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 Perhaps understandably, the actions of LibDem-run North East Lincolnshire, which has withdrawn all recruitment advertising from the 2 local newspapers in favour of placing it in its own magazine, has attracted ire from the media bosses.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...