Council newspapers: How the Mayor of Hackney proved why council newspapers need to be scrapped

Hackney Today front page
Hackney Today front page: It looks like a newspaper...

Last week, the thorny issue of council newspapers returned to Westminster as the communities and local government select committee reviewed the new local government publicity rules, which have been proposed by new communities secretary Eric Pickles. (watch here)

At the heart of the new publicity code is a rule which forbids councils from publishing newspapers more than four times a year. Pickles has also said that external advertising won’t be permitted, and that only information – as opposed to propaganda masquerading as news stories – will be allowed in them.

The Mayor of Hackney, a chap called Jules Pipe, was among those from local government circles to be called before the committee to discuss the issue. As the elected mayor of an authority which produces a newspaper – Hackney Today – fortnightly, he is not surprisingly keen to hang on the right to publish a newspaper. The fact he is a former journalist perhaps exaggerates this.

Mayor Pipe said that the council needed to communicate with residents to let them know what was going on, and that the local paper – with a cited distribution of 8,000 by Pipe – doesn’t cover all the news that comes out of the town hall.

The stories he said had been overlooked by the local paper include the fact council tax had been frozen in Hackney and how he’d shifted £65million of resources from back to front office services in the last five years. In other words, the papers weren’t covering the positive stories he wanted to put out there. Perhaps that’s because the big black hole in the council’s finances causes more concern to some.

He suggested government would be better off using council newspapers to get their key messages out, such as the new drive on obesity. Mayor Pipe said local newspapers won’t cover those sorts of campaigns, which perhaps will come as a surprise to any health or council reporter working on regional newspapers.

Mayor Pipe also quoted figures which suggested his council would end up spending more money as a result of the government’s decision to cull council newspapers. The cost of putting public notices in the local paper would be £543,000, compared with £448,000 for producing 25 copies a year of Hackney Today – much greater than than the £50k a year difference the council claimed  in an FOI request about council newspapers earlier this year.

What’s more, that annual cost of producing Hackney Today is offset to the tune of £179,000 by external advertising. The council boasted in that FOI request that the entire cost of producing Hackney Today was offset by internal and external advertising. In other words, that’s around £500k of advertising the council has taken out of the local marketplace.

Hackney Today 2
For a paper supposed to be all about making sure public notices are well read, they're rather well hidden in Hackney Today

Publishing the public notices in Hackney Today, Mayor Pipe said, meant many more people in the borough got to see the public notices than if they went into the local newspaper. Hackney Today shifts 96,000 copies a fortnight around homes in the borough, plus an additional 10,000 to drop-off points such as supermarkets. Ample opportunity to get these public notices right under the noses of everyone?

Not if the layout of the most recent edition of Hackney Today is anything to go by. In most regional newspapers, public notices appear in the classfieds section, and some argue they are tucked away back there. So presumably Hackney Today gives public notices a better show?

No – they appear on pages 30-35 of a 36-page book. Unlike most regional newspapers which carry sport at the back, so providing two directions in which a reader might stumble into public notices, Hackney Today doesn’t. All that seperates the public notices in Hackney Today from the back of the paper is a full-page ad on the back page. Unlike Mayor Pipe’s column, which gets pride of place on the right of page three, the sort of slot which advertisers pay big bucks for.

And that’s where Mayor Pipe’s defence of council newspapers runs into trouble in my opinion. Hackney Today at first glance looks like a newspaper, smells like a newspaper and feels like a newspaper – yet is there primarily to drive the council’s agenda using money from the public and private sector to do so.

He handed around a few copies of Hackney Today and it didn’t take long for one of the MPs present to point out the fact that there doesn’t appear to carry any bad news about Hackney, to which Mayor Pipe replied:

...Unlike Mayor Pipe's column, which gets pride of place on page 3

“It’s not meant to be reflective of life in Hackney. That’s the job of a newspaper. There are numerous magazines and many websites and blogsites which are independent and critical of what the council does. If we tried to pass that off as an independent newspaper I’d think we’d have a hard job convincing anyone of its credibility. It doesn’t pretend to be.”

