Richard Stokoe: Local journalists search for blame

The recession is having unpredictable effects on the way in which councils do business and talk to residents.

The latest in this war of attrition comes in the form of an attack on council newsletters from ministers and the local newspaper industry.

Local commercial newspapers are facing increasing competitive and financial pressure and are lobbying hard, telling the Office of Fair Trading and Government that it is council newspapers that are to blame for its slow demise.

Councils do support successful and vibrant local media. It is essential for local democracy that journalists scrutinise the workings of local councils and help hold elected representatives to account.

Many local authorities also operate their own newspapers as a means of communicating with the public. The LGA has actively encouraged councils to do this since the 2005 launch of its Reputation Campaign.

This was launched following research conducted by Ipsos Mori that showed two-thirds of residents know nothing or next to nothing about local government.

Effective comms with residents are proven to result in higher satisfaction levels with councils and council services. Put simply, effective comms - including council newspapers - lead to higher levels of satisfaction with local authorities.

Local authorities do not operate newspapers in order to suppress or supplant the operations of the local media. Most councils do not like to see the press table empty at council meetings. But, with the best will in the world, local media cannot provide the same amount of information about how to access services as a dedicated council publication can.

Publishers have claimed that council newspapers compete with them for advertising revenue. Every local authority wants to support local businesses and local jobs, but they also have a responsibility to provide value for money. Councils are subject to the ultimate test through the ballot box, and are accountable to local people for all the decisions they take.

Richard Stokoe is head of news at the Local Government Association

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