Alex Aiken: Don't blame councils for the demise of local news

The reputation of local government PR took a kicking in Parliament last week. MPs from all party's joined a debate on the 'sinister' growth of local authority newspapers and took the opportunity to attack council press offices. Replying to the debate, the minister promised action including an 'imminent' conclusion to the review of the code of conduct and an Office of Fair Trading referral.

Alex Aiken: don't blame councils
Alex Aiken: don't blame councils

The debate was a result of the concerns expressed by newspaper groups and felt by some MPs about the introduction of fortnightly council publications. In many ways the MPs were attacking the wrong target, council newspapers have not caused the demise of local papers – that’s the result of the wider changes on society and the availability of online all the time information. But local government is guilty of feeding the frenzy about the closure of local papers by producing publications that mimic the style and content of commercial publications and chase private advertising revenue with great zeal.

Much of local government will look with alarm and amazement that national politicians are focusing on council publications. The vast majority of regular magazines and newspapers come out 4-6 times a year and operate in a state of peaceful co-existence with local commercial papers. They are doing different roles. Local government spends money on publications to inform and educate, local papers are produced to make money and, disseminate news and to hold government to account.

But this boundary has become dangerously blurred in recent years. A few authorities have found it necessary – with good reason – to produce fortnightly newspapers to balance biased reporting, provide news as local papers have folded and reinforce community cohesion. And they have then taken this further by producing publications which look and feel close to commercial papers, with listings and advertising.

These were laudable objectives, but there is a legitimate question over how long a council can and should continue to produce a regular publication, costing £1million a year if the original objective has been met. We don’t use the same campaign tactics forever, without reviewing them and some publications seem to have become an end in themselves, rather than a tool to achieve a public policy objective.

When council PR becomes the issue itself, in a parliamentary debate, it’s time to review and amend the approach that’s been taken. There are many brilliant council publications, helping residents gain access to services across the country. It would be a tragedy if government and opposition acted to restrict these many effective magazines because of concerns over the actions of a few. It’s time for a new deal in the newspaper-council relationship.

Local authorities need to get out of the newspaper business but newspaper groups need to get back into politics by reinvigorating their coverage of local civic life, so both sides help buttress our democracy and support local journalism. 

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