Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Council Magazines - the wider context

Below, I've posted an update about the debate involving Pete Barron's blog and mine featured at the online HoldtheFrontPage website.

Actually, that's a website which benefits from a closer read, relevant to this issue. What I hadn't gathered was that Pete's stance - sincerely held, I know - in the Northern Echo is part of a wider push by local newspaper chiefs up and down the country to call into question local authority publications. Just this month, the Newspaper Society - made up of "regional press industry leaders" wrote to Local Government Minister Rosie Winterton over the role of council newspapers, and particularly the competition they pose "for readers and advertising revenue." (My italics).

This is a hot issue, as we've already covered, in an industry battered by the recession and its impact on advertising revenues and dwindling readerships. HoldtheFrontPage reports places where council magazines are being closed down or merged, as Pete has mentioned, but interestingly also where they're being started up, in places like Thurrock. Perhaps understandably, the actions of LibDem-run North East Lincolnshire, which has withdrawn all recruitment advertising from the 2 local newspapers in favour of placing it in its own magazine, has attracted ire from the media bosses.

One theme that comes through from readers comments on the site (and it's read mostly by journalism professionals) is that regional media shouldn't be surprised at the growth of council magazines, when companies have chosen to slash editorial staff numbers (if that doesn't sound too tabloid-y). The Echo, to be fair, has resurrected its Darlington news page, but for a while recently we seemed to have dropped off their radar completely after changes to the organisation. But if there's no-one there to adequately cover stories, local newspapers can't be surprised if councils and other public bodies try to convey their messages in other ways.

One view that comes across regularly, both from commenters on this site and elsewhere, is that somehow council publications are "stealing" advertising revenue away from local newspapers. There may be some truth in that, but the allegation ignores just how much choice there is out there now for advertisers - not just radio and other publications, but more particularly via the internet. In an age where social networking sites can target very precisely potential (high-spending) audiences, little wonder that more traditional outlets are suffering - and the evidence suggests that local newspaper readership is, (without wanting to sound too cruel) dying off.

Anyway, I'll leave this debate for now with a quote from a commenter to HoldtheFrontPage which encapsulates a lot of what I've been trying to say rather nicely.

I'm an ex journalist and when I left newspapers I spent four years editing North Somerset Council's magazine, North Somerset Life. Let's get one thing straight: council mags, newsletters, whatever you want to call them, are not designed as a replacement for the local Press. However, their rise in popularity has coincided with a sharp demise in the newspaper industry, so people are jumping on the bandwagon and saying councils are out to ruin local journalism, which is plain wrong. The publications exist to promote council services and values and are edited, by and large, by ex journalists like me who apply the same levels of balance they would have done for a Press story. I agree it's unlikely a council mag would ever feature a protest on its front page, but not because it's trying to suppress news, it just isn't relevant to what the publication exists for. The reason so many councils are adopting this approach of communication is because it works, and has been proven to work. How many newspapers do you know which have carried out extensive customer satisfaction surveys to make sure what they're publishing is what people want to read? Not many. Yet councils go to great pains to make sure their readership finds the content of these publications useful and informative. The point about how much these things cost is also, in my view, a nonsense. Dig a bit deeper and you'll find most are self-funding, or at least partly self-funded, through the various council services advertising with them rather than the local Press. By doing this they reach a larger audience for less money, saving taxpayers' cash which would otherwise have gone to the local paper, which is what this is really about.


The debate between myself and Pete Barron has now made it onto meedja guru Roy Greenslade's blog at the Guardian. A quick scan of his blog shows that Roy is no fan of council magazines, and he gives me short shrift. The towering nature of his analysis is only slightly undermined, I feel, by the fact that he calls me "Nick Willis" throughout. But, hey, journalists (even former editors of the Mirror) are busy people...

Actually, rather like the HoldtheFrontPage site that Pete brought to my attention, the piece is well-worth looking at for the thoughtful comments made about Roy Greenslade's piece below it. They bring 2 new elements to the debate which Pete and I haven't touched on yet - firstly, the malign process that has seen local newspapers cease to be that in all but name, as they've been sucked up into faceless media conglomorates. Secondly, there is a tendancy for local authority communications teams to draw in the best and most ambitious local journalists, leaving their former newspaper employers. Are councils asset-stripping, with their superior financial muscle? Or is the fault of media groups who have slashed and burned budgets, making working conditions less than appealing to the brightest and best?

