Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Town Crier - Facts and Figures

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.

UPDATE

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!

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes...

Thanks for the figures on the Town Crier. I'm impressed.

So the Town Crier is heavilly dependent on internal adverts to make up the deficit?

You say that "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."

Do you have any hard evidence that advertising externally is more expensive or less expensive than the Town Crier? Also how many of the internal adverts in the Town Crier are essential and how many non essential?

To illustrate my point you advertised in this month's Town Crier about the changes to recycling. Yesterday I received a leaflet from the Council giving me the same information.

Ian W said...

Hi Nick

Just to correct you I don't have a "historic beef" with the Crier, what I had was an major eye opener by the present council leader which all stemed from the attempted closure (merge as he prefered to call it at the time) of Hurworth Comp, despite his earlier promise to keep it open.

This opened my eyes to the world of politics and the spin and dare I say lies people put on things to suit every situation, I then looked at the Crier with more of a critical or even some would say cynical view and like many others realised it was no more than a Labour platform to publicise it's own sycofantic views of how good the Council is and how much they do for us lesser mortals.

At the time I did disagree with the content of the crier and after a letter in hear all sides in the Echo where someone called the Labour leader the "Town Liar" as a result of his column in the TC the rest became history when I set up
townliar.com at the time it served it's purpose and rattled a few cages with certain members at DBC HQ.

Your high percentage figures of those who like the Crier could be explained a bit more precisely for example where were these surveys done?..probably in Labour strong hold areas, we all know statistics can reflect whatever the collator wishes them too.

As for the new civil parking enforcement article you refer to it must be like all DBC's Christmas's have come at once when that money machine rolls out at full pace.

Sadly on the need for the Crier, I think we must agree to disagree.

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes.....

You say "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."

When were these surveys carried out? How many residents actually responded to the surveys? What percentage is this of the total residents in the Borough who receive the Town Crier.

Because if only 30 residents responded and 19 said the Town Crier was the prime source of their news you have 64%. Similarly if 30 residents responded and 24 said it kept them well informed you have 80%

Sorry to be a pest, but we need the full picture here.

Peter Barron said...

You may be interested to know that this issue has been picked up by Hold The Front Page, the journalism industry's national website.
You can read their version of the story, plus a number of comments, at http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/news/090826oneeye.shtml

Anonymous said...

Yup, the dwindling circulation, the redundancies, the cost cutting, the office closures... it's all down to that pesky Town Crier, nobody else's fault at all.

Ian W. said...

Anonymous

I don't think anyone is entirely blaming magazines like the Town Crier for the demise of local newspapers but I think we clearly all have different views on it, what all us sceptics are saying is in a time of recession it would be prudent to try to save some unnecessary spending which promotes only one side of the argument and possibly share what funds that do need to be spent in keeping local jobs and our local newspaper in business.

I am in no way saying the Echo is perfect as it too has printed many things I disagree with but to some extent it is impartial and not permanently one sided like the Crier is.

Alan is right we need to know how many DBC asked and which area was surveyed.

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes......

Nick To summarise the requests which I posted earler I would welcome answers to the following questions:

1. Do you have any hard evidence that advertising externally is more expensive or less expensive than the Town Crier? If so, what is the differences?

2. How many of the internal adverts in the Town Crier are essential and how many non essential?

3. When were the surveys of residents views on the Town Crier carried out?

4. How many residents actually responded to the surveys?

5. What percentage is this of the total residents in the Borough who receive the Town Crier?

I look forward to receiving this information from you. Thank you.

Alan

Darlington Councillor said...

Thanks for your questions, Alan. As you can probably appreciate, they drill down to a level where if I give an off-the-cuff answer, I might very well be wrong!

I am pretty sure, however, that the survey I referred to had a good number of respondents - I wouldn't have quoted it if I thought otherwise.

Anonymous said...

Alan Macnab writes.....

Thanks Nick.