He also argued that the paper is clearly labelled as a council publication on the front page. It’s not – it simply says ‘Circulated to 108,000 homes and businesses by Hackney Council.’ That doesn’t say it’s a council newspaper at all. Much as you might expect a council to collect all the rubbish or educate all children, it’s not a giant leap to assume that if it’s going to the trouble of distributing a newspaper, it’d be one which did the job properly, rather than just cherry-picking the good news in the borough.

As for not pretending to be a newspaper, it has non-council features, stories about gardening, four pages of what’s on listings, a history page, recipes and Sudoku – all elements which can do nothing but confuse people about the paper is supposed to be there for. After all, how many of those do you expect from a council publication?

But perhaps it’s the treatment of the front page story which sums up the problem with council newspapers – the council’s take on pending spending cuts. The headline is ‘cuts condemned’ and talks about how Mayor Pipe is asking ‘serious questions’ of the government while councillors are ‘outraged’ at what is going on. It’s the sort of story which wouldn’t look out of place in a council press release – but not on the front page of a publication which looks like a newspaper but has the one thing every proper newspaper dreams of: a guaranteed income come what may.

It's not supposed to be a newspaper says the mayor - yet it has What's On listings (with pic to suit the council's agenda)

Roy Greenslade argued last week that perhaps the government was taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut by banning council newspapers. I’d argree for him, if it wasn’t for the way many councils, including Hackney, had used the previous rules to create a publicly-funded propaganda direct line into thousands of homes which are dressed up as newspaper where it suits.

As with most council publications and their defenders, the actions within the publication speak much louder than the howls of protest.

Note: As I’ve said in previous posts about council newspapers, my employer is Trinity Mirror, which has argued against council newspapers. However, this blog is written in a personal capacity.

20 thoughts on “Council newspapers: How the Mayor of Hackney proved why council newspapers need to be scrapped

  1. Interesting post, thanks. Its does however miss the point to a large degree in my opinion. The councils (stated) motivation for doing its own newspaper is sound, i.e. to save the tax payer money. The real problem lies in the ridiculous archaic requirement that they publish all these public notices in any newspaper – whether it be council owned, Trinity Mirror, or any other publisher. I do not know a single person that reads them.

    Simply making the information available on the council web site, and making the same information available via RSS and twitter and the like would be more effective and substantially cheaper. Especially as many parish council web sites and community web sites would likely help disseminate that information for free if it was made easy to do so.

    1. Hi Martin, thanks for taking the time to comment. If the council’s motivation was solely about money, then I think this would be a different discussion, but the actions by authorities like Hackney, Hammersmith and Fulham and so on show that isn’t just about saving money. They could very easily have produced newsletters which met the publishing requirements for public notices without trying to ape newspapers. They’ve used a legal requirement as a way of funding propaganda, distorting the market in the process.

      I think the fact they choose to hide the public notices at the back of their newspaper demonstrates the need for a legal requirement for public notices to appear in a third-party publication. If they can manage to hide something in their own publication, they’ll find it much easier to hide online.

  2. I don’t disagree with your assertion that the council’s motivation for publishing the newspaper was not solely to save the tax payer money. I also agree that the council should not be publishing a newspaper. I do however question your view that public notices are hidden in the council publication vs a normal newspaper. I think it is just the case that they know that very few people bother to read them so they are less prominent than content they think people will read.

    The key point is very very few people bother to read them. The tax payer should not be burdened by the ridiculous amount of money it costs to meet the current legal requirements of print publication – whether that be in any newsletter or any newspaper. What needs to change is the legal requirement for publication of these notices. Change that and no council will be able to hide behind the argument of savings for publishing council newspapers.

    1. I see what you mean. I’m not trying to say public notices get a better show in non-council newspapers, I’m trying to dispel the idea that council newspapers are designed to make sure more people see the public notices.

