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news, views and issues around Greenwich, Charlton, Blackheath and Woolwich, south-east London – what you won't read in Greenwich Time

Greenwich Time and council newspapers – some further thoughts

with 11 comments


With apologies to those who are bored to tears with the subject, I’d like to return to local council newspapers again. Sooner or later, a government – either this or the next one – is likely to act on these. Too many arguments on the internet concentrate on the black and white extremes, and not the shades of grey in the middle. This post is an attempt to address those shades of grey.

There’s also been some coverage of this yesterday, with Trinity Mirror boss Sly Bailey attacking what she called “mini-Pravdas” at the Oxford Media Convention. But while Sly Bailey bleats now, it was her own Trinity Mirror which moved one of Greenwich’s local papers, the Mercury, out of its Deptford HQ, in the heart of its circulation area, to far-off Streatham. (The Mercury is now owned by rival group Tindle.) Sly Bailey has only herself to blame if local councils feel her local papers aren’t covering them properly.

Nick Baines, the Bishop of Croydon, no less, responded to her thoughts on his blog:

Local newspapers are in serious decline. This is bad news in itself. Local newspapers have traditionally offered the local population scrutiny of local authority decision-making and spending. They have served the public as guardians of accountability by covering the detail of council meetings and committees and telling the community what is going on and identifying the right questions to ask of their elected representatives.

But this is no longer the case; the world has moved on. My own experience of local government coverage is that only negative stories play – that there is a less-than-intelligent and often ill-informed editorial bias brought to bear on stories involving the local authority. Many public servants simply feel that they are constantly fighting a losing battle in serving their local communities and that any effort to build up the positive image of a local community is undermined by insistent negative image-making.

But, unfortunately, in Greenwich, we can see that this has gone way too far – Greenwich Time is little more than a vanity publication for the council leadership, and as we saw yesterday, is happy to play fast and loose with statistics to paint a rosy picture of life in the soon-to-be-royal borough.

And yes, the situation isn’t helped by weak local newspapers. Twice in the past few months, I’ve had the privilege of covering full meetings of Greenwich Council for greenwich.co.uk. There’s usually someone on the press desk in the town hall chamber – but not once have I seen a story from any of those meetings appear in either the Mercury or the News Shopper. But even with greenwich.co.uk’s restricted catchment area, there’s been at least four short stories out of those meetings. If the News Shopper is serious about its campaign, it should send someone along some day. I could do with the company. Perhaps, of course, the papers can’t afford to send a reporter along any more. Which presents us with a nuttier problem to get our teeth into.

Scrapping or outlawing council newspapers isn’t going to solve the problem in areas where malnourished local papers are failing. Even if councils are compelled to place their advertising in them once again (once upon a time, Greenwich Council had to put all its planning notices in the Mercury), it doesn’t necessarily follow that the newspapers’ proprietors will put that cash into journalism. If a firm like Trinity Mirror cut back on its local papers while the economy was good, why should it be trusted with public funds when the economy’s rotten?

So, I suggest a few guidelines be introduced. A code of conduct, perhaps. Local councils should only be allowed to publish local newspapers if…

  • They are governed by an independent editorial board, to maintain impartiality. Perhaps local councillors of all stripes should nominate trustees, maybe other local bodies – and other local media interests – should get involved. No council leadership should ever be able to dictate what goes in and what stays out of these papers. To safeguard impartiality, perhaps these boards should represent more than one borough – so, for example, the same board could oversee local papers in both Labour Greenwich and Tory Bexley. I bet both councils would love that.
  • They should not publish more than once a fortnight unless there is a clear and demonstrable case of market failure. Nobody needs to hear from their local council every bloody week. But if local papers are asleep on the job, or unable to cover basic editorial jobs, or if their proprietors are taking money out of journalism and into their shareholders’ pockets, then a council may feel the need to take action – subject to the newspaper being under independent editorial control, as mentioned above.
  • Space must be allocated for a variety of political and editorial viewpoints. All the political groups represented on the council must have access to the pages of the local council newspaper. If a council leader has a column, why shouldn’t an opposition leader? If a councillor of another party has a bright idea, why shouldn’t he or she get it in to the council’s newspaper? And what about parties not on the council, or outside pressure groups?
  • Any council newspaper must offer training to young people or any other local wanting to pursue a media career. Of course, as we’re all finding out, there’s not much money in journalism – but thousands of young people want to do it. East London Lines is a project set up by journalism students at Goldsmiths College to follow news in most of the boroughs on the revamped rail route from Dalston to West Croydon. Is this a pointer to the future of local news? Why shouldn’t a council offer something similar? Perhaps there’s even a role for the likes of the BBC in this, developing offerings for TV, audio and the web while training new talent.

