'Local newspaper week' - Council newspapers in London

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 26 May 2009
"H&F News is Hammersmith & Fulham's leading newspaper, with more readers, more news and more influence than any other paper. If you are looking for a way to reach homes across Fulham, Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush which is cost effective and reliable, then look no further. 87,000 copies of H&F News are delivered monthly to homes across the borough - more than any other local media."

That must sound pretty attractive to an advertiser trying to target the local area. And even if you aren't a business and you want to advertise in print individually, this sounds pretty good too: "Free classified advertising - Buy, sell or rent anything under the sun with h&f news."

It isn't a commercial publication though, this is the sales pitch from the local council's newspaper - 'H&F News'.

Council magazines front page montage

There were a couple of interesting comments left on my 'Local newspaper week' blog post about Local Council magazines and newspapers. In particular, Edward Welsh, who is Programme Director, Media and Campaigns at the Local Government Association posted:

"We surveyed 199 councils across England and found that four out of five of them only produce a magazine six or fewer times a year so they don't compete.

Two thirds of residents know nothing or next to nothing about local government. This means they have no idea what council services are available, who to complain to if something goes wrong, nor where their council tax is going.

This produces one of the biggest moans about local government -- 'where does my council tax go when my council only empties the bins and issues parking tickets?' The reality is that a typical council is actually involved in 800 different activities. Being oblivious to 798 of these services is bad for people who need them, such as an elderly woman who requires help in her home, a mum looking for something to do with her children in the holidays or a resident with a noisy neighbour.

It's also bad for democracy. Your council tax goes on these services. You should know how it's spent and that the services you use or need are provided by a political institution which you can influence through the ballot box."

James Goffin, who writes for the East Anglian Daily Times, replied:

"The LGA questionnaire proves nothing of the sort. It's fairly self-evident that where a council doesn't publish a newspaper, its non-existence won't harm existing titles. Averaging out figures over the country only serves to mask what's happening.

To begin with you only had replies from half of councils; these were self-selecting and you don't indicate if the sample was in anyway representative. But let's assume for now it was.

Of the London councils that take paid advertising, the average revenue was £169,000 a year.

60% of London councils said local commercial titles had closed or struggled in the last year and 75% said it was a result of decline in advertising revenue.

An average decline of £169k a year perhaps?

Councils have produced informative magazines for years without complaints from the media - the problem now is that an increasing number are doing more than that and using taxpayers cash - an average of £43k a year, on the LGA's figures - to compete with commercial titles."

I take Edward's point that 'your mileage may vary' when it comes to what councils are doing - so I thought I'd do a bit of primary research myself. I've looked at each of the London Boroughs, and found out whether they publish a magazine at the moment, how frequently it appears, and whether it takes commercial advertising. [1]

Borough Publication Annual frequency Commercial advertising
Barnet Barnet First 6 No
Barking and Dagenham Citizen Magazine 12 Yes
Barnet Barnet First 6 No
Bexley Bexley Magazine 3 Yes
Brent The Brent Magazine 12 Yes
Bromley n/a n/a n/a
Camden Your Camden 12 No
City of London City View 12 No
City of Westminster The Westminster Reporter 6 No
Croydon Your Croydon 12 Yes
Ealing Around Ealing 12 Yes
Enfield Our Enfield 6 No
Greenwich Greenwich Time 52 48 [2] Yes
Hackney Hackney Today 26 Yes
Hammersmith and Fulham H & F News 26 Yes
Haringey Haringey People 10 Yes
Harrow Harrow People 6 Yes
Havering Living 26 Yes
Hillingdon Hillingdon People 6 Yes
Hounslow Hounslow Matters 12 No
Islington IslingtonNow 12 No
Kensington and Chelsea Royal Borough 6 No
Kingston upon Thames n/a n/a n/a
Lambeth Lambeth Life 26 Yes
Lewisham Lewisham Life 12 Yes
Merton My Merton 6 Yes
Newham The Newham Mag 26 Yes
Redbridge Redbridge Life 10 Yes
Richmond upon Thames Arcadia 4 Yes
Southwark Southwark Life 6 No
Sutton Sutton Scene 6 Yes
Tower Hamlets East End Life 52 Yes
Waltham Forest wfm 26 Yes
Wandsworth Wandsworth Brightside 10 Yes

Based on those figures it appears that only two London Boroughs - Bromley and Kingston upon Thames - do not have a publication. A quarter of the publications are at least fortnightly, and 71% of publications produced by London Boroughs take commercial advertising.

In amongst the information on council services you'll find word searches for kids in Enfield, Sudoku in Hackney and a free monthly page of publicity for Arsenal in Islington.

Screengrabs from Enfield, Hackney and Islington council magazines

Edward Welsh is able to assert that council newspapers are not competing with the local press because: "Neither the Newspaper Society nor the Society of Editors have been able to produce any research to the contrary".

