Should the government stop local councils competing with local newspapers?

Below (scan down a bit) is a piece I’ve written at the invitation of Paul Bradshaw from the Online Journalism Blog. Paul e-mailed to say:  “I’m creating a 6-part series of responses to the government as part of its inquiry into the future of local and regional media. I will be submitting the whole – along with blog comments – to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. They invited responses on 6 areas. This part will look at the 3rd:

The appropriateness and effectiveness of print and electronic publishing initiatives undertaken directly by public sector bodies at the local level. The question of what public sector bodies should be allowed to publish, how that affects local journalism, and how it affects local democracy, is one of the most difficult to resolve – not least because it involves so many interconnected elements.”  So that’s what Paul asked. He has written this and here are my thoughts – mostly on the question of the quality and transparency of information paid for from the public purse:

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I talk to a lot of people who work in council communications departments. They’re all conscious that the regional press is in trouble.  If they’ve not recently lost a local paper they’ve certainly seen local journalists lose their jobs.

They consistently tell me one thing: “Because there are fewer reporters it’s easier to get coverage. Those who are left are really grateful for the stuff we give them.  More and more they run it verbatim”.

On the one hand we have newspaper editors complaining about direct competition from council newspapers and websites, on the other they increase their reliance on content from these same sources.   This tension amply illustrates the waning value of newspapers as mediators.

Public bodies will continue to want to connect directly with an audience. They will find it ever easier to tell their stories in audio, video, maps, text and images and they will attach all that content to rss feeds to be used by individuals and publishers of all sizes.

Not only that but public services have a growing responsibility to talk directly to the public.  The conversational web and data mashing offer an unprecedented opportunity to collaborate with us to improve public services.  It would be negligent for any media regulation to stifle this.  Indeed central government already actively encourages local councils to improve their direct relationship with the communities they serve.

Any minister making decisions now risks being derided in years to come for not understanding quite how powerful these new flows of information are, first to undermine the business model of newspaper and second to strengthen the democratic opportunities for our public services. I can’t imagine any sensible intervention from Andy Burnham or Hazel Blears demanding that this trend should be somehow stopped!

New standards for Public Information

Newspaper editors should stop bleating about potential competition. Instead they should fight for new standards for public information.

Clearly all public communications departments take care to be accurate and negotiate the line between politics and public service. Often they will check their facts more carefully than journalists might because they get more stick for being wrong.

But as more and more material from local government press departments is used  use un-mediated by millions of people how do we guarantee the quality of this information?

So now is not the time for government to stifle council communications teams. Now is the time to ask if we have the right editorial guidelines for council press officers and communications departments. Let us instead ensure  every single one is a centre of excellence for plentiful, high quality and easily re-usable public information.

We already have at least one model for using public money to pay public servants to create content for the public good. It’s called the BBC. This is based on the rather clumsy notion of impartiality. The new model should be built on guarantee of quality that comes with transparency.

Any comments you make below will be posted, by Paul, through to the enquiry. Others in the series include:

Alex Lockwood on “The impact of newspaper closures on independent local journalism and access to local information”

Adrian Monck on “The opportunities and implications of BBC partnerships with Local Media”

Paul Bradshaw also on “Should Councils Publish Newspapers”

2 comments

  1. I posted some thoughts on the future of local journalism last month at: http://livingwithrats.blogspot.com/2009/03/dont-read-all-about-it.html

    My view would be that councils should be as free to publish as any other organisations. But they’re not an alternative to good local journalism, and there are issues about the amount of taxpayers’ money that goes into PR.

    The issue used to be that council publications were unfair competition to local papers, and if local papers died, there’d be a municipal monopoly. But newspaper recruitment advertising is dying anyway, so that won’t be the issue much longer – newspapers have to find a different financial model.

    I suspect good, inquiring local papers will be a bit of a niche product in future. But I can see a burgeoning of local online journalism that will help to hold councils to account – though it’s likely to be partisan stuff done by people with a cause or an axe to grind.

    Local newspapers are in crisis and need to reinvent themselves very soon. Some council papers may hasten local newspapers to their grave, but banning them won’t deal with the chronic sickness.

  2. Nick Booth says:

    Thanks for the comment Julian. You point about very local blogs and the like “it’s likely to be partisan stuff done by people with a cause or an axe to grind”, is important. The truth is that even those who work hard at accountability through impartiality are still partisan to a degree. That’s why I think we need to shift our media emphasis towards transparency.

    For other comments on this see also

    http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2009/05/01/should-council-news-operations-be-run-like-the-bbc/

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