in the pan; gone the following day.

Research shows the average shelf-life for a tweet is around 18 minutes. How, then, will we remember and record the most significant period in a generation at a local level without the efforts of some of our most talented journalists across regional and local newspapers?

This, remember, is a global pandemic; one which, tragically, sees the number of deaths in the hundreds, daily, across the UK, but no longer necessarily leading the next day's national paper.

Because of that, because of the scale and reach of this crisis, telling the local stories of heroism, triumph and solidarity, alongside the tragedy, has never been so important.

From the local manufacturers, retooling to produce tens of thousands of items of PPE for our frontline workers, to those donating their time, food and resources to making sure those who most need it are looked after, these are the stories that need told.

The scale of this crisis is hard to comprehend.

The horror, the almost numbing effect of recalibrating ourselves to deal with the soaring spread and death toll, means that there aren't the column inches to tell everyone's story of heartache and resilience.

As a society, we are all going through our own lockdown in our own way - some adjusting to working from home, others finding themselves out of work and some now on the furlough scheme (a word which entered our lexicon in a flash, but one which I'm sure we'll all be keen to see the back of).

The impact is already being felt on some of our leading local newspapers.

In a move that impacts The Impartial Reporter, Newsquest Media Group, owner of hundreds of UK daily and weekly titles, announced pay-cuts for some staff, while furloughing others. The County Down Spectator, Newtownards Chronicle and Mourne Observer have been put on hold due to the outbreak, while, just last week, the Newry Reporter's editor, Paul Welsh, announced that it, too, would temporarily suspend both its digital and print publications.

A vacuum in solid news reporting risks a litany of unverified and unsubstantiated information, purporting to be news and shared across chat groups and sections of social media; quack "cures" for the virus are among the dross springing up in badly written, grammatically incorrect and incoherent messages, circulated through WhatsApp and Facebook.

Amid the crisis, there was solidarity among several daily regional titles in the UK, which joined forces to launch a campaign with the front page headline: "When you're on your own, we are there for you" - an initiative backed by the Society of Editors (SoE).

It's also been backing a #buyapaper campaign to encourage the public to support local titles across the UK.

These are the unusual times we now live in and the role and responsibility of the regional and local Press could not be more apparent.

While, nationally, newspapers focus on the wider UK and international spectre of Covid-19, the handling of the crisis at Downing Street and the burgeoning death toll, papers closer to home, both online and in print, are ensuring the stories of progress being made to tackle the crisis, the economic and business struggles, the personal anguish and, yes, the little victories along the way, are not forgotten.

And, while hundreds of journalists across the island have swapped the buzzing, frenetic newsroom for the confines of a quiet home office, living room, or kitchen table, there's never been more of a sense of team effort in working to produce something to help inform, educate and, despite the starkness of much news coverage, entertain amid the darkness.

"At a local level, the big issue is being established in the community. People trust us to tell their stories, especially when they are so emotional," The Impartial Reporter's Mark Conway says. "It's about the support that we give people.

"This is a cruel virus, affecting everyone, every way and across every walk of life. It's all about trust."

John Mulgrew is editor of Ulster Business

Belfast Telegraph