Given the situation that has developed in London, I'd suggest that might be a good place for the regional press to start their research next time around.



[1] I know, it is a shocking idea isn't it - a blogger doing some original research rather than just ripping off something from the mainstream media, or regurgitating agency copy or a press release. []

12 Comments

Living in Tower Hamlets, I was surprised to see above that there is a local newspaper, and that it is published every week.

Surprised as I have never seen it - although viewing the website suggests that its distribution is limited to a very narrow demographic.

Presumbaly they are hoping that taxpayers won't see it?

What is horrifying though is to learn that they have 16 staff working on the newspaper.

I tried to only include papers which looked like they had a widespread door-to-door distribution. Quite a few of the councils also had additional publications aimed at specific markets, e.g. young people or those looking for housing. I didn't include those as they didn't seem to be distributed borough wide. I only used the information on their websites, and took their word for it.

In response to James Goffin, of the East Anglian Daily Times, may I add:

1. National newspapers predict the voting intentions of the British public based on opinion polls of between 1,100 to 1,500 interviewees; the LGA survey covered half of all councils

2. Yes councils opted to participate in our LGA survey. But this "self-selected" group were more likely to be publishing a magazine, i.e. those that don't produce one, were less likely to take part.

3. As the research shows our responses came from all sorts of different councils.

4. The LGA research shows that a third of councils reported that local papers have not closed or struggled in their local area; two thirds of councils report that local papers have been struggling. There appears to be no link between a paper struggling and its local council producing a magazine, i.e. papers are closing where a magazine is not published or produced rarely and without advertising.

What is happening to local newspapers is very sad and matters to all of us -- and me personally. The LGA supports a strong, vibrant, local media because it's good for local democracy. I trained on the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. Tom Welsh, my father, edited numerous local papers. But please, please, don't jump to blaming local government for the problems facing local papers when there is no compelling evidence to support this view.

Edward Welsh, Programme Director, Media & Campaigns, Local Government Association

@ianvisits

I've lived in various properties across Tower Hamlets over the last few years and have always received the paper, both in flats and houses. I assumed it went to everyone in the borough automatically.

Personally I like it and am glad the council produce it - I wouldn't buy a local paper otherwise so I don't feel the 'traditional' papers are missing out on any of my cash, and it keeps me fairly well informed about whats going on. I've never found it particularly biased towards the council but I've never been particularly bothered about looking out for that. It also covers small community groups who probably wouldn't get featured as much in a commercial operation.

"The LGA supports a strong, vibrant, local media..."

It is very easy to assert this but the reality is very different. Regulations made under The Licensing Act 2003 require applicants for new alcohol licences or variations to place an advert in a local newspaper. A numer of local authorities tell applicants not to bother, thereby depriving local newspapers of advertising revenue. Some, Lewisham is a good example, tell applicants that 'Loot' is a local newspaper!

Similar considerations apply, and similar loss of advertising revenue occurs in relation to betting shop and other gambling applications.

Martin

You say with some glee that you carried out some "original research rather than just ripping off something from the mainstream media, or regurgitating agency copy or a press release."

Unfortunately your research is wrong.

Greenwich Time - my local newspaper - doesn't come out every week.

What else did you get wrong I wonder?

As for your argument I have to say you seem to miss the point.

Councils aren't killing off local newspapers - local newspaper groups are doing that themselves.

Gone are the days when local newspaper reporters were local - in Greenwich none of the papers are based in the borough anymore. They have lost their local link.

And why? Because they are there just to make a profit - and if they can rely upon a steady stream of press releases to fill their pages (many of which are from councils which fill their pages week in week out) they will print any old tosh just so that they can sell advertising and make a profit. That is after all why they exist - purely to make a profit.

Worse still you paint a picture that newspapers are in financial disarray - so why is it that one newspaper group ecently announced profits of £300m only to sack yet more journalists?

Why is it that my borough Greenwich has 4 local newspapers, one local radio station, 4 local magazines and 2 local newsletters all surviving on advertising income.

And as Greenwich Time has been going for 25 years - and most of the other publications started after Greenwich Time - surely the business cases of the newer publications showed that the council paper wouldnt harm them.

I'm afraid this is just a story about vested interests.

Local newspapers - full of doom and gloom week in week out - are just using council newspapers as a whipping boy to try and get government commitments to spending more money on them in order to boost their profits.

These are the very same local newspapers who berate councils for wasting money week after week - yet when many are trying to reduce the cost of keeping local residents informed by taking local advertising the papers berate them some more.

Hypocritical nonsense.