Finally, over on his blog, Pete tells us that Radio 5 Live are interviewing him about this debate tomorrow morning. Somehow, the call from the BBC hasn't quite made itself through to me yet...


Peter Barron said...

In case it was missed, an interesting comment added to my original blog on this subject:

Spode, Darlington says...
3:51pm Tue 25 Aug 09

"Nick, you wrote on your blog post that council magazines are used to 'avoid the hostile spin continually imposed by media', but also state that the Echo doesn't do that. So answer me this, what is the point of the Town Crier exactly?
Putting a magazine through everyone's door -whether they want it or not- every month extolling the virtues of yet another recycling scheme is hypocrisy bordering on farce irrespective of the damage it's doing by sucking up advertising revenue.
If it's newsworthy, the Echo will print it, and by your own admission fairly.
So again, what purpose does it serve?"

By the way Nick, the Echo never dropped "its Darlington page". The Darlington edition was the victim of cost-savings for a while, but we always retained a minimum of two Darlington pages, plus more far-reaching Darlington stories on regional pages and, of course, the front page when warranted.

Darlington Councillor said...

Thanks for that Pete.

I hear what you say about the Echo's 'Darlington' pages - there just seemed to be a few weeks recently (when the Echo ran its short-lived 'Tees Valley, Darlington & N Yorks' edition), when Darlington news, if it existed at all, was relegated to page 45. Still, in the absence of anything truly local, at least I learned about goings-on in exotic Thornaby!

Thanks, too, for quoting the comment which was left on your site. Dangerous game, of course, swapping comments which happen to suit our particular perspectives. I found this one on the HoldtheFrontPage site, for instance;

"What we're seeing a war over advertising. On one side a seemingly successful council publication, on the other a once-great newspaper now desperate for every penny's worth of advertising because it can't deliver on the news front."

That can't be right, can it?!

Anonymous said...

I assume Mr Barron will soon be waging similar campaigns against news websites, social networking sites, 24 hour news channels, radio stations, other newspapers and any other medium through which people receive their news these days?

Or is the sad state of the Echo purely down to a rather poor monthly magazine produced by the council that once wanted to close Hurworth School?

Change the record and start turning out a decent newspaper that people want to buy, rather than letting the readership die off and desperately seeking someone else to blame. The Echo's website, ironically, is excellent and you're competing against yourself in that regard. Perhaps start charging for online content?

Paul Cain said...

Doubtless the Echo has fallen prey to a disease afflicting many local newspapers these days: it's been bled dry by its owners.

When Newsquest bought the Echo, as part of a much broader deal in the early 1990s, the purchase was arranged involving a US venture capital group called KKR.

Google them. How can I put this politely? They, erm, like their pound of flesh, shall we say.

Shareholder value is now the be all and end all. I have a family member who is familiar with goings on in Newsquest.

They demand all but impossible improvements in profitability year after year. In the North East of England, during a dreadful recession, increasing revenue is nigh-on impossible, so they cut costs.

The number of staff at the Echo is down substantially on, say, 10 years ago.

Reporters, having done professional courses at places such as Darlington College, are paid as little as 18,000 a year. I imagine the average is 20 grand-ish.

These are people with degrees and additional professional/vocational qualifications and they are being paid substantially less than the national average wage.

Is it any wonder that as soon as they get a couple of years under their belt, they leave for more lucrative pastures?

As a result papers like the Echo are staffed by people with little experience. Few stay long enough to really get to know their patch well - an essential skill for an effective local reporter.

Perhaps that's why the Echo has gone down in quality and circulation.

Peter Barron cannot be blamed for this. In many ways he's done an heroic job keeping it all together in the face of very difficult circumstances.

I imagine he finds it rather humiliating having to complain about the Town Crier, a monthly, council-run publication (for God's sake!) which carried 77,000 worth of ads last year (ref: Coun Wallis).

In the scheme of the Echo's turnover, 77 grand is barely a week's printing and distribution costs. It makes bugger all difference, in reality, yet the Echo seems desperate for every penny.

I imagine it's still making a profit, mind you. Perhaps Mr Barron could tell us.

But no profit is ever enough for the people who run Newsquest. That's why this increasingly bizarre debate is taking place.

Harry Evans, the famous ex-editor of the Echo, returns to Darlington in a few weeks, according to the Echo's website.

He spent his time campaigning on issues such as thalidomide - something of a different magnitude to complaining about a monthly council-run propaganda sheet.