As you may have seen, Pete Barron has responded to my defence of council magazines in general, and the Town Crier in particular. Several of you have left comments too. I'll try and cover the major points;
(1) Firstly, what are the costs of a magazine like the Crier? It's a 32-page magazine, produced monthly. It cost £162,517 to design, print and distribute in 08/09. The Town Crier carries advertising from external companies and organisations. The revenue from this totalled £77,546 in 08/09. The remaining £84,971 cost of design, print and distribution, was made up with money from council departments, which need to promote their services to the public. That means the design, print and distribution of The Town Crier costs the Borough’s 40,000 households around £2 a year each - or 17p per copy. (No need for an FOI Alan - I was happy to dig out and publish the costs).
(2) Darlington Borough Council surveys show 64.8% of residents say their prime source of council news in Darlington is The Town Crier and 79.5% said it kept them well informed of Council news and information. I appreciate that some of people who've responded here have a historic beef with the Crier (you know who you are, Ian and Ian!) but actually most Darlington residents like what they get.
(3) Take the figure of £84,971 which is made up from internal advertising from council departments. That money would very likely be spent on advertising anyway - perhaps in the Echo, perhaps in the Herald, or via radio advertising. So it's money that would be spent in any case. The question is - is it best spent in The Town Crier? I would argue that the figures speak for themselves - advertising in The Town Crier means they reach every household via a credible information source. The Echo can make a case for attracting council advertising cash, but it has nowhere near the penetration of The Town Crier. I don't know whether it will be commercially confidential, but I would be interested to know how many of its 'Darlington' edition the Echo sells every day.
(4) Bluntly, The Town Crier would not be so successful in attracting external advertsing revenue if it lacked credibility - businesses simply wouldn't be so keen to use it pages to promote their product. The health of The Town Crier can be measured in its ability to gain the confidence - and cash - of local businesses. Plus, it does win lots of awards.
(4) The Council has a duty to keep residents informed about the services available to local residents. So in this month's Town Crier, for example, there is a double spread devoted to feedback on the consultation about civil parking enforcement. The Echo certainly wouldn't have run that piece as a story in anywhere near the detail that the Crier had. The alternative would have been to pay the Echo to run - where only a fraction of the residents would have seen the piece.
(5) Pete, in my opinion, is on stronger grounds when he says that what isn't necessary is a publication which paints a rosily inaccurate picture of reality. This links in with comments from Ian and others that The Town Crier is nothing more than a propoganda sheet, parroting the views of the ruling Labour Group.
(6) On the latter point, I think legally council publications have to reflect the policies of the council as a whole. That doesn't mean they should be party political - patently The Town Crier isn't, and indeed there's legislation rightly prohibiting that. It would be odd and confusing though, to take an example close to my heart, if The Town Crier ran a piece denying climate change, and urging residents to recycle less. Providing constrating arguments simply isn't what council publications are about - again, as I've said, they're about keeping local residents informed about local services.
I appreciate that this has become a Crier vs. Echo ding-dong, when in my opinion, both publications can live happily side-by-side. For sure, there is a duty on the Council not to try and run the local media into the ground (and as I've stressed, the Echo isn't the only show in town) by denying it substantial slices of private and council revenue. The anonymous contributor is right - councils are at a massive advantage in terms of financial capacity, and that would a gross misuse of their pecuniary muscle.
Furthermore, I completely accept, of course, that the Echo isn't one of those local rags which runs relentlessly negative pieces about the local council - I've always found it to be fair and mostly accurate, even when it's giving the council a kicking.
To take the matter forward, however, in the age of new media (and this blog is a very humble example) traditional print media has to recognise that it can't control the dissemination of information in a way it did 30 years ago. The Town Crier is a very obvious example of a "new kid on the block" in printed material, but perhaps it's online that the Echo faces its greatest challenge.
Councils like Darlington will use the internet too, but increasingly there will be multiple sources of local information, and the blogosphere is just one example. The real challenge to historic titles like the Echo and the D & S will come not from council publications, but from the internet. The print media's response to that - in imagination and scope - will really determine what survives and what falls by the wayside.
Thanks to Pete Barron for pointing out that this debate, featuring Pete's blog and mine, has made it to the online "HoldtheFrontPage.co.uk - the journalism industry's national website. I get slightly more shrift from commenters there than I have done here, so far!