12th January 2023
Spotlight On | Hans J Marter, Shetland News Managing Editor

Spotlight On | Hans J Marter, Shetland News Managing Editor

“News journalism on a local level is challenging and demanding. Accuracy and finding the right tone of reporting is crucial for your credibility.”

Hans J Marter is a journalist who moved to the UK’s most northerly island group from Germany to relaunch Shetland News as managing editor, turning the local publication into an award-winning news provider.

In this Spotlight On piece, Hans shares what it is like to operate as a journalist in the UK compared to Germany, the unique challenges that come with running a local news site in the most northerly part of the country and his thoughts on the challenges facing regional journalism.

Tell us how you found your way into journalism to begin with and why you chose to pursue it as a career?

I have always had an interest in journalism and started working as a runner and then assistant to the news editor at the German cable network SAT.1 while studying politics at Hamburg University from the late 1980s, until I moved to Scotland.

You moved to Shetland from Germany in 1992. How did you find the transition to such a far-flung location on a professional and personal level?

Unsurprisingly, it took several years to establish myself professionally in a new place and, initially, it never occurred to me that I could work as a local journalist writing in what is still my second language.

It all started with reporting on a wide range of subject from the far north of Scotland for a number of German newspapers with the occasional TV and radio piece thrown in. I also had to take on some manual labour locally to make ends meet.

This all changed in the summer of 1995 during the Greenpeace campaign against the dumping of the Brent Spar oil installation in the North Atlantic, with the environmentalists opening their campaign office in Lerwick, right on my doorstep. I quickly found myself reporting on the events of that summer for a number of national dailies in Germany, where the Brent Spar was perhaps bigger news than in the UK.

The following year I was offered a job with the Shetland News Agency and started reporting for Grampian TV – now part of STV – as part of the agency work. Two years later, the agency’s proprietor Jonathan Wills decided to retire from journalism, and I suddenly found myself in charge of the country’s most northerly freelance news agency, just six years after I had arrived in the UK.

You have covered plenty of ground during your career. How would you compare operating as a journalist in Germany with the UK?

It took a while to get used to the way the news media in the UK operates. It’s far more direct, raw and at times more combative in the UK, while the sense for truth telling and fact-checking often falls by the wayside.

Working at a freelance agency for the national media has left me often irritated and frustrated with regards to the ‘final product’ as the national news agenda often tends to be different from what is being reported on the ground.

For example, a few years back the local authority voted to explore options for achieving ‘financial and political self-determination’. This was a move against the centralisation tendencies of the SNP Government in Edinburgh and an attempt to stop the constant erosion of local government powers. Afterwards, nearly every national newspaper reported that Shetland was seeking independence. It was not!

In 2003, you relaunched Shetland News. What drove you to take that significant step?

After having edited the local fisheries publication, Shetland Seafood News, as part of the agency work for almost three years, the time seemed right for a new venture. More importantly, it had become clear that the internet had matured enough for an online publication to be successful. Besides, with the rise of the PR industry and the ongoing crisis in the printed press, the agency work had started to slow, and we needed to rethink our business model.

The Shetland Islands have a population of around 23,000. What are the unique challenges that hyperlocal journalism of this nature poses to publishers like yourself?

News journalism on the local level is challenging and demanding. Accuracy and finding the right tone of reporting is crucial for your credibility. In an island community of 23,000 the local journalists are visible, and people have no fear calling you out when you have got it wrong.

The news media is often far more direct, raw and at times more combative in the UK while the sense for truth telling and fact-checking often falls by the wayside.

Shetland News attracts about 40,000 to 50,000 unique users per week, so it would be fair to say that we are reaching almost everybody on the islands. With that comes responsibility, so accuracy and accountability are key.

The future of local journalism is often the subject of much debate and speculation. How do you feel about its long-term prospects moving forward? What can be done to ensure it survives?

I think there is scope for many ‘Shetland News-type’ businesses across the UK. Our local community is clearly defined because it is an island group, but there are many other communities out there. Local journalism has been badly neglected by the big, often multi-national media companies. Yet people everywhere are mainly local people, and they want to know what is going on in their local area. I believe there are some great opportunities that need to be reclaimed by small, independent and locally based publishers.

One advantage we have had, and continue to have, is that Shetland is also a local authority, the seat of a sheriff court, in the centre of the North Sea oil industry and the home of a large fishing and seafood industry. So, there is always plenty going on and some of the big issues of the day are being played out right on our doorstep. Besides, everything that happens up here is the ‘most northerly in the UK’.

20 years after the relaunch, you are still in operation. What do you think has been key to the success and longevity of Shetland News?

Yes, we are still here and hopefully we will be around for much longer. Shetland News is now well-established locally and successfully competes with a long established local weekly and online newspaper, a local BBC radio station, as well as a private radio station. Shetland has perhaps the highest density of journalists anywhere in the country. Meetings of the Shetland Islands Council are usually attended by reporters from three different news organisations. That’s unheard of.

News journalism on the local level is challenging and demanding. Accuracy and finding the right tone of reporting is crucial for your credibility.

I guess key to the success is that you never stand still. The only constant in life is change, and there have been many changes over the years, some dramatic and forced upon us, while others planned and made very deliberate such as the introduction of our supporters’ scheme few years back which led to the much-needed complete re-development of the www.shetnews.co.uk website.

But the most important thing is to try to be the first with the news, while also producing the most accurate and comprehensive coverage on the website and across social media. It’s quite a challenge.

Hans J Marter is the managing editor of online news service Shetland News, an independently owned small local news provider based in the UK’s most northerly island group and publishing at www.shetnews.co.uk. A member of ICNN (the Independent Community News Network) and regulated by Impress, Shetland News has twice won the Best Use of Digital category at the Highlands and Islands Media Awards. Originally from Germany, Hans has been living in Scotland for more than 30 years.