Council newspapers: A glimmer of hope at last?

Is there a glimmer of hope on the horizon on the thorny issue of council newspapers? Certainly, it was an issue Ed Vaizey, the shadow culture minister, forced into his speech at the Nations and Regions conference in Salford today.

Without prompting, Vaizey promised that the Tories would review the legislation around local goverenment publicity (yes, I was tempted to use another ‘p’ word there too) should, as expected, they win the general election.

On the basis of today’s speech, he looks like he’s shaping up to be a critical friend of the regional press, pointing out that perhaps the regional press could have done more to help itself during the “golden age.”

Crucially, he said he was “sympathetic” towards the position regional newspapers are taking about council newspapers – and, unusually for a Tory, cited Hammersmith and Fulham Council’s newspaper, the Hammersmith and Fulham News, as an example.

As you may have read, Trinity Mirror (my employer) has responded to H&F’s fortnightly newspaper – which appears to have been intentionally designed so that it’s nigh on impossible for your average reader to realise it is a council publication, right down to not putting the name of the council in the ‘contact the editor’ address – by shaking up what it does in Hammersmith and Fulham.

So the weekly Fulham and Hammersmith Chronicle goes from being a paid for paper being sold to a small percentage of the population to a weekly free paper going through nearly every door. That should blow Hammersmith and Fulham’s argument of needing a route to all residents for advertising out of the water.

In theory, that now saves Hammersmith and Fulham Council the need to produce a newspaper at all – but of course, the Chronicle doesn’t come with a guarantee of favourable council leads on every page.

Vaizey attempted to make the point that perhaps the council has done the people of Hammersmith and Fulham a favour by forcing Trinity Mirror to change its delivery method – but the look on his face suggested even he knew this was a bit a thin benefit. After all, would the council open a fruit and veg shop in town if it felt it was the only way to make the people in the area healthier, just to make other shops sell more fruit?

Crucially, Vaizey’s pledge on tightening up publicity regulations could be very important. As he pointed out, it was Labour’s decision to loosen the regulations that enabled councils to start pumping out publications which contained information which had no direct link to the services they provide.  H&F News served up TV listings at Christmas, and reviews restaurants every fortnight, along with a what’s on listings service – none of which, at last check, had anything really to do with the council.

On the restaurant review point, it seems a massive conflict of interest for a council to attempt to review a local business, given that it will have a regeneration department tasked with promoting the area’s businesses to visitors.

Of course, Vaizey’s speech was intended to be political – he wants us to note the Labour caused the problem. The fact he’s offering up a potential solution is good news. Even better news would for the Tories to remove the total cost of a council’s newspaper from it

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