In defence of the Pravda

Are Council publications really that evil?

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.

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10 Comments on “In defence of the Pravda”

  1. Dan Says:

    I think the point about councils diverting their advertising spent towards their own ‘in-house’ newspapers is the key point here.

    Local newspapers are stuggling, principally as you say because of the availability of news online. But there’s also a decline in advertising revenue generally, and as this falls and pressure increases to produce a paper on the cheap, readers notice this fall off in quality and stop reading. A vicious circle.

    If local authorities are also diverting their considerable ad spent towards their own papers, this makes it doubly difficult for the local press to survive.

    I’d still place the survival of an independent local paper over the benefits (cost or otherwise) to the council of doing it itself.

  2. @Dan Since when has it been the council’s, and therefore council tax payers’, responsibility to prop up the local press?

  3. Alan Says:

    The advantage of driving the local press out of business is that then the council’s viewpoint can be presented without opportunity for dissent.

    • localgov Says:

      Take a look on the Internet (ad many people do for their news these days) and you will find examples of every point of view you want: free pree and free speech is no longer limited to old fashioned newspapers.

  4. localgov Says:

    I don’t believe that any Council publication is aiming to do anything of the sort: and with the internet being so powerful and the fact we live in a land of free speech there is simply no way this will ever happen.

    Council papers and magazines are doing their best to publish their point of view; if others disagree with it then they are welcome to publish anything else (within the law) that they wish to do, if people agree with it or are interested they will buy those papers.

  5. benlowndes Says:

    Great post.

    Dan, as a former journalist, I can tell you that the demise of the local press has very little to do with council newsletters. Too many of them have cut back to the bone for too long and simply fail to give their potential readers the information they want, in the way they want it.

    You could stop all council newsletters tomorrow, and the impact it would have on the local media would not be noticed.

  6. […] I’ve blogged about this issue recently, making similar points. They key point that councils need to demonstrate is whether residents value the newsletters they produce. Much of the research I have seen in my previous job suggests that they do.  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 … Read More […]

  7. […] worth reading the We Love Local Government blog, which has also made a valid defence of council […]

  8. […] Therefore surprise and delight them with a four-sheet pack of plain white A4 paper and watch them happily make this amount last for an entire year through their quarterly publications allowance […]

  9. […] had a few things to say in the past on the merits or otherwise of council newspapers, but love them or hate them perhaps they aren’t as dead in […]

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