Credit: Alex Morrison (above)

With the UK general election looming, our national debate revolves around a set of issues largely defined by big political parties.

Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are both keen to talk about the economy, immigration and defence. Neither wants to mention Brexit, so that particular elephant remains largely unnoticed in the corner of the room.

Other subjects are also sidelined. For example, I have seen very little about child poverty, prisons or homelessness. In fact, the entire debate – dominated by the word "growth" – may feel very remote to many voters.

Which brings me to my headline. A "walk-in" refers to a person who visits their local newspaper or radio station with a story to tell.

The issues they raise may seem trivial – and sometimes they are. They might complain about potholes or parking, or bring a prize turnip to share with the world. But they might have more serious concerns.

This source of stories has one crucial strength: the subject is not chosen by the journalist.

A reporter can arrive at work with no prior knowledge of, say, the drugs gang terrorising a neighbourhood. By walking in and talking about it, a member of the public can literally make headlines.

During a decade in journalism, I often worried that I was simply working on the wrong subjects. Wherever you live and work, it is hard to avoid creating a "bubble" of familiar (and often like-minded) people around you. Social-media algorithms compound this – showing you whatever content you seem to like.

Walk-ins arrive to burst that bubble. As a result, journalists simultaneously love and hate them. Amazing stories can emerge, but a lot of time can be wasted – often for no reward.

I have just published a book about walk-ins called There's Someone in Reception, referring to the moment these (often eccentric) characters turn up.

It contains weird and wonderful tales from more than 100 journalists, with careers spanning many decades – from the 1950s to the present.

In the last few years, most local newspaper offices have closed. Obviously, that means walk-ins are far rarer. That robs people of the chance to wander in to annoy a journalist on deadline.

It is easier to ignore phone calls, emails and tips on social media. But, in writing the book, I was heartened to discover that – despite falling staff numbers and rising pressure to generate clicks – many journalists still look out for these digital "walk-ins" whenever they can.

By doing so, local and national journalists can deviate from the script set by politicians and commentators – and instead focus on stories that matter to people.

Walk-ins – or their modern equivalents – rarely provide a neatly ordered story. They are messy, complicated and sometimes come to nothing. But for journalists who can find the time and energy, great stories can emerge.

I interviewed journalists who uncovered crime networks, caught a doctor selling drugs, and one who told the story of a couple whose child had died due to medical errors.

Another told me the story of a homeless man who approached a BBC local radio station and said: "I'm going to die." The man was a drug addict and had been sleeping in a graveyard. Many journalists would have sent him away, sorry for him but feeling unable to help. But the BBC team brought him in, interviewed him and put him in contact with a homelessness charity. Over several months, they followed his story of recovery – which included successful drug treatment that allowed him to regain contact with his young son.

Despite homeless people sleeping nearby, that BBC station could have overlooked that issue – but the man walked in and made it hard to ignore. That is the magic of journalists being available to the public.

At any given time, a handful of major stories will dominate the news. I am not objecting to that – and of course the election is rightly the focus of our national discussion at this moment.

But a sprinkling of walk-ins (and their digital successors) could enrich that discussion and take it in unexpected directions.

Very often, the subject worrying your local walk-in also matters to many other people.

Alex Morrison spent a decade in journalism, as a reporter then editor for several local newspapers, before covering national news for the BBC. He now works for Exeter Uni, promoting climate research, and is also a Community First Responder for South Western Ambulance Service

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