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Council withdrew advertising over critical stories, former editor claims

Peter Barron 1A former regional daily editor has claimed that critical stories may have caused a local authority to stop publishing public notices in a weekly newspaper.

As reported on HTFP last week, Northumberland County Council has withdrawn advertising from the CN Group-owned Hexham Courant in a move which the paper says is putting local democracy “at risk”.

Instead such notices are being placed in the Johnston Press-owned Northumberland Gazette, which is based more than 40 miles away in Alnwick, in what the authority claims is a cost-cutting measure.

But former Northern Echo editor Peter Barron has now suggested the move could have been made in response to the Courant criticising the authority’s handling of changes to leisure centre prices.

In a column for the Echo, Peter wrote: “We live in austere times and public bodies have to make savings but, if this was simply about cost-cutting, why has the county council not sought a meeting with the Courant? Indeed, why was the decision taken without even consultation with local councillors?”

“County councillors across Tynedale have asked the council’s chief executive, Steven Mason, for an explanation and the leader of Northumberland Conservatives, Councillor Peter Jackson, said: ‘The feedback received was deeply unsatisfactory and smacks of press regulation and censorship.’

“Censorship. Now there’s a word which we should all be concerned about. The implication is that Northumberland County Council’s decision is about more than cost-cutting but stifling public information. There’s also the suspicion that the decision was taken in response to the Courant criticising the authority’s handling of changes to leisure centre prices.

“The danger, of course, is that any council which doesn’t like being held to account could ‘punish’ its local paper by withholding advertising revenue that is part of the lifeblood of titles serving their communities.”

A petition is now being circulated by the Courant calling for the council to reverse its decision.

Added Peter: “I happen to think that local journalism – whether it is presented in print or online – is fundamental to local democracy and any attempts to undermine it should be fought as vigorously as possible.”

A spokeswoman for the council told HTFP the change had been undertaken on a trial basis “in an effort to both save costs and maximise internal administrative efficiencies”.

She added: “This involved an increased use of one publisher for the placement of notices, for which we receive a price discount. This is supplemented by their online presence, the erection of local notices on site and the maintenance of a public notices section on the authority’s website.

“Just recently the future of public notices was highlighted by the government which ran a number of pilot schemes looking at alternative ways of publishing these notices.

“It was launched by the then-Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, who said it would ‘help us move on from the sterile debate based on a binary choice between the total retention or total abolition of requirements to publish notices in local newspapers’.

“The council is looking to embrace that agenda and develop, in the fullness of time, much more responsive and flexible mechanisms to ensure that the public are kept informed in the most relevant and far reaching manner.”


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  • March 8, 2017 at 7:51 am

    was it not confirmed last week that they move the adverts due to being offered a cheaper deal at the other paper?

    Think Hexham needs to let this go

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  • March 8, 2017 at 7:59 am

    Deary me,are they still carping on about a local council choosing not to advertise now other competitotrs have come into the market? and are they seriously circulating a petition? do the honestly think local people will care as long as they have access to the PN content somewhere?
    it just seems like sour grapes and excuses being made to cover lost revenues to me.
    As for the naive ;
    “..if this was simply about cost-cutting, why has the county council not sought a meeting with the Courant?”
    Does he really think that`s how businesses operate in a free market?
    The onus is on the local sales rep or manager to speak to the council,to have a strong relationship built on trust,respect and fair rates,not to wait for them to come and explain why theyre choosing another medium,maybe this reactive approach of waiting for things to happen first is the reason revenues are falling?
    Could it also be that PN money was taken for granted for years and assumed it would always be there so the shock factor when its been taken elsewhere is out of proportion?
    Either way the council has chosen to use a competitor and are not honour bound to explain themselves,time to let it go chaps

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  • March 8, 2017 at 10:05 am

    If it was a punishment for critical stories, it’s not right.
    Strange how they didn’t mention this could be the case last week.

