Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Having it both ways

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.


Peter Barron said...

Hi Nick,

Thanks for your thoughtful response.
I totally accept that there is a difficult conflict here for local authorities.
I've known newspapers which have set out to wage a war with their local councils, irrespective of whether it was warranted.
In my book, it's all about balance. Praise when appropriate, criticise when necessary.
We don't want newspapers which are entirely negative about public bodies just for the sake of it.
But neither do we want councils putting out publications which pretend that public bodies are flawless.
My point really is that there is a big debate to be had about all of this.
One correction, my column/blog did, in fact, flag up the problems caused to newspapers by councils pursuing advertising to offset the costs of their publications.
Advertising is what local papers depend on to survive - and it's a hard enough market without publicly-funded newspapers and magazines becoming competitors.
I hope none of this comes across as a whinge or sour grapes.
I'm just a passionate believer in the value of local newspapers and I happen to believe that Darlington is lucky to have a paper like The Northern Echo.

Ian W said...

I could quite happily live without the Town Crier and its constant self praise of DBC and see the advertisment revenue go to the Echo.

This is not because I always agree with what the Echo write but mostly disagree with the self praising the Crier always peddles.

The crier is just a monthly propoganda drop in my opinion.

ian h said...

Have to agree with Peter and tother Ian on this one.

The Town Crier is purely a propoganda "magazine" for dbc that is distributed free to every household in the Borough. When questioned on the ethics of this some yrs ago, dbc were at pains to spell out that the advertising pays for the mag. Admittedly, the effect of this on the local media, such as the echo, was not uppermost in my mind, but in the current climate i can very much understand Peters concerns.

Nick, you say that the crier allows dbc to get their points across without the "hostile spin" imposed by the media.
My problem is that this pure propoganda is still underwritten by us taxpayers, and that the dbc views portrayed in the Crier ensure that those with other views have no equivilent right of reply.

I also very much suspect that a great many within the wider community have no idea that the Crier represents ONLY the views of the controlling labour group of dbc, rather than the broader council membership.
Taken to its logical conclusion, how would you feel about a future government (of whatever colour) sending a monthly magazine, at taxpayers expense, to every household in the country? to peddle their particlar policies, whilst not allowing the same facility to the opposition? (even if "off-set" with advertisng)

Anonymous said...

In order to launch a glossy magazine like the Town Crier, a commercial organisation would need to pump-prime the venture with a significant up-front investment. It is doubtful that it would be possible for a commercial organisation to sustain such a product on advertising revenue alone, and therefore the venture would likely run at a loss.

Many of the advertisements published in the Town Crier are posted by Council departments and it is highly unlikely that they would be placed without the over-arching Council ownership.

The regional press has lost hundreds of jobs in the last year - not just journalists but sales, admin, transport and print staff have all be affected.

It is a great shame that the local press, which work so hard for the communities they serve, is suffering as a result of Councils' diverting money away from the independent press to their own biased "brochures".

Paul Cain said...

The main production costs of the Crier will be in paper and distribution. It's on glossy paper which is more expensive.

There will be little up front capital expenditure. As a monthly publication, with the vast majority of its editorial content provided by the council itself, it could be put together by two people at most, using a couple of Apple Macs.

The printing is outsourced. No need for the council to spend hundreds of thousands on a printing press.

Even though many of the ads come from the Council itself, and therefore the TC will not be profit-making in the real sense, the market value of those ads, denied to publications like the Echo, will be substantial.

I wonder what the Echo's view of that would be, given that the Town Crier is publicly funded?

That is Peter Barron's essential point: the Town Crier doesn't need profit to survive; the Echo and other privately-owned publications do and at a time when the Echo and other local papers are having a horribly bad time of it, the idea of a competitor, cushioned by public money is unacceptable.

Perhaps Councillor Wallis could find out if what the Town Crier's P&L was for, say 2008, assuming it exists, and let us all know.

Personally, I don't think local authorities should have their own propaganda publications.

Local papers are at their best when they hold the local council to account. As a councillor, or council officer, in my opinion, part of the deal is to have your feet held to the fire day after day after day.

That is part of a healthy democracy. You're spending large amounts of public money after all.

If local coverage is unfair, counter it in the local paper itself or pay for advertising in that same local paper. It's cheaper than your own monthly publication and at least people known an advertisement IS an advertisement and not a psuedo-statement of truth, which is what the Town Crier stands accused of.

Local papers are at least as important to democracies as local councils.

Conversely, I think Darlington Council and individual councillors have been very fairly treated by the Echo, to the extent that I cannot see any need for a monthly propaganda sheet.

Indeed, I'd go as far as to say that, for whatever reason, the Echo has done a pretty poor job on council coverage and local political coverage compared to, say, 20 years ago when, for example, the Gadfly column, then written anonymously, gave Darlington Council the complete run around.

No longer, I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes.....

I have FOI'd the Council for the income to the Council from the Town Crier and the costs involved in producing and distributing it.

