31 October 2014

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Dyson at Large: Are Town Hall pullouts the answer?

Why, oh why, can impoverished regional media groups not work harder at a new deal with cash-strapped councils?

I’m referring to the campaign just launched by the Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle to trigger the support of readers against the local council’s ‘h&f news.’

The latter propaganda sheet consumes £174,000 a year of taxpayers’ money to publish council-approved news and information fortnightly, potentially driving readers and advertisers away from the 122-year-old Chronicle.

In many ways the Chronicle’s is a fine, principled campaign, one that could be repeated all over Britain as numerous councils determinedly produce their own free-sheets in direct competition to ‘real’ newspapers.

And its timing was great, coming just days before a report, published by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee looking at the future of regional and local media, recommended the Office of Fair Trading “should conduct a review specifically on the impact of council publications on commercial local newspapers.”

But is such a battle with Town Halls really needed or wanted, especially when the headlines are not as simple as those portrayed?

For a start, many regional publishers are being just a tad hypocritical… they often hold the lucrative contracts to print and distribute the council papers they claim to hate.

Surely if they are so opposed to such council papers, regional publishers could just collectively boycott dealing in any way with the offending material?

Secondly, the only real action to be expected in response to the OFT’s review is that Town Halls will be forced to place ‘Official Council publication’ on each page of its product. Helpful, but not guaranteed to remove the competitive product.

So what about a touch of common sense… Do regional publishers not understand why councils feel they have been driven to publish their own version of the news?

For one, council chiefs feel they are not given a fair shout in local and regional newspapers.

Okay, they would say that, along with the bosses of any other organisation properly scrutinised in the media. But they are also regularly told there is no space to cover the many issues they want to air anyway.

And this argument is one that I have to say stands up if you take the trouble to analyse the reduced pagination and story counts of some local newspapers.

For example, in the 26 March edition of the Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle launching the ‘Proper Papers Not Propaganda’ campaign, there were just 43 news stories on 17 news pages.

Of these, not counting the campaign itself, just seven stories had content relating to the council, and three of these were only shorts.

Surely there’s a commercial answer to the reasons offered by councils for establishing their own papers?

In return for the cessation of Town Hall publications, why not offer councils an ‘in association with’ pull-out on a regular basis in the real newspaper?

Financially, this will save the councils a shed-load of money on creating, printing and distributing their own publications, quite attractive given the current and pending public sector cuts.

Negotiated properly, this could also provide much-needed revenues for traditional newspapers.

It’s surely not beyond the wits of local managing directors and council head spin-doctors to agree that any such pull-out should be clearly marked ‘sponsored’ or ‘published in association with.’

And for any agreement to make it crystal clear that the newspapers can and should still hold the councils to account on editorial pages.

If they act together, regional newspaper groups could even make use of the Newspaper Society they collectively fund to come up with a template contract acceptable to all, perhaps working with the likes of the Local Government Association.

Come on guys: show us you mean business rather than playing around with battles that use up too much journalistic effort, a resource that could be better used on real campaigns.

Leaving the council media war aside, how did the Trinity Mirror-owned Chronicle that is delivered free to 72,000 homes a week perform?

Well, as recorded above, the story count was too low, hardly surprising in a weekly made up of just 44 pages.

But I loved the page three ‘Thank God I was there’ story, using five CCTV stills to show how a shopping centre security guard saved the life of a five-year-old dropping from an escalator.

This could easily have made a dramatic, picture-led splash on a normal week, although an even better contender was buried on page four, headlined ‘Nazi housing boss is sacked.’

This told how a £90,000-a-year housing boss at the above-mentioned Hammersmith and Fulham Council was dismissed for being a “secret Nazi sex fetishist.”

In fairness, the story had broken in the previous weekend’s Sunday Mirror, but you’d have thought the Chronicle could have followed up various angles in detail for a local leading article.

These two stories stood out as the best stories on offer in a fairly news-starved edition, although it should be noted that four full pages had been used up by the well-executed ‘Proper Papers Not Propaganda’ campaign.

Given the tight book, I thought an entire page of candidates for Hammersmith’s parliamentary seat being quizzed by students was overkill.

Similarly, a full page on the story of three local asylum seekers speaking about the trial of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic seemed a little heavy amidst so few news pages.

In truth, none of this was bad quality, there was just not enough for a good news read, although this was supplemented by 28 reports on six sports pages, four entertainments tales and a full page of What’s On listings and five longish readers’ opinions on a page 18 of ‘Your Letters.’

Read Steve’s previous blog posts here

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  • Steve Dyson worked in the regional press for 20 years, editing weekly, Sunday and daily newspapers in the North East and the Midlands from 2002 until the end of 2009. To contact him, email steve.dysonmedia@googlemail.com.

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    Comments

    rob (15/04/2010 09:37:14)
    no, town hall pull-outs are not the answer. Why would either side do it. The paper get’s watered down by including council propaganda and the council doesn’t get the complete coverage they get from their own newspapers/mini pravdas.

    FAST WOMAN (15/04/2010 10:04:16)
    The reason the newspaper groups would look at this is simple: revenue.

    Steve Dyson (15/04/2010 11:06:46)
    Thanks for input, Rob. But re. ‘watering down’, if you applied that argument to any ad supplement (and there are many every week, everywhere) surely there’d be no business left? My point is that this could be considered by both sides, but would have to be on a strict understanding of clearly marked ‘Advertising supplement’ or ‘published in association with…’ etc. In summary, paid-for space clearly marked as such… the basis of the industry as it stands anyway. You may be right about councils preferring mini-Pravdas, but they mayu have to reconsider re. costs and this is a way of directing the remaining cash to support newspapers. But asin, I can’t stress more how crucial clear highlighting of any such supplement as a council view would be.

    Gini Guttery (16/04/2010 13:08:04)
    Surely one of the main reasons that councils want to deliver and manage their own public
    ations (apart from the obvious editorial considerations), is that councils have a duty of care to communicate with all their constituents, something that regional press cannot now do with their declining circulations. As a resident of York where our local paper has a circulation of about 28,000, there are nearly 90,000 properties under our local council.



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