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Don't read all about it

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It looks like a newspaper, is written like a newspaper and has headlines like a newspaper. But it’s not one. It’s a council publication.

These communication tools are increasingly used by local authorities and carry advertisements they would probably once have been placed in the local press.

The effect on the financial health of commercial newspapers is hotly debated, with culture, media and sport secretary Andy Burnham declaring the issue to be “top of my in-tray”. He feels that some councils are overstepping the mark and using public funds to set up their own publications to rival local papers.

Mr Burnham called a summit at the end of last month to look at the problems facing the local press, which is also under attack from loss of advertising revenue to internet rivals. A range of interested parties was there, including representatives from newspapers and television, the Society of Editors, the regulator Ofcom, MPs and the LocalGovernment Association.

Mr Burnham told them: “Strong local media are vital to a healthy democracy and provide a crucial and trusted service to their communities. There are very real pressures facing local newspapers.”

Edward Welsh, LGA programme director, for media and campaigns, was there. “Some people did suggest the magazines operated by councils were contributing to the problems faced by local newspapers,” he says.

But, according to Mr Welsh, Chris White (Lib Dem), chair of LGA’s culture, tourism and sport board, was able to show the summit that councils did not run them to jeopardise local newspapers did not compete significantly for advertising.

LGA research shows around 350 councils in England and Wales have their own publications. One of these, Tower Hamlets LBC’s weekly East End Life, has come under a great deal of fire, particularly from the East London Advertiser. Its editor Malcolm Starbrook has suggested that East End Life breaches legislation preventing councils
from publishing material that is likely to influence voting.

The council’s head of communications, Charles Skinner, says: “It’s about 15 years since East End Life started, when the BNP was making inroads into the East End and a decision was taken that a newspaper would act as a ‘community glue’.

“We certainly do not see ourselves in competition with newspapers. It’s like comparing a niche radio station with Radio 4. We see them as an important part of a democratic process. That’s why we have a press office.”

He believes the decline in local newspaper sales was more to do with the “fragmentation of the media generally”, with people able to get news from a variety of sources.

Frank Branston (Ind), mayor of Bedford Borough Council — which became a unitary authority on 1 April 2009 — owned seven local newspapers, which he sold in 2005.

“The council newspapers couldn’t and shouldn’t substitute for local papers and if local papers let them it’s not our fault,” he says. He feels the local media companies should think about publishing “a better, stronger newspaper” to lure readers back. “To be a good advertising medium you need to be a good news medium,” he explains.

Alex Aiken, national secretary of LGcommunications, the representative body for local government communicators, also believes the local press is largely responsible for its own demise. “One of the sad things we have seen, particularly in central London, is papers’ gradual withdrawal from the locality. They become less local and people stop reading them.”

He believes the two types of publication had different, but complementary roles. “The role of a local paper is to scrutinise. The council’s is to explain,” Mr Aiken says. He points out many council publications appear quarterly or six times a year, so cannot compete with weekly papers.

But some councils are pulling in advertising from the local press. Barking & Dagenham LBC is launching a paper at the end of May 2009, which it says will bring savings through streamlining advertising spending, citing a fall in the local paper’s circulation as a reason for this venture.

“We are not taking all the advertising away, there will be occasions when we have to advertise in weekly publications or outside the borough as a result of statutory requirements,” a council spokesman says.

“We’ve done this because we can deliver the message in the advertising to all 70,000 homes in the borough and the local papers cannot meet this need.”

Bob Satchwell, the executive director of Society of Editors, believes councils are in direct competition with his members. “The biggest worry is there are some which attract advertising from outside sources,” he says. “We believe that’s a misuse of public money.”

Councils versus the local media

  • 60 — mainly free weekly — newspapers have closed since January 2008 (Source: Newspaper Society).
  • regional press print advertising revenues down 15.8% (Source: Advertising Association).
  • local newspaper print circulation down by 5.7% July-December 2008, against same period in 2007 (Source: Audit Bureau of Circulations).
  • 98% of councils produce their own publication
  • 80% produce six or fewer issues a year
  • 60% of councils report that local newspapers have closed, or were thought to have struggled in recent years, and thought lost advertising revenue and the growth of new media were the main reasons
  • almost 60% of council publications comprised 10% or less of advertising

Source: Local Government Association

Mr Satchwell believes his members are not competing on a level playing field because council publications are subsidised by the local authority, whereas newspapers must earn advertising revenue.

“There’s often a complaint that local papers do not serve local government well enough,” he says. “Papers’ resources are seriously limited. They are under huge threat at the moment predominantly because they are losing advertising revenue.” Councils should be supporting local newspaper by channelling advertising money into themrather than their own publications, Mr Satchwell adds.

But in some places, it seems councils can happily co-exist with the local press. The Exeter Citizen won a best magazine/newspaper award from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 2006.

Mandy Pearse, communications manager at Exeter City Council, says: “We have a good working relationship with the local newspapers. We don’t take advertising so we are not in competition. The two have clear, different roles.”

She said the two local newspapers were “pretty effective” at looking at decisions made by Exeter and fair when giving the council the opportunity to have its say.

The Exeter Citizen is an effective and economical way of informing people of council services, Ms Pearse explains.

She estimates it costs around £40,000 a year to print but would be two to three times more expensive if different departments printed their own leaflets.

Rod Cook, director of communications at Derbyshire County Council, says: “We have had a council newspaper since the early 1980s and it’s an extremely valuable publication. We get on extremely well with the localnewspapers. There may be a story in there we might wish did not appear but if it exposes something we have done badly we need to know.”

He adds: “Councils are in a powerful position and I don’t think we should abuse it by suggesting our council publications are a replacement for local newspapers. They are not.”

Perhaps the summit will have helped each side to better understand the other’s arguments.

Certainly, many local newspapers are in decline and if councils want to ensure they are not part of the cause, or cannot be accused of being so, they must make sure people are clear their publications are not newspapers, and continue to advertise with the local press.

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