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  • March 8, 2017 at 10:21 am

    Isn’t this dejavu? Just wondering why HTFP are giving this yet more coverage, as was said last week and again today by commentors, the council have made a business decision to spend their ad money elsewhere for whatever reason they have chosen,rather than rake over the ashes why doesn’t the main advertising suit speak to them to find out if they’re that concerned rather than fawning round local people to support them?
    Better still accept the situation and move on

    Apathy, complacency and taking ‘easy’ PN money for granted for years has finally come home to haunt them now they’re just looking for lame excuses

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  • March 8, 2017 at 12:10 pm

    Pete Barron is absolutely right to be suspicious about the actions of Northumberland County Council. It is not a question of competing newspapers vying for advertising and one undercutting the other. The county is one of the largest in England (5000+ sq km) and the two papers cover entirely different areas with almost no overlap in circulation. The Gazette covers the North and East of the county, while the Courant covers the West. This decision is not about cost-cutting, nor about advertising rates; it is about politics.

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  • March 8, 2017 at 12:23 pm

    It’s a tricky one. I don’t know much about the circulation areas of either paper, but I do know that the council is required to publish public notices ‘in a newspaper which circulates in the area’. I don’t suppose there is too much crossover with these titles so it may be that they can’t stop publishing all notices in the Courant entirely.

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  • March 8, 2017 at 12:39 pm

    I am sure back in July 2016 when they changed from broadsheet to tabloid the then editor said”..there will be no let up in our traditional ethos to provide an unrivalled service to the communities we serve”
    This being the case can I suggest he runs all local council PNs free of charge thus saving them and the local community funds which would otherwise be spent on advertising
    Simple solution if they’re true to their words and aren’t just whinging because they’ve lost out on a pile of £££££

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  • March 8, 2017 at 12:51 pm

    Archie, earlier in this thread, is on the wrong track, and Peter Barron and his supporters are very much in the right.
    This is not a story about budgets, or the bigger picture nationally, but about both the paper and Northumberland Council serving their local communities.
    The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England has stepped in to point out that local people who get the Courant – and would never dream of getting a Gazette, (based 40 miles away) – are in danger of missing out on hearing of planning applications on their doorsteps.
    These communities are surrounded by Green Belt land which is increasingly under threat and for that reason it is never more necessary than now that Northumberland Council ensure that public notices go in the publication most relevant to the people the council is supposed to be there to serve.

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  • March 8, 2017 at 1:46 pm

    I don’t bother with council advertising, giving me free rein to publish the good, bad and ugly!

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  • March 8, 2017 at 2:08 pm

    Sorry Argus, if the Courant isn’t capable of telling readers of potentially contentious planning applications without having an advert to do so, they are in the wrong business.
    Plans are on the council website so it’s not about access to the information, it’s about the cash (or a punishment ad withdrawal).

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  • March 8, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    Here we go again – anyone remember the South Wales Guardian’s running battle with Carmarthenshire County Council a few years back? That little weekly quickly found out who their real friends were:

    But interesting to note that the SWG seemed to draw more support from HTFP readers than the Courant is getting here today.

    When this story first broke I questioned the Courant’s relationship with the local authority. If Peter Barron is to be believed, it hasn’t been very cosy…

    I’m right behind Argus on this: this issue isn’t about budgets but about both parties serving their local communities – and Northumberland Council clearly aren’t.

    Frankly, I’m staggered at the general level of cynicism and disinterest in the Courant’s plight – this is tin hats time and we have to stand up to such bullying.

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  • March 8, 2017 at 6:13 pm

    I’m with Archie and regional on this
    Whatever the reason,any business / council or otherwise can choose how and where they spend their money,this is bitterness at the paper losing a ready source of ad revenue, as has been mentioned previously,if this isn’t about ad revenues or budgets and they truly fight for their conmunity let them publish PNs for free,

    presumably they have a journalist or two there who can pick up any PNnotices that need investigation or following up,and as Regional points out the councils own website will have them on there for all to see.

    Paul Holden has the right attitude if it isn’t about the money then by all means feel free to investigate and publish anything you want as you will have nothing to lose and it will be refreshing for the journalists to have no bars to covering a story they feel needs investigating without a commercial chief urging caution at potential lost revenues due to fall out.
    This is all about revenues
    It’s hard to be sympatic with any publisher who has enjoyed high levels of PN ad revenue after years of inflating the rates believing councils had no choice but to advertise abd spend with them.
    Nice while it’s there, crippling when it goes

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