Greenwich borough is all set to get a new weekly newspaper after Greenwich Council agreed to sign an advertising deal with the publisher of the weekly Southwark News.
Councils must, by law, publish certain public notices – such as for planning and highways matters – in at least one local newspaper.
Until 2016, Greenwich had used this as a pretext for publishing its own weekly paper, Greenwich Time. It closed last summer after an out-of-court settlement following a government crackdown on “council Pravdas”.
Since then, Greenwich has been publishing some of its notices in the Penge-based Mercury newspaper, a free offshoot of the South London Press series; while placing its vanity stuff… sorry, vital public information in a dull fortnightly called Greenwich Info.
But now Greenwich, after a lengthy tender process, has opted to take its ad money to a new entrant to the area, Southwark Newspaper Ltd. The contract could be worth up to £1.2m over three years. (For its part, the council claims the equivalent cost of Greenwich Time would only be £738,000, but this doesn’t take into account the cost of in-house advertising, while local organisations were strongly encouraged to place ads in GT rather than other publications.)
The firm is best known for Southwark News, the only independent paid-for newspaper in the capital, which contains Southwark Council’s public notices. It’s a very good paper and has an excellent reputation. There’s also a free spin-off, Southwark Weekender, which focuses on events in the borough.
It also publishes Lambeth Weekender, which features Lambeth Council’s notices as well as a rotating opinion column between the three parties represented at the town hall – Labour, the Conservatives and the Greens.
Greenwich’s choice to give the contract to Southwark Newspaper Ltd was ratified by a scrutiny panel last week after the borough’s Conservatives “called in” the decision. (I asked the Tories why, but they never got back to me. You’ll have to ask them yourself.)
Is the Greenwich Weekender coming?
Whether this means we’re in line for Greenwich Weekender isn’t clear. Hopefully, the council will keep its mitts off. Whether it has “Royal” in the title might be a clue. Greenwich wants its ads “published… in the context of engaging local editorial content which helps to positively inform local residents about the measures that their neighbours and local service providers are undertaking to make the borough a great place to live, work, learn and visit”. No moaning about dirty streets or pollution or Plumstead High Street falling to bits, y’hear? LOOK AT THE TALL SHIPS!
In practice, sticking council ads in a pan-south London “what’s on”-style publication with a couple of pages of council editorial will tick that box nicely. This is pretty much how Lambeth Weekender started.
Since the council’s latest Big Idea is creating a “cultural quarter” in Berkeley Homes’s Royal Arsenal development in Woolwich, this could actually work well for all sides. We get an interesting local weekly, the council gets its ads and some puff pieces, a south London business gets money and can employ more people.
Don’t expect to get a copy through your letterbox, though – no bidder was willing to fulfil the council’s demand that 95% of households got a paper, which was the alleged distribution of Greenwich Time. Now fewer than one in three households will get a paper, although 8,500 will be made available at 80 pick-up points across the borough. Hopefully this will include dump bins in public places rather than the usual council network.
Fingers crossed that the Southwark team can pull it off. While money from public notices represents a subsidy that can be open to abuse (and has been for many, many years), it is good to see the cash going to a reputable independent publisher, based reasonably near the borough, rather than the media groups that have steadily starved the existing local titles. So good luck to them.
There is one fly in the ointment – since Greenwich made its initial decision, Lambeth has decided to switch its public notice contract away from Lambeth Weekender and back to the South London Press, swallowing concerns about ads for sexual services in the SLP. Whether that loss of income upsets the plan remains to be seen.
The distant Mercury
This is bad news for the Mercury, once the area’s main local paper, but long reduced to being a free offshoot of the South London Press. Despite the efforts of the paper’s one remaining reporter/editor, resources have been slashed to the bone and beyond in recent years.
The paper was recently sold to its management and was given a revamp, with the council ad contract seen as a lifeline.
Indeed, a second bidder had been rejected by the council after due diligence found it presented an “unacceptable risk to the council”.
It is not known who the second bidder was. It may not even have been the Mercury/SLP.
An amateurish effort at a local paper – Greenwich Gazette – briefly appeared and then disappeared during the council tender process (but not before lifting copy from this website about Blackheath fireworks). The Gazette did not carry any details of any publisher, but it appears to have been linked to a design and PR business based in west Greenwich for which only limited financial information is available.
Hopefully not having to worry about council ad money will make the Mercury a bit more fearless. Even if few people ever see a copy because the distribution is terrible.
The stumbling Shopper – and a BBC bailout
Tough times continue at the News Shopper too, which is now produced from Sutton and is effectively the same newspaper as the South London Guardian/Surrey Comet series, making it some kind of quasi-regional freesheet. Recent editions available in Greenwich have featured news from Biggin Hill, Crayford and even Enfield.
Cutbacks have also led to cock-ups like this – the Surrey Comet (which covers Kingston) effectively getting a News Shopper letters page.
Publisher Newsquest has been bleeding its titles dry across the UK – recently slashing jobs at a production hub in south Wales after collecting £340,000 in Welsh government subsidies.
There’s more bailout money for the asset-strippers on offer from the BBC, and we’ll soon see the results of that in south-east London. The Beeb is setting up a Local Democracy Reporters Scheme, which will see reporters based at local news organisations start to cover local council meetings, like the old days. Except the BBC will be funding them, and the results will be available to the news barons who cut council coverage in the first place, like Newsquest.
One reporter will cover Greenwich, Bexley and Bromley; another has the enormous task of covering Lewisham, Southwark and Lambeth. I can’t see it working very well. If you’ve read this far and you’re interested, here’s why the Local Democracy Reporter Scheme, as it stands, is a terrible idea.