‘Town hall pravdas’ or keeping people informed?

The recent decision by the Communities and Local Government Select Committee to reject Eric Pickles‘ proposals to restrict the publication of council newspapers has reopened a debate on the role such publications should play.

Waging war on council newsletters in London

In one corner is the Government, which is strongly critical of councils spending public funds on ‘town hall pravdas’ that they see as little better than propaganda magazines. They are supported by regional and local newspaper publishers who cite them as a threat to their businesses because some charge advertising revenue and publish weekly editions, putting them in direct competition with their papers. Publications like H&F News and East End Life (both published by London authorities) are cited of evidence of this trend.

On the other side of the debate is local authorities, who see the Government measures as a ‘draconian’ restriction on their duty to inform residents about the provision of services in their area.

In many respects, as the We Love Local Government blog states, this debate is localism writ large. I can see both sides, but think the truth is somewhere in between these opposing positions. Here are some reasons why:

1. The London cases are exceptions: I would be concerned if the glossy examples that are often cited (see above) were commonplace. But, as Roy Greenslade blogs, they aren’t. I don’t even think they are the thin end of the wedge, and evidence given to parliament by the Newspaper Society in 2009 underlines this. Weekly magazines are more prevalent in London than in other parts of the country, but most local authorities do not appear to publish more than 12 magazines a year (and many do less than this).

2. Newspapers should look closer to home: I believe in local newspapers and the important role they can play in holding local politicians to account. The problem is, a lot of them stopped doing this years ago. And they can’t completely blame town hall publications for that. Yes, the recession and the growth in social media has hit them hard, causing advertising and audience share to dramatically drop. But many local and regional publishers have been far too slow to adapt to what readers and advertisers want and have consolidated when they needed to innovate. And as the cutbacks have bitten, the quality of the product has suffered. As this fascinating blog by Manchester journalist Sarah Hartley suggests, some local papers don’t even bother to cover local council meetings. Again, there are undoubtedly some examples of local authorities crossing the line into direct competition with newspapers. But this is not the norm; both types of media should be able to co-exist and complement each other. Newspaper editors should focus on a different target.

3. Residents value newsletters: in my previous job, I produced council newsletters for as many as 15 local authorities in England and Wales, and we always researched the opinions of residents who received them. In every case I can remember, the A3 (non glossy) newsletters were the most valued form of communication they received during the consultations we were involved in. More so than the (more expensive) DVD, the internet, and (overwhelmingly) the local media. It should not be forgotten that – even today – there are still more than 9m adults who aren’t online in the UK. Clearly, social media (cheap and trendy though it is) is not for these people. The newsletter is therefore a valuable tool for local authorities to reach a wide range of local people.

4. Councils could raise their game: notwithstanding any of the above, I do believe that too many local authorities don’t make the most of their newsletters, and are therefore wasting the money spent on producing and posting them. This is a slightly different issue to those raised above. But, from what I have seen, it is too common. I remember a council once sending me a newsletter with a listings page full of events that were weeks out of date. Another carried Christmas stories in the spring. These are the efforts that should rightly find their way into the bin, as they do nothing to engage local people in what the council is trying to do. Spending limited resources on a poor quality product is worse than not bothering at all.

I hope the above illustrates that there is more to this issue than meets the eye. I hope also a compromise can be found which strikes a balance between the local media’s need to make a profit from its audiences and councils’ duty to engage them. Some decent suggestions for a way forward are made on the blog 853 here.

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