In defence of the Pravda
As regular readers will know, the WLLG team are made up of a number of individuals from all over local government, with a number of differing roles, ideas and opinions. Often we have similar outlooks on things, and certainly find the same things baffling, but just like a healthy marriage we don’t always agree on everything.
An article we posted looking at the problems with council run newspapers is one such area. Recently the good people of the Guardian ran a piece from us about these problems, and a mighty fine piece it was too. It argued that the money that it drew in from other services was excessive, and that it gave lazy comms officers an easy route to say they effectively communicate with their residents.
Now, I’m not going to argue with the latter point; I’ve encountered too many people who think effective comms = press release to think this was an exaggeration. Effective comms is so much more than that, it’s crazy how easily staff can fall into that trap.
However, a well produced Council newspaper or magazine can be a hugely positive tool as well. It is proven to be an effective way of getting information from the Council to local people; whether they choose to read it or not is up to them, but it at least means they have the opportunity to do so. I know I have a good read through my regular council’s publication, skimming through it to see what might catch my eye, and have found out some very useful information as a result.
There is also the issue of balance to consider. A regular criticism of freesheets is that they provide little in the way of journalistic balance, presenting a majority of positive news and rarely if ever criticise the Council or its partners. My question is; so what?
If you want to hear council bashing then there are plenty of places to do so, in fact most commercial local papers are full of criticism of anything and everything the council does. Often they also contain pieces penned by opposition councillors, attacking the political leaders and their decisions whilst other contributors criticise specific services or senior officers. When was the last time you saw an article in one of these members of the free press who said “do you know what, the council is doing a bloody good job under really difficult circumstances, we should all cut them a little slack”?
The issue of the amount of money these publications cost is also often discussed as a problem, and this might be the case from a simple point of view. However, the need to advertise events, statutory notices, lettings details, public information notices and more will not go away; if there is no Council publication then this money will flow out of the public purse and into the private. I’m all for the private sector being strong and robust, but this feels like robbing Peter to pay Paul, with costs being paid to a company rather than a council to do just about the same job. In fact, the readership of commercial newspapers, especially local ones, is falling at an incredible rate; thanks to the internet more people are getting their news online rather than paying to read it on paper. This has nothing to do with whether or not there are council run alternatives, and is an international phenomenon.
I can accept that some people will never trust a word of the council even if it tells the whole truth; equally, there are many who always will even when it tells less than the truth. At least having an option to present the council’s perspective is worth it in my eyes.
Council run publications need to embrace what they are and come to terms with it, unashamedly saying “we are a council paper, will tell you all about the good things we do and try to make sure you see some of the many positive things which go on in your area instead of just hearing about murders, muggings and repossessions.” They need to find ways of costing next to nothing, be that through carrying advertising or recharging internal teams to carry adverts (which incidentally costs a fraction of the cost of private papers) and they need to make sure that local residents have both sides of a story presented.
And at the end of the day they need to make suitable chip paper.