      I agree very few people read them, but my concern about removing the rule which says they must be published externally is that if councils are so good at hiding them as they are, removing the rule could only make it worse.

  3. Your concerns could be easily dealt with by a more effective rule ensuring that council’s make access to public notices prominent on their home page and make that data programmatically available to others via an API, RSS etc. Also that they publicise their availability online be various means – libraries etc. Would no doubt save the tax payer a fortune.

    1. I can’t help but agree all of these notices should be available online, as a social object, encouraging dissemination and feedback. However there must be provision for those that can’t or won’t go online and may not even be able to make it as far as the library.
      Any such service could be lower volumes and costs or even print on demand service but would need to be carefully designed to ensure that it met inclusivity targets.

  4. David, on Twitter, you’ve said you believe that public notices “still need to be printed independently” because “in [your] opinion … to allow councils to choose how they publish them leaves too much room for things to hide” and that “notices need to be where people might find them and not just when they think to look“.

    Leaving aside your unexplained belief that councils wish to hide the things which are currently published in such notices: If there were a regulation (specified by central government) that such notices must be published on the web, then it could state certain minimum standards which must be adhered to. These could include the use of open data (including a license permitting reuse), RDF, tagging, geotagging, permanence of URLs, availability via DirectGov, duration of archiving, provision of RSS feeds (and e-mail alerts) by postcode, ward or tag and so on. (As with current open data efforts in local government, there could be a transitory period while such standards emerge)

    It would then be open to traditional media, hyperlocal bloggers and local politicians (in their own newsletters or blogs) to reuse that data in any way that they say fit, with no possibility for councils to hide things. Such notices would be searchable – unlike print – both from within the council’s own site, and using external search engines such as Google’s. How easy is any of that with the current print-based system?

    This would thus give greater transparency: for many people, I suspect, the current system means they can’t see the wood for the trees.

    [Disclosure: I work in Local Government, making and maintaining websites. These are, of course, personal views.]

    1. Hi Andy, thanks for taking the time to comment. My unexplained belief is based on some personal experience, and the fact that various councillors have told me over the years that the last thing they want from a public notice is for it to generate too much attention. To me, this is partly proven by the councils which publish regular newspapers deciding to bury their public notices (effectively their funding source for the publication) deep inside the newspaper, rather than giving them a better show. This is what I was driving at in this post.

      I agree with you that there are many ways to get public notice information out online, and this will continue to grow. At the moment, however, focusing online because it is cheap or free would potentially exclude those who don’t use online services. Public notices in a third-party publication increase the chance of someone finding out the information by accident, rather than only being seen by people who are actively looking for it – which is what I think would happen online. Classified sections of newspapers, where the public notices tend to sit, time and time again come out in reader research as one of the most-read parts of newspapers.

      Ideally, for now, I’d like to see councils push for greater transparency in the ways you’ve described but the commitment on public notices in a print publication needs to remain. That’s just my view, but maybe I suffer from being suspicious too often.

  5. I agree with you Martin and at the same time find myself saying it’s not enough for councils to publish online in open formats. There is no guarantee that anyone will actually use it, and if papers aren’t getting any revenue from councils fulfilling their legal obligations I don’t see why they’d continue to print notices instead of replacing them with ads.

    They may not be read widely but IMO council notices are still important and as such should be as accessible as possible – that means councils ensuring that they are available on as many mediums (online, mobile, print, etc) as possible. Anything less is, I believe, going to create a whole in the dissemination of valuable information.

    I agree with David that they’re using their legal obligations to create propaganda and stopping that is a valid excercise, but I think it should be replaced with a requirement to ensure that notices (and only notices) are published in print to a wide audience.

  6. Philip, without doubt it is preferable to have these public notices in as many places as possible including print. BUT the numbers do not add up – these public notices in newspapers are costing me, you and the rest of the tax payers a small fortune. For the handful of people that read the notices in newspaper the current expenditure simply cannot be justified especially when as Andy details so well in his comment above there are alternatives.

