Local journalism: The necessary distance to everyday proximity | DW Freedom | Speech. Expression. Media. | DW | 23.05.2019
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Local journalism: The necessary distance to everyday proximity

Good local journalists — those who are involved and integrated in their local communities — are a must for exposing corruption and scandals, says Helge Matthiesen from Bonn's daily newspaper General-Anzeiger.

Big stories sometimes start very small. The Washington Post's research into what happened at the Watergate Building began in a local editorial office. Bob Woodward sat in a court hearing recording what would later became vital information about a supposedly banal break-in, information which led to Nixon leaving the White House and which changed the U.S. forever.

The same goes for Bonn. The construction of the World Conference Center Bonn, where the DW Global Media Forum is held, is linked to a fraud scandal that led to several convictions and cost the city of Bonn around 300 million euros. The editors of the General-Anzeigerresearched, documented and published the information over months and years.

Local journalists have the advantage of being close to the topic but this can also be their biggest handicap. If they take their job seriously, they will learn many things that observers would not notice from afar. Sometimes this leads directly to interesting stories even when their disclosures do not suit the city's most powerful.

World Conference Center Bonn WCCB (picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg)

The WCCB made headlines in Bonn after a local newspaper uncovered the mishandling of funds

Courage and healthy self-confidence

Local journalists meet the main players in their region not only as part of their work but also in everyday life. Their children attend schools together, they play sports and are active in clubs. Everywhere, journalists are confronted with the consequences of local politics and if they are awake and attentive, their everyday life can open doors for them to peer inside. They can ask the political ­decision-makers and heads of industry directly, informally and initially off-the-record, to assess developments.

Read more: Local journalists: what future in international news? 

This is where the great danger of proximity lies. Those who close ranks with the powerful in a city may overlook, ­consciously or not, things that should be made public. Local journalists meet the mayor or a member of parliament or the director of the biggest company in town nearly every day. When these journalists shy away from conflict, the powerful have an easy life. That is why local journalists need courage and self-confidence.

Because they meet these local actors again and again, an editorial office and its work can, at the same time, be scrutinized. Local journalists may have to justify themselves because they are well-known and readers often approach them directly. If a local editorial office is too far removed from people's wishes and problems, the connection to the readership is lost and then journalists lose their credibility.

Faithful to facts and integrity

If you want to control the powerful, you have to be a master of your craft, knowing not only how to obtain information but also how to verify and reliably document it. The other side of the story is always important as well and must be heard. Fair play is in the interest of the media. For the work done at the base of society, where real life takes place, the best people are in demand. Credibility is the lifeblood of local media. For them in particular, the classic separation between news and commentary is of great importance. Nobody likes to feel as though they are being manipulated and in any city or a region, the facts are easily verifiable for everyone. Integrity remains an important pre-requisite for work. Social media is one option for journalists to reach their audience but is only one method.

Read more: "It is vital that fact checkers all over the world compare notes"

Good local journalism organizes everyday democratic life. It formulates important topics that affect everyone and must be discussed in order to find solutions. Good journalists get these debates going. But in the end, it is not them alone who decide what is important and what is not. Politics is not their job. They have to keep a safe distance on all sides in order to be able to talk to everyone. This is especially important for reporters in a small area. Local media are always committed to democracy and freedom. These values must be defended against influence and pressure from all sides with a sense of proportion and fairness because not every criticism is an attack on freedom of the press.

Profile image of Dr. Helge ­Matthiesen (Barbara Frommannn)

Dr. Helge ­Matthiesen believes that local journalism plays a crucial role in democracy

Every society starts within a family, a village or a town. Journalists who work here have the task of giving a voice to the people in their region, to shed a light when no one cares about the difficulties of a region that does not have a decent connection or lacks a data network. When it comes to the interests of local people, local media are allowed to take sides.

Read more: DW Global Media Forum: ‘A constructive conversation about the fundamental shifts in power in the media, society and politics’

Local journalism must be free from economic constraints, political influence, violence and threats. Because editorial offices are close to the people, this is not to be taken for granted. These freedoms must be defended every day. Local journalism is of paramount importance to democracy. Where there are no journalists, there is no one to keep the powerful in check. No one would then care about the big scandals, like the Watergate break-in or the reckless and criminal mishandling of public funds like in Bonn.

Dr. Helge ­Matthiesen, editor-in-chief of the Bonner General-Anzeiger newspaper, is a historian and political scientist. He's been an ­active local journalist for most of his career, starting at the regional newspaper Walsroder Zeitung. His career later took him to positions at the Waldeckische Landeszeitung, the Flensburger Tageblatt and the Weser-Kurier newspaper, based in Bremen.

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