Polly Rance: Councils would welcome resolution on publications debate

The issue of council publications has reared its head yet again, this time with the culture media and sport select committee calling for an Office of Fair Trading (OFT) investigation into the subject. Many councils would welcome the closure on this seemingly endless debate that this would bring.

Polly Rance: don't blame councils
Polly Rance: don't blame councils

The Newspaper Society has made no secret of the fact that it would like to see restrictions put on the frequency of council publications, which would in effect prevent them from carrying their own advertising. Trinity Mirror concedes that councils have a duty to communicate with residents on a more regular basis, perhaps unsurprisingly as they recently won a multi-million pound contract to print seven weekly and fortnightly council titles. Their beef is with council newspapers that masquerade as independents and poach their advertisers. Archant Group has said that they just want councils to be transparent and compete on a level playing field.? 

The root cause of the industry’s anger is that fact that for years local papers have been propped up financially by council advertising, mainly in the form of job ads and public notices, and they fear the loss of that revenue. No private industry has a divine right to public money and councils must be free to find the best value for money solutions to their advertising and communications needs and to reach the widest cross section of their residents.  

In the current economic climate the newspaper industry needs to adapt, and quickly. Even if an incoming government were to heed the more extreme calls for an outright ban on council publications, the industry will never again receive the income levels from council advertising they were used to in the past. Most councils have moved all their recruitment advertising online. Revenue from public notices alone will not rescue newspaper budgets in a time when the entire industry is suffering from declining circulations and the exodus of readers and advertisers to digital platforms. Council publications are a convenient scapegoat, but if the industry wants to meet these challenges, local newspapers must look harder at their own failure to respond to a changing business environment.

Having said all this, councils must respond to some of the valid concerns raised by the recent debate. Council publications should not ape the appearance of independent titles and they should state clearly who produces them. In Hackney we are redesigning our paper to make its provenance even more explicit. Councils should not aggressively target the advertising revenue of independent titles. There is room for both and often the two types of title attract different advertisers. Most council publications do not over step the mark but the few that do are making life increasingly uncertain for the rest of us who just want to get on with the job of promoting access to local services and telling a positive story about the places and communities we serve. I hope the OFT, if it chooses to intervene, will finally put this issue into perspective.? 

Polly Rance is head of media and external relations at the London Borough of Hackney, and vice-chair of the CIPR Local Public Services Group

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