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Fresh row erupts over council newspaper plan

A fresh political row is brewing over council newspapers after a Tory-run council in Essex voted to press ahead with plans to spend £100,000 launching its own publication.

Last week, the government ordered an inquiry into council-run newspapers by the local government watchdog, the Audit Commission.

But the move, which came as part of the government’s Digital Britain report, has not deterred Conservative-controlled Thurrock Council from going ahead with its plans.

Thurrock Gazette editor Steve Lewis said he was “greatly concerned” by the council’s proposals.

Said Steve: “If it goes ahead in its present format it will undoubtedly cause us considerable financial problems as quite a large percentage of our advertising is council advertising.

“We are looking at ways of working with the council on some sort of compromise. In my view there are better ways for the council to publicise their services than what they are proposing at the moment.”

The leader of the council’s Labour group, John Kent, labelled the plan “a huge waste of public money” and claimed that if it went ahead, the Gazette and other local newspapers would face closure.

“Local people value their local newspapers because they’re independent and report what’s really going on in Thurrock; not just what Thurrock Council wants us to know,” he said.

Councillor Kent added: “There is a legitimate place in Thurrock for a Council publication, but not for a fortnightly propaganda sheet that threatens our existing newspapers.

“Thurrock’s newspapers could face closure, if Tory Councillors get their way, that’s why we’ll be campaigning hard to save them.”


Neil Speight (24/06/2009 10:26:55)
For the record, it should be pointed out that two other newspapers manage to exist in Thurrock without any major advertising from Thurrock Council, as does the ‘new media’ website
As a former editor of the Gazette I am well aware of the figures involved and the cause and effect that has brought this move around.
The Gazette slashed its circulation in Thurrock recently as a cost-cutting measure, despite the fact that it makes huge profits and runs at a massive profit to turnover ratio. Why should it be surprising that the Council therefore seeks an alternative medium that better suits its requirement of getting its messages, much statutory requirement, to its residents.
The driving force behind this move is not censorship of media but a simple cost management issue.
A lot of the people at Thurrock Council are not the brightest of sparks but they are not so stupid as to believe that alienating the local media is a good thing.
As a taxpayer in the borough, I’m quite pleased they are becoming more prudent about their budgets and not simply just signing off advertising at grossly inflated prices to that paid by other, more media savvy private sector operators.
The introduction of council newspapers is a concern but they have by and large been introduced up and down the country because the mainstream UK publishers have not been managing their markets properly.
We have seen slash and burn in the industry lately as a huge panic measure. No doubt the same accountants who decided it was a good idea to cut costs through staffing levels and distribution are now wringing their hands because their revenues have dropped.
The Thurrock Gazette remains an excellent newspaper and Steve is doing a good job as he cuts his teeth with his first editorship but he is getting an early lesson about what it’s like trying to manage in corporations where share price and greed overrule common sense and pragmatism.
For those who still get precious about the quality of journalism, it’s also worth noting that in my 30 plus years in this industry I have seen a huge decline among many newspapers in coverage of council issues in favour of ‘people stories.’
Had we not, as an industry, stopped paying attention to local authorities and given them the importance they deserve by actually sending reporters to meetings where key community issues arise and are debated, maybe this issue would never have arisen in the first place.
We’ve been happy to sit back and take the press releases rather than doing the work – it’s too late now to moan as local councils wake up to the idea that they might as well go the whole hog.
How many regional newspapers out there could sustain themselves in terms of council coverage if they weren’t getting the ever-increasing flow of press releases from ever-growing council and other local authority press offices (incidentally mostly staffed by reporters who have quit newspapers because of the low wages!).
As for John Kent, he’s never one to miss a good opportunity to rattle his political rivals’ cage and fair play to him for that, but I wouldn’t take the Labour group’s protestations too seriously as plenty of neighbouring Labour-controlled authorities also publish their own titles.
John has previously invoked the standards board when he feels the Tories are overstepping the mark with self publicity – the mechanisms for doing this are clear and in place.
Neil Speight
Essex Enquirer