23 July 2014

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'One-eyed' local press contributes to rise of council papers

The “hostile spin” and “one-eyed nature” of local newspapers has generated the growth of local council newsletters.

That’s the view of a borough councillor in response to a call for an “urgent debate” on the rise of the publications by a regional daily’s editor.

Peter Barron, chief of the Darlington-based Northern Echo, said that the amount of taxpayers’ cash which was spent on the publications, particularly those that compete for local advertising, needed to be looked at.

But Nick Wallis, a member of Darlington Borough Council which produces ‘Town Crier’, said that many local newspapers don’t offer councils balanced coverage, hence the need for some to produce their own newsletters.

He blogged: “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…..I’m guessing this hurts the local newspaper industry at a time when advertising revenue is at a premium.

“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.”

In recent months several councils have either ditched their newsletters altogether, such as Cornwall and Doncaster, or are reviewing them like Lancashire and Birmingham.

And earlier this month culture, media and sport secretary Ben Bradshaw MP called them “propaganda sheets”.

Peter welcomed the councils’ decisions, adding: “Millions are spent around the country on free council magazines.

“Council bosses argue that it is not the job of such magazines to be unbiased or independent – that, they say, is the role of the local newspaper. But the result is that these publicly-funded publications lack credibility.

“The government acknowledges that local newspapers are vital to local democracy, yet council publications are allowed to compete for precious advertising revenue in a shrinking market.”

THURSDAY UPDATE

  • This story has been generating interest and comments on other news and media websites which has resulted in Peter being invited to take part in a debate about council newspapers on BBC Radio 5, to be recorded today.
  • Comments

    Ben Glass (26/08/2009 09:31:21)
    I find it surprising that Nick Wallis doesn’t realise the job of local papers is to criticise councils and keep them in check.
    It is not their job to blow the council’s trumpet – this would make boring reading and serve no purpose but to massage the egos of councillors or their officers.
    Ratepayers have the right to expect their council to do a good job.
    Someone doing what they’re supposed to be doing is not a story.
    Can you imagine how bad the news would be if local papers took the council line on stories:
    “Working in partnership with our partners …bla bla bla ”

    Woody Bernstein (26/08/2009 09:53:13)
    Unfortunately Ben I think that Nick Wallis is right. There are a lot of papers out there who don’t allow reporters to get out on their patches to find the stories and are reduced to hyping up and sometimes even inventing hyperbolic angles to stories to feed the need for ‘impact fronts’.

    Richard (26/08/2009 09:54:24)
    I think Ben Glass’ comment perfectly sums up the attitude Nick Wallis describes.

    Craig (26/08/2009 10:07:52)
    Seems a bit ironic that the council member is accusing local newspapers of spin – it’s what council PR departments are famous for! They want to put out their own newsletters so they can put out information that looks to the public like they are doing a great job. Let’s face it, there will be never be a headline in a council newsletter that says: ‘We’ve just been criticised by a government inspection’ or ‘We’re going to be cutting jobs because we spent all your money’. Get real Mr Wallis.

    Jon Clements (26/08/2009 10:11:32)
    I was introduced to the local newspaper staple of “bungling council” stories in my first journalism job 20 years ago. And the retiring political editor had been writing similar pieces for donkeys’ years before that. Councils have to recognise that as part of the territory. But, when they do something genuinely useful for the community, it shouldn’t be overlooked as “not newsworthy” by the local media. Balance is necessary, but council-owned publications will always struggle to shuffle off the propoganda label. Politicians’ stock is low generally, and waving your own flag at council tax payers’ expense won’t necessarily help.

    Fearful for future (26/08/2009 10:59:32)
    For “local newspapers don’t offer councils balanced coverage”, read “local newspapers don’t toe our corporate line”.
    In a very long career in journalism, I have seen local authorities become more and more secretive and more and more reluctant to hold up their hands when they have made mistakes or misjudged situations. They are helped by the fact that the number of real decision-makers among the ranks of local councillors have diminished and there is little open discussion before decisions are made.
    It is inevitable therefore that when people – residents as well as journalists – pick up on minutes and decisions which shock them, there is an outcry throught the pages of the local media.
    Furthermore, council press officers who used to be open and sensible in their reponses to inquiries (sometimes off the record)have become cogs in the corporate machine. Press releases are now often blatant self-publicity for the administration and full of unreportable jargon. No wonder they don’t impress.

    local hack (26/08/2009 15:59:00)
    Of course councils, which have a cost base subsidised from the public purse shouldn’t be allowed to muscle in and steal business from long established local newspapers.
    However, as someone who used to be a group leader on a major council in England but is now and has been for the past two decades a journalist on a long established weekly newspaper, I have some sympathy for the council view.
    Some colleagues like nothing better than to attack the councils for no good reason other than for the fact that they can.
    Often the stories are cheap and sensational and do not have firm foundations in fact. When councils get it wrong, as they often do and sometimes badly, they should be exposed but this should not be over-used or it loses its impact and effectiveness.
    The real question is ‘Why is council business reported less and less in newspapers even though everyone pays and many go out to vote?’
    The decision by the Government to bring in the cabinet and leader system for our councils has effectively killed debate in most civic chambers across the land and made those councillors not in the ruling group, or on the executive, de facto policy eunuchs with little news value unless they are interesting in some other way.
    Councils should kick out the spin doctors, empower their members to take real decisions and the government should return to local authorities the ability to
    set their own business rates. Then we would get some real stories not just warmed up press releases.

    Nikki K (26/08/2009 16:27:43)
    What we’re seeing a war over advertising. On one side a seemingly successful council publication, on the other a once-great newspaper now desperate for every penny’s worth of advertising because it can’t deliver on the news front.

    StuartT (27/08/2009 09:53:56)
    Nikki K – what utter rubbish. Have you seen a recent copy of The Northern Echo? The Echo’s writers are the best in the business.

    old hack (27/08/2009 12:12:07)
    Spoonfed journalists encouraged by all-for-profit managements are much to blame for the issue over council funded “newspapers.” I don’t blame colleagues for taking the easy route and depending on council press releases and snippets taken from council publications to fill their pages.Most local journalists are under tremendous pressure with ever growing staff shortages and increasingly early deadlines.The problem is that is so many cases this free council matertial is accepted without question. In my experience and from feedback from local authority PRs very rarely do they get a call back as the result of a press release. Many are accepted at face value and printed verbatim – headlines and all !
    Sadly our so-called media colleges turn out journalist who, technically have all the skills, but lack the most important item, good old fashioned news sense. The ability to see a story in the most boring of releases or council minutes is something that can’t be taught in the classroom. Only experience, good contacts through going out and about on the patch will provide the kind of stories that will make alternative media from the council redundant. I gather that PA is set to pilot a scheme, government funded, to cover councils and courts for local papers. This is better than no coverage at all but will do little to boost local journalism or act as a watchdog to keep a check on councils.

    Nikki K (27/08/2009 16:50:48)
    Stuart T – Big fish in little pond syndrome.



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