Community spirit Culture and creativity

Meet our new journalist-at-large Harriet Marsden

Harriet is ready and raring to go. She can’t wait to discover and tell the stories of Big Local areas all over the country.

Everybody has a story, and every journalist loves to hear one. That’s why I’m thrilled to have been chosen as Local Trust’s new ‘journalist-at-large’, because I’ll be able to spend a whole year travelling around the country and hearing the most interesting ones.

After all these months in and out of lockdown, boxed inside four concrete walls, I’ll be launched like a stone off a catapult, visiting as many of the 150 Big Local areas as my railcard allows – cities, towns, islands, you name it. I hope to learn about the underreported issues facing Big Local communities, and – crucially – tell their stories of hope and progress, too.

Who am I?

I’m a freelance writer and author with by-lines in The Independent, The Times, Tortoise, Metro, New Statesman and many others. I used to specialise in politics, but after a relentless few years of back-to-back Brexit and Trump, I branched out a bit. I’ve covered everything from incarcerated women under indefinite prison sentences to the vaginal mesh health scandal and child sex abuse in football, as well as culture pieces on LGBT museum tours, the future of Big History and socially conscious footballers.

I’m known for loving anything quirky and offbeat, like this community design project in Cuba or the archive of the world’s knowledge in Wallonia, and the shady world of Tower raven-keeping. I regularly appear on the radio to chat about the stories I cover, so local producers – keep me in mind!

Why is this more important than ever?

The coronavirus pandemic has wrought unimaginable devastation across the country. Hundreds of thousands have died, livelihoods have collapsed, families have been torn apart. The world will not look the same. But amidst all the chaos, there has been a Renaissance in community engagement and local initiatives. By definition, lockdown kept us local. And on a local, community level is where the healing begins.

There has never been a better time to learn about Big Local projects.

More than ever, readers are eager to hear inspiring stories about people and projects on the ground, in underreported or perhaps previously overlooked areas. So there has never been a better time to learn about Big Local projects, to assess the impact of funding on neighbourhoods and gain an insight into the wider potential of bottom-up, people-driven activism.

How the fellowship works

Anyone in journalism can tell you that we’re chronically short on two things: time and resources. This fellowship gives me the support I’ll need to spend plenty of time in Big Local areas, getting to know people and the history of their communities.

I’ll then pitch stories to magazines and newspapers, as always. The difference is, I’ll have the time and resources to do those stories justice, rather than just parachute in and out on deadline. It’ll be a privilege to really get to know the people I interview and the areas I cover.

This fellowship gives me the support I’ll need to spend plenty of time in Big Local areas, getting to know people.

It’s important to note that I will remain freelance and editorially independent. I am a recipient of a yearlong grant, not an employee of the Local Trust nor on an exclusive retainer. The charity has no oversight or control over what I write for other publications.

But as part of the fellowship, I’ll also be producing long-form features, profiles, news pieces, blog posts and even a podcast for Local Trust, in which you’ll hear from some Big Local voices directly.

Most excitingly, I’ll be working on the other side of the fence, offering advice to Big Local areas on how to collaborate with journalists and publications, supporting people to be able to share their own stories.

That makes this fellowship a uniquely brilliant opportunity to build trust between grassroots communities and the media. I hope to be a useful resource in that respect, building on the demonstrably fantastic work done by my predecessors, Louise and Ryan.

I’ll be offering advice to Big Local areas on how to collaborate with journalists and publications.

Ultimately, journalism is a public service – and it best serves the public when there is mutual trust, respect and understanding. Why would you trust a journalist if you never met one you liked? How can you expect the media to faithfully report on the issues you face if journalists can’t get out of the newsroom? That’s what makes this fellowship such an incredible one-off – like a lottery win.

It’s a huge honour, and a responsibility, to be trusted with these stories. I hope I can bring local voices to national attention, producing faithful, constructive journalism.

About the author
Harriet Marsden

If your Big Local has a story to share, a project you’re keen for Harriet to come and see, or if you just want to say hi and have a chat, get in touch via email or Twitter.