Few jobs have changed as much in a quarter of a century as that of the local journalist. Now, more often than not, local reporters are insignificant where they were once important, weak where they were once powerful and few where they were once many. And there is a more sinister shift, too.
“The early noughties, when journalists were regarded merely as sleazy and untrustworthy, are now looked back on as a golden age. The world seems more cynical now. Reporters on local papers far from any seat of power find themselves accused of political bias and lies,” writes former local journalist Roger Lytollis in Panic As Man Burns Crumpets: The Vanishing World of the Local Journalist, a title that comes from a famous Staines News headline.
From 1995, Lytollis worked at the weekly Cumberland News and the daily News & Star, both published by the Carlisle-based CN Group, a family company which went on to be taken over by the US publishing giant Newsquest. Through writing talent, persistence and luck, Lytollis did what lots of young people aspire to do and landed a job as a columnist, figuring it out as he went along. In that way, he is relatable for anyone who thinks they might fancy themselves as a journalist but are not sure whether they could hack it.
Starting out in journalism in his mid-20s, Lytollis’s first published column was frank about his lack of skill with the opposite sex, revelations for which he had not prepared his family before they saw them on the page. “It had occurred to me that my family might not want to read such things,” he writes. “No surprise that Nana was appalled to learn I couldn’t get a shag.” He moved on to writing features – from interviewing Katie Price at a raucous nightclub event to examining the aftermath on homes and businesses of savage flooding brought by Storm Desmond in 2015 – and found that it was something he excelled at, despite initially finding it difficult to summon the courage to speak to people.
Lytollis challenges the perception of journalists as arrogant, comically self-aggrandising shouters, laying bare his issues with crushing social anxiety, to the point where at times he struggled to say his own name. But journalism became his saviour as well as his tormentor. He thrived on telling people’s stories and soon became well known in the city of Carlisle.
He writes with clarity, self-effacing honesty and surprising poignancy about lessons he learned from the people he interviewed, whether celebrities or victims of horrific crimes, such as the family of Darren Rewcastle, a taxi driver murdered by Derrick Bird, who shot dead 12 people and injured 11 others in west Cumbria on one day in 2010. Lytollis was not a news reporter and was not sent to the scene on the day but he followed up with poignant interviews with family members of those who died in the attack.
“I’d been desperate to climb aboard such a massive story and show what I could do with it,” Lytollis writes. “Those thoughts faded when I saw the impact of a massive story on those for whom it’s something bleaker than a career opportunity.”
He also writes about the devastation inflicted on local newspapers by social media giants and dissects the huge profits made by the companies that own them, paying shareholders extra dividends by stripping journalists of their jobs in a managed decline of local papers.
In 2018, journalists at Newsquest in Cumbria called a one-day strike, the first since the 1980s, over a pay freeze following years of declining pay and increasingly long hours which slowly led to the resignation of some of its best reporters. The National Union of Journalists had a whip-round among its branches and managed to provide £50 per striking member to compensate partly for losing a day’s pay. It later transpired that Newsquest made a pre-tax profit of £108m that year, and paid its chief executive Henry Faure Walker a package worth more than £500,000.
Meanwhile, local papers were diminishing, in number and in significance. Where local people would turn to the paper to discuss issues, to fight for their rights, to hold officials and politicians to account, to collectively celebrate or mourn, or for pure entertainment, in many places a societal gap appeared that has not been filled by social media or cheap, syndicated news website content that is no longer local.
But this book is not really about him. Lytollis was not an investigative journalist trying to blow a case wide open or work out if it goes all the way to the top. This is not the story of an exceptional person who against all the odds achieved something extraordinary. It is simply the story of what it is like to love what you do, and be great at it, and to watch it collapse around you in slow motion.
It is about the regressive form of “progress” that the news industry has been subjected to for the last 25 years, and what it does to the people who are part of that system and the communities that can no longer rely on it.
• Panic As Man Burns Crumpets: The Vanishing World of the Local Journalist is published by Little, Brown (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.