Those are four ideas. Maybe we’ll end up seeing local councils contributing to local newspapers (but without being able to influence them), or vice versa, and non-profit partnerships emerging. But I think the point needs making that just because Greenwich Time is a fraud doesn’t mean local council newspapers are automatically evil. I don’t think they’re going to go away, and if they’re not going to go away, they need to be harnessed into a force for good. But has anyone got the guts to take them on?

11 Responses

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  1. The failure of traditional local media to make local authorities accountable is one reason why the electorate can’t trust them.

    There was zero representation from the South London Press at the full Lambeth Council meeting this week. With the agenda covering health, leisure and the future of the Streatham Hub project, this is either poor management of time and resources by the SLP, or just plain lazy journalism.

    It is this type of apathy that allows a culture where council papers can take control and seize the market and agenda.

    Jason Cobb

    22 January, 2010 at 9:03 am

  2. Interesting post and the principles you suggest are sound. One challenge though is that the local council would still presumably count as the publisher of the paper, and therefore be liable (I think). They might argue that it’s therefore not a good use of taxpayers money to run this as a ‘charity’ operation.

    Then again, plenty of training opportunities are funded which produce output that’s used by the council. The difference here is the ‘variety of viewpoints’ which could result in an opponent choosing to bash the council in its own publication.

    This is a bit of a similar debate in student unions, in that ostensibly ‘independent’ publications still go through some degree of vetting because the union is identified as the publisher. In some unions (including sadly, my own), this was such a thin veneer of independence that the union scrapped any pretence and planned the whole publication, in the same way as some council are accused of doing here.

    It would be really helpful to see if you and your readership could think about robust responses to these sorts of questions to help promote strong, independent reporting of local councils and other local democracies.

    Josh

    22 January, 2010 at 9:09 am

  3. Interesting that the boss of Trinity Mirror has attacked ‘mini-Pravdas’ when Greenwich Time is printed by…Trinity Mirror.

    Or am I missing something?

    Steve

    22 January, 2010 at 10:23 am

  4. I sometimes see the Southwark News which is a one-Borough, paid-for weekly paper, independently owned by local residents and seems to give quite good coverage of the Council there. So it can be done, althugh I’ve no idea of the health of its balance sheet.

    I haven’t seen the East London Advertiser for a while but it used to have a good and irreverent coverage of Tower Hamlets affairs.

    Also in Eltham we have the excellent glossy SENine but this only comes out about ten times a year.

    One of the arguments for Greenwich Time going weekly was that it could save money by publishing statutory notices that would otherwise have to be paid for elsewhere, so I wouldn’t necessarily want to restrict weekly Council papers. Otherwise your suggestions make sense.

    Now if a trained journalist, flush with redundancy money, were to try and set up a Southwark News type operation in Greenwich, I might be wiling to invest a smallish amount in the project.

    Paul Webbewood

    22 January, 2010 at 10:32 am

  5. Heh, Paul, if you’d have said that to me 10 months ago… :-)

    Southwark News has been going since at least the early 90s – I used to know one of its reporters back then. I agree it does an excellent job. If I’m right, when it started, it only used to focus on the riverside areas of the borough, which seems to have shored up its reputation in that area. But I’m not sure anyone would invest in a new print newspaper now since the bottom fell out of the classifieds market. There’s still potential in existing titles if they’re prepared to innovate, though.

    Steve – I wish I’d spotted that now! It’s a throwback to when GT used to be distributed with the Mercury, I think.

    Josh – perhaps the legal publisher should be an arms-length trust, instead of the council. 10 years of experience at the BBC reporting on the BBC has taught me the difficulties of reporting on yourself, as it were, but it can be done.

    Darryl

    22 January, 2010 at 12:27 pm

  6. [...] for councils that wish to publish and distribute their own newspapers. Read the full post here, but, in brief, they [...]

  7. [...] local government might be considered as having only itself to blame, on account of the actions of a handful of local authorities who engaged in Pravda-like activities and there is of course a gulf of [...]

  8. [...] it a proper community newspaper. A partnership, instead of a means of control. I said some of this earlier this year, but I’m pleased to see The Media Briefing’s Greg Hadfield come up with similar [...]

  9. [...] it a proper community newspaper. A partnership, instead of a means of control. I said some of this earlier this year, but I’m pleased to see The Media Briefing’s Greg Hadfield come up with similar [...]

  10. [...] I hope the above illustrates that there is more to this issue than meets the eye. I hope also that a compromise can be found which strikes a balance between the media’s need to participate in its communities and councils’ duty to engage them. Some decent suggestions for a way forward are made on the blog 853 here. [...]

  11. [...] off Greenwich Time, keep it and reform it, even, but on this evidence, it’s not just Greenwich Council who are the only irresponsible [...]


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