No guesses for which side of the fence Sir Ray Tindle sits on when it comes to council newspapers. As he told Friday’s Local Heroes conference, they are a threat to democracy in this country.
No arguments here for that statement. Statistics presented by Kingston University senior lecturer James Morrison at the same conference suggested 95% of councils now have their own newspapers. The key here, though, is how often they are published and what the council sets out to do with them. A council like Chorley, in Lancashire, for example, published “Chorley Smile” four times a year, prints 20,000 copies, distributes them at various points throughout the area and doesn’t accept any advertising. The content seeks to inform people about the council, and it doesn’t make any attempt to hide the fact it is a council publication.
Compare that with Hammersmith and Fulham News, the fortnightly paper from Hammersmith and Fulham Council, which until recently wouldn’t even make reference to it being a council publication on the front page. Even now, the reference is about winning some sort of award. It diverts its public sector advertising into its newspaper, takes external advertising on top and even then still has to top up the budget to keep the paper in the black. Whether those figures also include the costs any other publisher would have to factor in – lighting, office accommodation, communication facilities etc – is not clear.
What is clear is that the council’s main defence for publishing the newspaper – that it needed to have a regular vehicle for communicating with the public which went through every door, unlike the local newspaper – has been made redundant by the decision by Trinity Mirror – the group for which I work – to publish the Fulham Chronicle as a free paper going through every door. H&F News continues to be published by the council, but no-one is quite sure why, although the cynics among us can probably take a guess.
None of this is new, of course, so why am I mentioning it? Because I wanted to flag up the comments made by Sheila Prophet, editor of the hyperlocal site FulhamSW6.com which, in case you hadn’t guessed from the title, covers Fulham.
Speaking at Local Heroes, she made reference to the council newspaper. In theory, an independent hyperlocal site should be a godsend for a council, providing another outlet for the information and news they seek to get out. Sadly, that’s not the experience of Sheila, who said she hadn’t found the council particularly forthcoming.
And when it comes to stories she digs up herself which relate to the council, she’s more than a little reluctant to go to the council press office ‘because they’ll probably steal it for their own newspaper instead.’
So, thanks to the council’s insistence that it publishes its own newspaper, it ends up damaging relationships not only with existing media outlets, but also emerging new ones, and limits its opportunity to respond to stories which involve the council. Many journalists don’t trust their local council’s press office, but fortunately few have the same reason as those in Hammersmith and Fulham: that it’s actually a rival. The fact it is a rival which seeks to conceal its true purpose, largely because everyone knows that such information would result in fewer people having faith in it, is neither here nor there in this respect.
No doubt a rival council hyperlocal site is in the offing!