"Blogger is rubbish at primary research - hold the front page!" - thanks for pointing that out Simon, I've corrected the table above. I see now from the Greenwich Council site that 'Greenwich Time' has a break in publication dates between 17 August 2009 and 30 August 2009 and 21 December 2009 and 4 Jan 2010'. So I gather it is effectively weekly, except for 4 or 5 issues?

As for my argument - are local newspapers and local journalism serving their communities as well as they could? Almost certainly not. Does having an unregulated council tax funded competitor active in the local advertising marketplace help? Also almost certainly it doesn't. I agree, if you read further around the blog you'll see that I think there are a whole range of structural and economic issues that are pressing for news organisations, but I think council newspapers must be viewed as part of that landscape.

But Martin your argument yet again fails to address the issue of value for money for local taxpayers.

What do you think is the most important thing here - for councils to serve local residents well by acting in their financial interests.

Or do you think councils should be increasing their spend by placing advertising in local media.

That is the crux of the matter here.

There are very few "independent" newspapers that cover the whole of a London borough.

Therefore councils have to place statutory notices in a range of free sheets (at very large costs) to ensure equality of access OR they can place them in their own cross borough publication, ensure everyone has equal access to the info and save taxpayers money.

And may I remind you again - "independent" newspapers are constantly running stories berating councils for wasting money. Yet when they save money by placing ads in their own papers they are berated again...

So much for the "independent" newspapers...

Hello Martin - thanks for your informative research on this. I'm in Greenwich and I'm only the only one with a bee in my bonnet about our council's rag.

Just to correct something in Simon's post about Greenwich Time - to suggest Greenwich borough has a vibrant local media scene is more than a little misleading.

Only two local newspapers distribute across / cover the entire borough, and they are freesheets - The Mercury and the News Shopper. Neither are based in the borough, or anywhere near it (Streatham and Petts Wood, near Orpington, respectively.) There's been no paid-for title since the early 1980s. Both are pretty poor and left the ground free for Greenwich Time to come in.

Unfortunately, this is the problem - local papers stopped covering this area properly years ago. They are in no position to complain if the council fills the gap with a rotten propaganda rag.

A few titles from outside cover little bits (The Wharf in Greenwich, Kentish Times in Eltham, South London Press for football) but that's all. On top of that, there's a couple of ultra-local newsletters and glossy property porn rags, but nothing that'll seriously worry any local decision makers. The "local radio station" - Time FM, more aimed at Bexley - folded earlier this year.

In the south of Greenwich we also have the excellent SEnine which combines the best features of a glossy and a local newsleter.

Its latest editorial bemoans Greenwich Time's decision to offer free advertising to local businesses.

We need to have a wider conversation within the Borough about Greenwich Time - its relationship to the local media, what it should cover, how often it should appear and whether there is a risk of political bias.

As a local councillor (Lib Dem) I recently suggested that the Council's Overview and Scrutiny Committee should look at these issues. I was supported by Conservatives but voted down by the Labour majority. I wonder why.

853 - cheers for your comment.

I don't remember claiming that the local media in Greenwich were vibrant. Nor did I claim they all covered the borough.

However the range of media I described is accurate - you didn't dispute it either - and I have to say there are far more local media outlets in Greenwich than any other borough I know. Anyone care to point out other boroughs that have more?

853 however puts forward misinformation himself. The Mercury and the Shopper do not cover the whole borough of Greenwich. Don't just take my word for it - look at their official circulation figures which show they cover about half of the borough each. And herein lies the problem for local newspapers.

As 853 and I agree - local papers have lost their local identity. They have lost their local soul. They don't even cover geographic areas that make any sense in terms of providing localised news coverage. Profit is king.

So I say again. What do you think is the most important thing here - for councils to serve local residents well by acting in their financial interests and keeping them informed of their actions.

Or do you think councils should be increasing their spend by placing advertising in a range of local media?

Councils have the choice to place statutory notices in a range of free sheets (at very large costs) to ensure equality of access OR they can place them in their own cross borough publication, ensure everyone has equal access to the info and save taxpayers money.

For some reason this is a point none of the journalists who bang their drums about council newspapers seem to be willing to grasp.

I think councils should be providing good value for money, but I also think there is a net loss to local democracy if even the flawed local media we do have fail as businesses. That won't be solely down to council newspapers, but as I say, they are a loose unregulated cannon acting in the local media economy, without restrictions.

I wouldn't argue that the Government should open its own state-owned Tv station to try and increase reach to Government information adverts, or open its own state-owned chain of cinemas showing state produced films in order to try and get more teenagers to see anti-drinking campaigns.

The problem for me is that there seems nothing anywhere stopping councils from increasing their media output from monthly to fortnightly, to weekly, to twice weekly, to daily. Nor do they seem to do any public assesment of what impact they will have on the local economy by taking advertising. Indeed, they positively boast of under-cutting the going market rate, using taxpayers money to do so.

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