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Ministers trial scheme to bring more Government ads to digital-only local titles

Karl Hancock 2022Ministers have announced a new scheme that could bring more Government advertising to digital-only local publishers, while simultaneously ruling out removing public notices from printed newspapers.

The UK Government has published its response to the Digital, Culture, Media & Sport Committee’s review into the sustainability of local journalism published in January.

In it, it revealed that the Cabinet Office is currently developing a pilot with hyperlocal network Nub News to “test its value as an advertising channel”.

The pilot scheme comes after the Committee found earlier this year that larger regional publishers were “taking a disproportionate share of available support” to the local news sector and called for “an audit of public money that supports local news and an analysis of whether this could be distributed more fairly”.

The review, at which Nub News chief executive Karl Hancock, pictured, was among those to give evidence, had urged the Government to examine whether “this money can be more fairly distributed and better used to promote innovation”.

In its response, the Government said: “The primary sources of public money that support the local news sector are central government advertising expenditure and local government expenditure on the advertising of statutory notices.

“This money is distributed according to other policy considerations, related to the audience reach and effectiveness of public information campaigns, and to transparency and accountability in local government decision-making.

“It would therefore not be appropriate to conduct an analysis of this expenditure with a view to any redistribution according to press sustainability policy goals.

“However, with regard to central government advertising, we are always mindful of the need to ensure we are making best use of smaller and emerging advertising channels.

“The Cabinet Office is currently developing a pilot with Nub News (a network of over 50 small, online-only local news outlets) to test its value as an advertising channel after the local elections, working closely with them to ensure their platform and reporting capability meet the standard necessary for the government to advertise on their platform.

“More broadly, work is also underway to ensure that we advertise with local media as a whole in the most effective way going forward. Our media buying agency, OmniGOV, is speaking to local publishers to develop best ways of working for future government campaigns.

However, a call by the Committee for a review to be conducted into existing rules and practices for placing statutory notices in local newspapers has been rejected.

The response stated: “It is clear that print newspapers still play a role in providing transparent and trusted information to local communities about local government decision-making, as illustrated in a government consultation last year on Traffic Regulation Orders reform.

“So, while we therefore do not intend to conduct a review of rules and practices for placing statutory notices in local newspapers, we are aware of concerns about the audience reach of these notices and the desire for greater digitalisation. With regard to measurement of these audiences, we would encourage local authorities to use those channels that are able to demonstrate their reach through transparent and ideally industry-approved measurement tools.”

The Government further pledged to “support any further efforts” by the BBC to grow the Local Democracy Reporting Service and said it would explore further efforts to support the industry financially, building on the model of the Nesta Future News Fund.

Discussing another recommendation suggesting the Government looks at ways to make it easier for local news organisations to achieve charitable status, the response stated: “There is limited evidence of widespread appetite among publishers for seeking charitable status, despite the awareness-raising work that has been done since 2020.

“Charitable status is unlikely to be a suitable model for many news publishers, given that, for example, they would be prohibited from being ‘for profit’ companies and limited in the types of journalism that they could fund. However, we also note concerns raised by the Committee concerning possible obstacles in the process which may be deterring applicants.

“We would encourage publishers and other interested parties to bring forward any detailed evidence of this issue. Beyond this, the Charity Commission will continue to monitor this area in line with its usual approach to issues and take action as appropriate.”

Responding to this morning’s publication, News Media Association chief executive Owen Meredith said: “We welcome the government’s acknowledgement of the Public Notice Portal as a ‘welcome innovation’ from the local news media sector, and its commitment to keep public notices in printed local newspapers. This is critical to ensuring the public are kept informed about matters of importance in their local area.

“We also welcome the government’s acknowledgement of the need for a collective bargaining mechanism to ensure that smaller local publishers will be able to negotiate with the might of the tech platforms within the new competition framework.

“We are also pleased that government is engaging with local media to develop best ways of working for future government advertising campaigns.

“Local news media is a powerful partner for businesses and government to reach highly engaged audiences and should be a critical conduit for central government communications, providing unrivalled scale and connection with local communities, and government must make full use of it.”