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?