Hold The Front Page: is Sky series with Josh Widdicombe and Nish Kumar a fair portrayal of local journalism?

Sky series Hold The Front Page sees two comedians take to local journalism like a duck to lava

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Hold The Front Page is a six-part Sky series which follows comedians Josh Widdicombe and Nish Kumar as they work as local journalists for six National World local titles. Each episode sees the comedians take on stories in a different part of the country as they aim to make the front page of their local paper.

As a journalist with all of eight months’ experience at a local National World title (Sheffield Telegraph) under my belt, I felt well-placed to watch the series and see what Sky got right about the local journo experience, and where the show missed the mark.

Nish Kumar  and Josh Widdicombe on Hold The Front PageNish Kumar  and Josh Widdicombe on Hold The Front Page
Nish Kumar and Josh Widdicombe on Hold The Front Page

Is Hold the Front Page an accurate representation of local journalism?

In the first episode of Hold The Front Page, Josh and Nish are working for the Blackpool Gazette. They are quickly shown the ropes and told they will need to file a 350 word story by 5pm that day. Most of the Gazette’s reporters write about four stories a day but as Josh and Nish are new to the job they’re getting an easier ride.

At first the pair can’t believe their luck, thinking that they could knock up 350 words in an hour, but they soon realise that writing the story is the least of their worries. They are sent out to do a vox pop - asking people on the street for their opinion on a particular issue - and write up a story from that. The comedians struggle to get more than a few words from their interviewees and apart from stumbling on minor celebrity Bill Beaumont it proves to be a fruitless endeavour.

So far, so accurate - the comedians are told that a vox pop is ‘every trainee journalist’s first assignment’ and indeed on my first day at the Sheffield Telegraph I was sent out on one, though I had more success than Josh and Nish. Vox pops really are a journalist’s bread and butter - if you ask the right questions, the man on the street will always have a strong opinion.

Josh and Nish report on a strongman eventJosh and Nish report on a strongman event
Josh and Nish report on a strongman event

It was also interesting to see that the Gazette editor was not too impressed that Josh and Nish had found Beaumont as he is a local and is often in the paper. Our resident Sheffield celebrity is Dan Walker - though Sean Bean has also filled several pages over the years.

Following their vox pop disaster, Josh and Nish find Stephen Mangan presenting another Sky show, Portrait Artist of the Year, on the Blackpool seafront. They attempt to interview him but are instead told to ‘F off’. This aspect of the series felt a little contrived, although it does speak to a point about journalistic access.

It’s hardly ever possible to just walk up to a celebrity, politician, or business leader and begin an interview on the hoof, even if they have been a guest on your show The Last Leg, as Josh pointed out. Prior to working at the Sheffield Telegraph, I had attempted to interview Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham. I spoke to him over the phone for all of ten seconds during which time we scheduled a call for later in the day. However, after calling Andy back (several times) I received no answer. Sometimes people are just too busy to talk to the press.

When it comes to writing up their copy after a fairly pitiful day, Josh wryfully notes: “It’s a marathon when you have no facts at your fingertips.”

He and Nish merge their stories and submit at well below the 350 word count. Their story doesn’t make the paper and they are told that it just didn’t fill the space it needed to. Again, this is spot on - you absolutely have to hit your word counts. Editors can cut out bits they don’t need but it’s next to impossible for them to add parts to a story they were not involved in.

Josh and Nish are later sent on an assignment to find a human interest story. They are set up with a feature on a professional strongman who lifts a beer keg with his eye sockets. After that, they attend a live action roleplay group. They have a lot of fun on these stories but spend so long LARPing that they file late and miss their deadline - once again their story doesn’t even make it inside the paper, let alone on the front page.

I really enjoyed writing human interest stories and in many ways they were the best part of the job. One thing the series does gloss over though, is how much effort they can take to set up. For Josh and Nish, the heavy lifting has already been done for them. In many cases, reporters will have to arrange these events themselves, and make sure that they and people they need to speak to get there on time. And if it all falls through at the last minute, as it sometimes does, you’re left up the creek.

Again, the series reinforces the importance of deadlines in the industry - it doesn’t matter how good the story is, if it isn’t filed on time, it’s no good to anyone. I had the luxury of working at a weekly paper, so deadlines weren’t as strict, but everything also had to go online as soon as possible, so spending half a day in medieval costumes and hanging out with wizards would normally be out of the question.

On balance, Hold The Front Page does a good job of representing what local journalism is, even if it does gloss over some of the less glamorous aspects of the job. The series shows that there’s much more to making news than just typing up 350 words and calling it a day. There is one glaring inaccuracy from the first episode that I feel I must mention - whilst researching a story on steam railways, Nish drinks too many glasses of champagne and ends up getting very sloshed. I can categorically say that I have never been drunk on the job.

The first episode of Hold The Front Page airs at 9pm on Wednesday 4 January on Sky Max

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