Opinion: Lib Dem councils should scrap their free newspapers

What is the point of free newspapers produced by local councils? These days, almost every council has one – but no one seems to know what they are for .

The argument you hear most frequently in favour of free newspapers is that they save councils money: without them, they would have to spend the money on advertising in local newspapers, and this works out more expensive than sending a out a free sheet via Royal Mail.

Another argument you hear is that sending free newspapers to every resident is the only way to deliver statutory notices to everyone. Leave it to the newspapers, the argument goes, and some people who don’t buy the paper might miss important news – such as (an example from my council newspaper I have in front of me) that the post of Independent Chair of the council’s Interim Standards Committee is up for grabs.

But let’s be honest – the real reason councils produce these newspapers is that they hate having an independent media that might, from time to time, draw the public’s attention to their shortcomings. What they really hate is having to spend (other people’s) money on newspaper advertising, only to then get criticised by those newspapers.

But as a strong advocate of a free press, allow me to make the argument against council newspapers in three succinct points.

1. They’re crap. No one wants to read 24 pages of council press releases, which is what all of them consist of. The photos are always dull: men in suits / council buildings / close-ups of staff on the phone. Any right thinking person who receives this through the letterbox will immediately shove it straight in the recycling, probably without even opening it. So this defeats the argument that councils are getting their messages out to “every resident”.

2. They’re yesterday’s technology. More and more people are using the internet to access their news. Instead of wasting £200,000 a year on free newspapers, why not send out notices by email? Email / or a simple, user-friendly website, achieves all of the aims of council newspaper without the deliver cost and waste of paper. However, I should say that I am also strongly opposed to councils having up their own online TV station, as some do – which in my view is ludicrously vain and self-serving, and repeats all of the problems of point 1., above.

3. Councils should support their local newspapers. I don’t see what is wrong with spending some money on advertising notices in local papers – even ones which are critical of the council (which they absolutely should be, as that’s their job). Local papers are vital to local communities, and at the moment many of them are really struggling with the economic downturn and loss of advertising to the internet. But instead of taking out adverts in the paper itself, why not advertise more cheaply on their website? This will still make savings for the council AND help to support local community newspapers.

The Lib Dems are meant to be the party of localism. Scrapping council newspapers is a practical way we can prove it.

* Joe Taylor is Lib Dem Organiser in Camborne and Redruth.

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21 Comments

  • matt severn 14th Mar '09 - 5:05pm

    absolutely spot on mate! Free council newspapers are always the worst sort of propaganda

  • Dan Houghton 14th Mar '09 - 5:08pm

    Completely agree – we should scrap them on principal. The worst offender has to be Greenwich Council – a weekly freesheet DELIVERED through your door. Scary stuff.

  • David Morton 14th Mar '09 - 6:21pm

    Indeed. The problem is its easy to say in opposition. However as soon as “you” are in then all of a sudden the little voices start saying thats of course it was a waste of money when the Muppet party was in power. However now our record is *so good* well on reflection don’t people need to hear the difference we are making ?

    Oh and Labour have the Unions to fund them and the Tories have big business and while its not right to use public money to show of , well, its not as wrong as the other lot it ?

    Did I mention that the local Daily Buggle is such an awful rag ? That story then ran about the old lady left with no hot water for 4 weeks. Well terrible of course, of course, but to be seen in the context of the extra star we got on our widgets performance and procurement rating? Do they ever cover the difference we have made to widgets ? No they bloody well don’t !

    My wifes mothers latvian cleaner once told me how much she likes the Crossword in our newspaper. There is more public support for it than you relaise.

    So in conclusion although , yes, we did consistantly say in opposition that we’d scrap it ( as well as half the press office) and we meant it. But now there is a new context.

    Its us in power now.

  • Don’t you need to get your message across on new recycling initiatives? School applications? etc etc. Now, people DO read these things- having worked in councils, the response to the public is there. Equally, while I agree on the necessity to support the local paper, the local paper is not free at the point of delivery. So much inequality stems from a disproportionate lack of information consumed by those from lower incomes. Council newspapers should be aimed at engaging hard to reach groups and help take-up of vital council services.