    1. Oh, everything Andy suggests is bang on – he’s put it far better than I ever could. I just worry about advocating an online-only solution for fear that many would be left out.

      1. Thank you (and Martin) for your kind words. I’d suggest the off-line equivalent is to consider a “print on demand” service at places like local libraries and neighbourhood offices; or parish noticeboards.

        But of course there’s nothing stopping the local press from reporting on notices as they see fit. After all, each is a potential news story.

  7. Okay, four disclaimers. I’m a local government press officer. I was a journalist for 12 years, I’m still an NUJ member and these are entirely my views. All this probably gives me a unique perspective.

    Firstly, as David mentioned on Twitter where there was a lively initial debate. Well done for us not breaking down into name calling and having one of the first examples of constructive debate I can recall on the subject of public notices.

    There is much good sensible discussion and I’ll try not to go over the same ground.

    As a journalist I rarely ventured into the arena of the public notice and know of few residents, readers or hacks who do. That’s a failing on my part when I was a journalist, I don’t doubt that.

    When I was a journalist I’d probably have made the same points as David. My default setting was Deep Suspicion. Councils try to hide stuff, All the time. I don’t doubt that on occasion an officer would wish for an easy life not to shine the light on a certain area covered in a public notice. I’m not that naieve. But in my experience for the overwhelming majority officers post them as a legal requirement and do so knowing that failing to do will not just cost their employer a great deal of time and effort but may also cost them their career.

    It’s important that the text of public notices recieves a wide audience. We can all agree on that. But in 2010 we’re all of us paying a large amount of money to appear in print at a time when circulations are dropping, there are other channels and when local government nationally is looking very closely at closing so many things.

    In my area, 22,000 people buy copies of the daily paper. I’d love to know the analytics of those who turned to page 88 half way down to read taxi licence applications. But of course we can’t because they don’t exist.

    Around 100,000 use the council website eevery month. Just over 222,0000 are registered on Facebook within 16 km of our town hall.

    As the figures spell out, to put expensive ads in a place where a minority read is simply indefensible.

    This is public subsidy for local papers at time when we can least afford it.

    It has to end.

    Here’s how it should look. Updates on the council websites as a minimum but preferably searchable with RSS that allows you to recieve the updates YOU want. Same data released as open data to allow someone bright to repurpose it.

    I’d also add Andy’s print on demand at libraries and council buildings. Where they still exist.

    Oh, and don’t get me started on the idea of a quarterly town hall free sheet being to blame for the demise of Print media.

    1. Where’s the block button? 🙂

      I think we’ve already agreed we’re not going to agree on this, and I think all the ideas listed by Andy and you and others should be adopted – but not at the expense of the legal requirement to put them in print, or at least not yet. The fact some councils (Walsall, Lichfield etc) have embraced ‘online tools’ more effectively than other councils reinforces my belief here. The fact Classifieds come back time and again as one of the most popular parts of the paper suggests they are read.

      I’d also query calling it a subsidy of newspapers – it’s not, councils get something in return, I think.

      Perhaps a surprise this, given my anti-council newspaper stuff, but I agree with you that quarterly council newspapers aren’t to blame for the problems in the print media. Many are fine, but there is a sizeable number which abuse the current publicity rules and which distort the marketplace by using legal requirements to fund propaganda in the guise of news. This is probably where my suspicion about councils having more flexibility on public notices. Most would probably behave, but some wouldn’t.

      Look at council spending data – there are some excellent councils (Walsall again here) but others which are putting out the bear minimum in unsuitable formats.

      Even quarterly council newspapers have the ability to distort the market. One council in Lancashire produces quarterly at the moment and sells unmarked editorial space to other public sector organisations, something newspapers couldn’t do.

      Thanks for commenting…..

  8. WARNING: To Dan Slee who writes: “Well done for us not breaking down into name calling and having one of the first examples of constructive debate I can recall on the subject of public notices.” I’m following on from the example cited by David Higgerson, namely the council-run paper in Hackney and, not being a local government worker or having any other vested interest (apart from paying local taxes) I may succumb to name calling and less-than-constructive criticism. So please gird your loins or look away now.