I didn't realise until I read page 3 of the Town Crier, but there are five companies involved in the production of the Town Crier - an advertising company, design and production company, printing company, supplier of photos and finally the Royal Mail which distributes it. The advertisers, design and production company and printing company are not based in Darlington. Maybe you could add the distributors the Royal Mail to the list.

Anonymous said...

So the Echo can slate the council in its pages, but the council can't respond through its own publication? Nonsense.

Sad to see a once great paper such as the Echo blaming its failings on anyone but itself. Perhaps if it was a little less crap, that would be a good start.

Aeres said...

Was going to comment - but Ian H has pretty much summed up my thoughts on the subject so I'll just concur with him. Really wouldn't miss it to be honest and it would be nice to have some balance in there if we have to have it.

Mayor of Doncaster must be one of the most divisive politicians of recent times. Gets a kicking on here but I've seen other forums where he's treated as a hero. Interesting guy.

Anonymous said...

Gill says,
Welcome back Nick, shame you are not throwing your hat into the ring to fill Milburns shoes, thats a sure sign you know you are going to loose in Darlington.
Heres a good competition - spot the opposition councillor in the Town Crier, perhaps thats one you check out Nick (Harrowgate Hill ward work inhibits political banter at the moment), its just a hunch because I havnt checked but I bet there are not many if any at all!

Ian W said...

I seem to recall our postie saying that they got an extra fiver for delivering "junk mail" assuming this includes the Crier how many postmen cover the area the crier is delivered to? More expense!

I will check with him. Like Alan I too FoI-ed the crier many years ago and it was an eye opener, I cannot remember why but being.... quote from DBC "a one man burden on the FoI dept" I never throw the reply's away I will dig that out too and see what I found strange at the time.

I still think it should be cancelled the advertisers passed over to the Echo to keep local jobs safe and the paper above water and any surplus cash they save could go into something much more urgent and pleasing like a tie for JW.

Anonymous said...

Advertisers passed over to the Echo?

That's assuming that any right-thinking business wants to leave a magazine which, like it or loathe it, goes through every single door in Darlington, in favour of advertising in a declining paper achieving nowhere near that penetration? It's a brave marketing person who suggests that idea to his boss.

And even if they did want to stick with traditional media, why does it have to be the Echo? Why not the considerably better Journal, Evening Gazette, Yorkshire Post, etc?

I'm no fan of Darlington council for various reasons (or the Crier for that matter, it's largely rubbish as something to pick up and read) but as a businessman wanting to promote services this is a no-brainer.

Anonymous said...

The Echo must have offended the poster above at some stage!

The point is: The Echo provides independent coverage of Council affairs in Darlington, and also across the North-East region. It employs professional journalists (about 60 full timers) and there is no comparison between it and the Council funded, Council produced brochure that is the Town Crier.

Anonymous said...

Not at all, I've been seriously offended by the council in the past and never by the Echo. And as I said, in terms of something you'd pick up and read, the Crier is garbage.

It's not a journalistic argument I was advancing, it was simply that if you had a product to sell would you advertise it in a magazine landing on every doormat in Darlington? Or a newspaper that could only dream of landing on every doormat in Darlington? I've chosen both before and I know which was the more successful.

But if the Echo's really that good and there's no comparison to be made then, erm, why is the Echo bringing the issue up and making the comparison in the first place? If there's no comparison, surely they can co-exist.

Darlington Councillor said...

Thanks, everyone for your comments, and the unfolding debate.

Just to clear up Gill's point - the answer is that in this month's Crier you'll see one opposition councillor, Jim Ruck, the Mayor.

In fact, if you have a look through back copies of the Crier - and they're all available online - you'll actually see very few councillors at all. What there are plenty of are schoolchildren and teachers, police officers, council staff, older people, residents engaged in leisure activities etc....

You get my point - I think one of the reasons the Crier is well-read bylocal residents is precisely because it isn't wall-to-wall Cabinet members.

It might be worth you (and maybe other colleagues if this is a general area of confusion) having a chat with the Comms team, Gill. There are protocols which govern who can appear in the Crier, which cover all non-executive members, whatever their political allegiances, excepting our non-political Mayor.

Anonymous said...

Just think everyone if it wasn't for the Echo, the overpending on the Pedestrian Heart, the overspending on the Eastern Transport Corridor, the cock up on residents parking in the West End and other mysteries/secrets from the bowels of the Town Hall would never see the light of day.

Anonymous said...

Old Joe Stalin in Russia used to be seen with children for propergander purposes.

ex-labour said...

Anonymous 2 up says

"if it wasn't for the Echo, the overpending on the Pedestrian Heart, the overspending on the Eastern Transport Corridor, the cock up on residents parking in the West End and other mysteries/secrets from the bowels of the Town Hall would never see the light of day."

How true I don't think they would have been printed voluntry in the Crier!

Anonymous 1 up says

"Old Joe Stalin in Russia used to be seen with children for propergander purposes."

Perhaps John Williams could buy a tie for his next column in the monthly edition, the cool open collar look just does not suit him!

I say "scrap it" regardless of who gets the advertising money!