Council publications fight back

Councils respond to claims their free papers are killing off local journalism.

Local government PR professionals are hitting back at claims that council publications are to blame for the demise of local journalism.

Since last summer, more than 1,000 journalists' jobs are believed to have been cut as a result of dozens of local newspapers shutting down. At the same time, council publications are flourishing.

The Newspaper Society has called on the Government to ban local authority newspapers. In a submission to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG)'s inquiry into the council publicity code, the society said publications such as Tower Hamlets' East End Life caused 'negative market impact' for local newspapers.

LG Communications and the Local Government Association (LGA) have responded with their own joint submission defending council publications, PRWeek has learned.

But LG Communications committee member Alex Aiken said: 'We will be asking them to show us the evidence. Local news will survive or die on its own merit. Council publications do something different - they report on council activity.'

He added: 'It is rare to see local newspapers coming to council meetings these days. As they have retreated their reporting in that area, we have had to start producing our own publications to fill the vacuum.'

LG Communications is the body representing local government communicators. The deadline for submissions to the DCLG inquiry was 31 March.

In its submission, the Newspaper Society has called for far tighter constraints upon council activities to 'prevent negative market impact upon the independent local media'.

Regional news groups Archant, Trinity Mirror and Northcliffe are also lobbying the Government to outlaw publications that they claim are threatening some of their titles.

In London's Tower Hamlets, the Archant-owned East London Advertiser is locked in a bitter struggle with the council-owned East End Life.

The Office for Fair Trading is close to completing a review of the local and regional media merger regime that is expected to address whether council publications have undermined local newspapers.

In another development, the Commons culture, media and sport select committee has launched a wide-ranging inquiry into the future of local and regional journalism in response to the cutbacks and job losses.

HOW I SEE IT

Marc Schmid, Head of comms and marketing, Blackburn with Darwen Council

The debate raging over council 'free newspapers' should not hide the fact that it is perfectly possible for us to co-exist. Newspapers need to recognise we are not to blame for their problems. Poor planning and too much focus on cutting costs are just some factors causing their pain. The public sector is equally under pressure and we need to work harder with dwindling resources.

However, we need to recognise the key role played by local newspapers. In these hard times it is down to us to work together and find ways in which we can tackle our mutual economic plight.

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