Council Newspapers: It’s more than just the money which makes them so wrong

The backbench communities and local government commitee of MPs which met before Christmas to discuss plans to restrict the publication of council newspapers last week returned its verdict: That the plans should be revisited.

The MPs, who heard evidence from those in favour of council newspapers - such as the mayor of Hackney, Jules Pipe - and those against them, such as the Newspaper Society, said there wasn’t sufficent proof that council newspapers compete with normal newspapers.

The MPs argue that to tell councils how and when to publish newspapers is to cut across the government’s localism agenda – ie ensuring decisions are taken locally as often as possible. However, if ever there was proof that councils can’t always be trusted to take the right decision about things which benefit councillors, such as propaganda, then this is it.

The MPs also suggested that local government minister Eric Pickle’s plan to limit council publications to just four issues a year aren’t needed. The MPs seem to be living under the belief that there are only a handful of councils which are producing newspapers which operate as a rival to existing newspapers.

If you look at this purely in terms of frequency, then this is the case. There are around a dozen councils in the country which publish their newspapers at least fortnightly.

But the damage council newspapers can do to the local newspaper market doesn’t stop there. In 2009/10, the top-tier councils producing council newspapers at least once a year estimated they would offset the £19million combined cost of their publication with £9million of advertising, of which £3.97million would come from outside spending, be that private sector or other public sector bodies, such as primary care trusts.

In other words, £5million of council advertising is being diverted into publications run by the council.

The most common frequency of publication is currently four times a year, with six publications a year coming a close second. So it’s clear that  currently, councils producing four or six times a year are using advertising spend which would otherwise go to outside firms to prop up their council publications, along with money from other bodies too.

Under the plans from Eric Pickles, external advertising would be banned in council newspapers. Whether that would include from other public sector organisations – or partners as the councils often call them – remains to be seen. I hope it does, but even then, when councils assume control of public health issues from primary care trusts, presumably the spend for public health campaigns will suddenly sit with councils, providing another internal revenue stream for council newspapers.

If you do a search on ‘council newspapers’ on whatdotheyknow, you find a string of FOI requests which asked for councils to supply editorial and advertising guidelines which govern their publications. Worringly few had any guidelines at all. That distorts the playing field for the mainstream media if a council publication is touting its services around to other public sector partners. Why go with the local newspaper which has to brand all paid-for space as ‘advertising feature’ when the council publication can slip it out as news? It does happen.

This becomes less of an issue if the frequency of council publications is such that there is a long gap between each one. It would also improve the worth of the publication to the punter. Forget the nonsense Local Government Association spokesman Richard Kemp uttered at the committee – the idea that councils need to publish regularly to develop a brand for their title:

if you want to establish a title and an understanding by local people that that is something to read, you do it regularly enough so that they recognise it and want to read it. If that were done four times a year, no one would recognise it, so there would be no continuity and it would be bad value for money.

I would argue a quarterly publication is more likely to be kept and read by people if it a) contains useful information worth keeping and b) doesn’t set out to be like a newspaper. Unless Cllr Kemp believes the residents of Liverpool are too thick to remember the last time a publication of useful information they need popped through their letterboxes?

Anything more than four times a year encourages councils to use it to get more across than just the information people need – it encourages them to put their own messages out there – stuff it wants people to hear, rather than the information the council needs people to hear. Blackburn with Darwen Council used to devote up to half a page to the a column by the chief executive debunking what he called ‘local myths’ about the council. For ‘local myths’ you can read ‘stories he didn’t like in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph.’ (Note: I should point out I’m referring to a previous chief executive, not the current one, who has, in my opinion, a very positive attitude to the local press.)

Publishing once every six weeks made it possible for the council to find the space fo this column, it would be much harder to justify in a quarterly newspaper. ‘Remember that story you might have read 12 weeks ago? Well….’ It simply wouldn’t work.

Councils need to communicate to provide information, not ‘news.’ That information can be provided quarterly, and doesn’t need to be wrapped up in articles which are really just press releases. People see right through that and value the ‘product’ less as a result – hence the desire by so many councils to so closely ape the concept of a newspaper.

It’s not rocket science. If I was a councillor not happy with the coverage I was getting in the press, I’d be tempted to do the same. Jules Pipe is an ex journalist. He’s not the only ex-journalist-turned-politician who got behind the notion of a council newspaper. Until he was voted out, a Labour councillor called Marcus Johnstone was the ‘cabinet member for communications’ at Lancashire County Council. His leader, the also voted out Hazel Harding, was an ex-journalist too. Under their leadership, the publication of Vision, a tatty press release-filled publication increased. It’s no coincidence that their relations with the media hadsuffered prior to that. To them, and many politicians, the problem is never the policy, it’s the way the media portray it.

The temptation to try and push propaganda directly to the public is what needs to be removed more than anything – and the only way to do that is to remove the ability to publish more than once a quarter, and ensure that public funds aren’t being used to prop up the publications in the future.

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7 comments

    1. Well argued, David. If we are not going to see an initiative from central Government, perhaps it can be tackled on a different level. For example, couldn’t local publishers challenge the Councils on the basis of competitive tendering under the European Directive?

      @Boffmeister, you’re absolutely right! More of Pipe’s antics have already been covered on this blog elsewhere (+ comment):
      http://davidhiggerson.wordpress.com/2010/12/14/council-newspapers-how-the-mayor-of-hackney-proved-why-council-newspapers-need-to-be-scrapped/#comment-1372

  1. As editor of a community newspaper I see it a bit differently. The people who produce the content in these publications are either ‘proper journalists’ or often ‘ex proper journalists’ now working for councils. Either way, the real issue if we’re honest, is financial. And from my lowly perspective, our PCT pays for 4 full pages in the council’s monthly mag but cheekily send us exactly the same info asking us to include it for nothing.

    1. Hi Anna – I disagree that the issue is just money. This issue is surely about information which is essentially one-sided being presented as rounded news. Your point about being expected to do something for free when they pay others to advertise it is an interesting one – if it’s worth paying the council to subsidise their newspaper, why not you for your non-biased coverage?

  2. I’m not sure it is entirely fair to assume that in-house or public sector advertising would go to the private sector if they were banned from the council’s own publication. They are not the same medium, surely it makes more sense to advertise a health care service next to a page about safety for older people than have it randomly placed in the newspaper. Increasingly private sector papers do not have anything like the same level of distribution and they can represent poor value for money as a result.

    Surely this is a case where some flexibility locally is entirely sensible. As councils are expected to adopt ‘nudge’ as a tatic for behaviour change then council publications will a more important role, especially around public health. Having said that it seems sensible to address the concerns about editorialising in the revised code of conduct so that information is the focal point instead of ‘news’.

    I would rather see Mr Pickles free councils from the requirement to publish notices in the local press and limit them to online publications as this would really save the tax payer money.

    1. Hello Kris, thanks for the comment.

      It might make more sense to advertise a health care service next to a feature about safety for older people, but it also distorts the playing field. A regulated publication such as a newspaper can’t do that, and would be expected to mark up linked copy as an advertising feature. Some council publications won’t do that – is that misleading the reader?

      Agree with your point on distribution in some areas but do people take council newspapers seriously?

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