I saw a sight which took my breath away this week.
The view from the top of Cheltenham’s tallest building is nothing short of amazing.
It was well worth the effort.
But it wasn’t just negotiating the lifts and stairs that got me to the top, and to a really satisfying piece for GloucestershireLive.
I had to overcome a few suspicious minds along the way, too.
The manager of the building said she had always been wary of journalists. And she was keen for one of her colleagues to sit in on all my interviews with the building’s tenants.
I found myself explaining my motivation several times over.
I simply wanted to write a through-the-keyhole, behind-the-scenes feature on a landmark that everyone in Cheltenham knows from the outside, but few have ever seen from the inside.
It’s not quite GCHQ, but the Eagle Tower is intriguing.
I wasn’t interested in minor gripes over leases, and I wasn’t there to do a hatchet job.
And, by the end of my two visits spread over three hours, everyone had relaxed, and I was an old friend.
I didn’t take the initial suspicion personally.
But there were clear signs that the image of journalism is too often one of glasses being half-empty rather than half-full, and of a profession looking for trouble that isn’t to be trusted.
And here’s the thing. The less people feel the benefit of journalism, the more that perception will grow.
There is a real risk of a disconnect between journalists and the people they write about. We fear the unknown, and journalists have become the unknown.
Somehow we need to be talking directly to more of our community.
There are some beautiful and telling thoughts in this analysis by American journalist Ross Barkan on the future of the regional media.
We have the quantity of communication, with more ways of getting in touch with audiences than ever before, and online readership numbers that theoretically dwarf any print record highs. But do we have the quality?
If people see, speak to, and know their local reporters, they’re going to be more ready to trust and value their work.
When I was a news editor, I used to spend most Thursday mornings with a reporter in a café or pub somewhere in Bath. Our ‘surgeries’ weren’t just a means to get stories, they were also a great way of meeting readers, and persuading them that journalists didn’t come with horns on their heads and cloven hooves.
The dangers of that gulf between journalists and their communities are all around us.
They’re writ large in the horror of Grenfell Tower, where newsroom cuts meant journalists were looking the other way as residents issued stark, prescient warnings over fire safety.
They’re there in the gut-wrenching bombshell closure of the Oldham Evening Chronicle: an 163-year-old daily paper that’s there one minute and gone the next.
And they’re there at the bus stops of my home city of Plymouth. It’s relatively trivial stuff in the great scheme of things, but my mum and dad are losing a bus service they rely heavily on.
They knew the axe was falling, but they’ve had to spread that news to many of their friends and fellow bus customers.
They knew because my mum gets the Plymouth Herald virtually every day. But she’s in a minority. Too many of that service’s passengers get on with their lives in blissful ignorance of community life, even though they may have called Plymouth home for decades.
We need a strong local media both to expose the kind of strategic complacency, cynicism and cackhandedness that lay behind Grenfell Tower, as well as to highlight minor but significant attacks on our quality of life such as bus cuts.
Never is the regional media’s role in binding communities together more important than in times of citywide crisis.
That might be the Manchester Evening News rising brilliantly to the challenge of covering terrorism tragedy on its doorstep. Or it might be the inspirational work of the Houston Chronicle over the biblical floods in Texas. There’s a nice line in this Washington Post piece on such coverage, too.
Think about finding a way to support local journalism. You never know when you might need it yourself.
If we’re not careful, more towns and cities will follow the depressing example of Oldham.
We must fight to stop newspapers and their websites joining post offices and churches as community assets that everyone wants to stay open but few will actually tangibly support.
There is no magic bullet here. We are in very difficult demographic, financial and cultural territory. And former South Wales Argus editor Kevin Ward isn’t wrong when he questions the default setting of cuts and more cuts adopted by the boards of directors of some regional media firms.
But I’m not giving up.
There is hope to be found, with the example of a site in Denver in the USA one such beacon.
Loving that phrase ‘useful and delightful’. Exactly what a good news site should be. Perhaps shocking now and again, too. https://t.co/0vwsTwJMhG
— Paul Wiltshire (@Paulwiltshire) August 2, 2017
And the one thing I know is that the most successful and sustainable journalism is the journalism that is closest to its people.
The kind where journalists are so much more than faceless bylines, disembodied phone voices, and robotic Facebook posts.
Face to face, eyeball to eyeball – as well as on every social media platform – we have to keep on keeping on. With charm, with humour, with determination, with sensitivity, and above all, with a shared sense of community and humanity.
When it comes to our audiences, we need to move from Suspicious Minds to Always On My Mind.
And It’s Now Or Never.