    This is not to say that all council magazines are GOOD. Some are far from it. But there is good cause for free council information sent to people’s homes. If you can opt to receive the magazine by email then even better.

  • Robert Stark 14th Mar '09 - 7:24pm

    I couldn’t agree more with the above comment that inequality often stems from a disproportionate lack of information by those from lower incomes. In some of the most deprived wards free newspapers are among the best hopes of reaching some of the most isolated people in our communities. Not all of those us have the priviledge of being able to access the internet for our news. Therefore when a free newspaper lands on their doorstep, despite the inherrent bias, it is often the only chance they may have to find out about what is going on in their area.

  • David Morton 14th Mar '09 - 7:35pm

    Joes article may be populist and simplistic but it doesn’t follow that its nonsence. While I accept I’m arguing from anecdote

    – I have never seen a council rag that isn’t stuffed full of pieces telling people what a good job the Council is doing. There is a recession on. Spend the money on something useful

    – contrived concern for the poor and vulnerable would be better served by target mail or out reach work. Not glossy mags aimed at the middle clasases who vote and have much high literacy levels

    – scrapping these papers and hypothecating the revenue stream towards a new policy objective is a clear sign that there is a new sheriff in town. particulalry if its some thing grass roots and visible like Tree planting or new litter bins.

  • I think ‘contrived’ is a little harsh. Huge amounts of services are universal but would only be found out by the already ‘engaged’ middle classes. Take discounted composting bins- who would you target? Why wouldn’t you target everyone? How would you know about it otherwise?

  • David Morton 14th Mar '09 - 9:08pm

    Contrived is a little harsh. I’ve known of a Council that spent £250k pa on its free news paper. There are lots of things you could do for the poor with that including just giving it to them.

  • David Morton 14th Mar '09 - 9:31pm

    You Gov Sunday Times

    Con 41 n/c Lab 31 n/c LD 17 + 2

  • Following on from Geoffrey Payne’s argument, How about a policy that all councils should:

    Spend a reasonable (not too high or too low) budget on newsletters about council activities to all residents:

    Outsource production to independent journalists who should be in control of content (though you’d have to allow the council publicity people to offer articles).

    Include comment pieces from all Council Groups.

    Include a residents’ letters section, and require the balance of praise and complaint to match the balance of all letters received.

  • Ali Goldsworthy 15th Mar '09 - 8:48am

    Do other council’s not advertise jobs in their free newspapers, thereby saving oodles of cash on recruitment ad’s and making it a pretty sensible investment.

  • Simon Courtenage 15th Mar '09 - 8:52am

    The point this article makes about the reach of local newspapers (i.e, that not everybody buys one) is its main weakness. Only by publishing its own newssheet can the council be sure that it can reach everyone – including those people what don’t buy local newspapers and those people (and they do exist in significant numbers) who don’t use email.

    That some councils abuse their position by publishing their own propaganda should not obscure the point that the best way to ensure that everyone knows what services are available is through universally-distributed print media.

  • Liberal Neil 16th Mar '09 - 12:18pm

    I think this comes down to local cirumstances.

    In my town the Town and District Councils (both Lib Dem run) each distribute a council magazine roughly quarterly. The Conservative run County Council does likewise.

    In each case the vast majority of the content is informative, covering changes in services, local events etc.

    I think this is reasonable.

    Is a weekly free newspaper necessary? Probably not. If I was in opposition in a council that had one I would probably campaign aainst it and argue that the bulk of the money could be better spent.

  • Steve Forsyth 28th Mar '09 - 12:52am

    So if you feel so strongly about this – why not put forward a motion for annual conference to get all Lib Dem councils leading the way and scrapping their newspapers?

    And I have to say to Dan I think you are being a tad unfair to Greenwich Time. I also live in the borough and its certainly not full of just council releases.

    It’s got a good swathe of community news and actually prints critical letters and opinion columns with what many lib dems councils would find to be alarming regularity.

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