Northern Echo editor Pete Barron aimed a broadside yesterday in his column at council-produced publications. Pete argued that local councils, instead of "wasting" hundreds of thousands of pounds producing glossy magazines, should instead be trusting their local rags to disseminate news. Pete quotes with approval councils like Doncaster, where the eccentric Mayor has banned the council magazine.
Pete makes some interesting points, and indeed this is a tension that is replicated up and down the country. I'm sure that as the belt tightens on local council finances, those local authority magazines with big budgets will inevitably go to the wall.
With all deference to Pete, however, I'm not sure it's that simple. A key point is that a lot of local newspapers, do not operate like the Echo which is broadly fair in its treatment of news stories. It's a bum rap if whatever you do, no matter how well, the local paper slags you off as "loony left" because of the general political bias of the media group. It's precisely the one-eyed nature of a lot of the local press that generated the growth of council magazines, because local authorities wanted to talk directly to their residents, and avoid the hostile spin continually imposed by media.
Some councils, of course, do everything they can to minimise the burden on local council tax payers. So in Darlington, the Town Crier carries adverts from lots of local businesses, which offset the production costs. Pete doesn't mention this angle in his piece, but I'm guessing this hurts the local newspaper industry at a time when advertising revenue is at a premium. The media in general relies on advertising income, particularly when readership across the board is in slow decline.
To follow Pete's line of argument, however, local councils can't win. They're damned if they have a council magazine with significant costs to the tax payer, and damned if they try to offset those costs with advertising revenue.
Where I would completely agree with Pete is that it is in the interests of local democracy to have a strong, independent local press. Councils should do what they can to support local media, especially at a time when print newspapers are under such pressure. At the same time, local papers have to accept that councils have the right to communicate directly with their residents, and not always have to have their news reflected through the prism of the paper.
It's a debate that will certainly continue.