    To date I’d seen seen no reason to chip in to this enjoyable debate, until I read Martin’s comment: “For the handful of people that read the notices in newspaper the current expenditure simply cannot be justified especially when as Andy details so well in his comment above there are alternatives.”

    For as long as planning control remains a quasi-judicial area of government (and I hope it does so for many years) I think its system of justice should be meted out objectively, ‘without fear or favour, regardless of identity, money, power, or weakness’. Therefore – and as someone who actually does read them – I’d like planning notices to be on parity with other legal notices (which, I believe, also have to be supplied in print format in local papers) and that arguments for cutting them which are based on expenditure take a much lower priority than arguments for retaining them, based on justice.

    Personally, I’m very happy to see public notices, along with other government data, accessible in electronic and searchable form. But in some of the most impoverished parts of the UK (such as Hackney) access to the internet is abysmally poor, many local libraries have closed and effective communication with local citizens has to be in print format for the foreseeable future.

    Of course, a regional newspaper that is highly dependent on advertising income from the local council doesn’t always take an impartial standpoint on its paymaster’s failings. In the days when Hackney Council placed all its planning notices in the Hackney Gazette, the “independent” newspaper justifiably earned the moniker The Hackney Groveller due to its sycophantic approach to local political leaders and as a “chewspaper” for its capacity to regurgitate council press releases, word for word; I believe its standard of journalism and objectivity improved markedly, as consequence of it losing its dependence on council advertising (job vacancies, etc).

    David Higgerson writes: “The stories he [Jules Pipe] said had been overlooked by the local paper [Hackney Gazette] include the fact council tax had been frozen in Hackney and how he’d shifted £65 million of resources from back to front office services in the last five years. In other words, the papers weren’t covering the positive stories he wanted to put out there.” What Pipe failed to mention was that the Hackney Gazette continues to affords him, along with the two local MPs, the privilege of having a personal column on a regular basis and he uses that medium to repeatedly hammer home that there’s been no council tax increase in recent years. Pipe also conveniently omits to mention that, as a result of this frozen level of income, there have already been massive cuts in front line spending, particularly within the voluntary sector).

    Hackney Council’s free-sheet has earned the moniker Hackney Toady, in large part because of its overwhelmingly sycophantic depictions of the Mayor and his cabinet. And its ability to print the opposite of what’s actually happening has been uncanny. Check out the following “analysis” on some of Hackney Toady‘s front pages, versus what’s been topical at the time:

    Happy-Winterval from Julian, me and The Hackney Toady!

    Should the Hackney Toady bite the dust, which appears likely if Pickles gets his way, it will be interesting to see where the public notices and council advertisements will be placed. The Archant-owned Hackney Gazette, which recently moved and is no longer based in the area, now faces competition from locally-based print publications such as N16 and EastEight and Hackney Citizen, all of which have faced acerbic attacks from Pipe, in the case of the latter publication, from within the Council chamber.

    As for where the public notices are published it appears Mayor Pipe (and other local government leaders) will continue to hold sway over the purse strings and prevail upon the local press. Or, as Pickles might put it, the lad shouldn’t worry, he’ll still have plenty of clout!

  9. Thanks for the considered response, David and the kind words about Walsall.

    It’s a fair point about some doing a good job with open data and others not. But, wouldn’t it make things far better for a legal requirement on councils to produce public notices as open data?

    There really is no better way at getting all 300+ authorities friom adopting open data.

    It’s through open data that newspapers can create a searchable resource for their websites that could attract traffic. Yes, there could still be one-off stories that leap out of the pack but for my money newspapers really should be creating interactive mash-ups for people to mess with.

    If they don’t, you can bet your bottom dollar others will and they may or may not be from a news background.

    How much traffic would a planning application app bring?

    How long before the Halifax builds one first?

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