Council magazines: Information or propaganda?

COUNCILS in the region are spending more than £1m a year producing their own publications.

NOTHING more than propaganda sheets in the guise of impartial news reporting.

A threat to the existence of the only voices which can hold councils to account.

That is how the Newspaper Society and other critics see council magazines.

The only means of keeping the public fully informed about the services on offer where they live, is how they are viewed by the Local Government Association and other advocates.

Council publications may split opinion but do they really pose a threat to newspapers?

The NS and Tory parliamentary candidate for Berwick Anne-Marie Trevelyan both think so. They argue such products are coming out with increasing regularity and are attempting to compete with papers for advertising revenue.

Both are also of the opinion that newspapers need to be safeguarded as the only means of holding councils to account.

Lynne Anderson, the society’s communications director, said: “We have no complaint about the traditional council newsletter, published three or four times a year and providing helpful information to residents about council services.

“But we do object strongly to this new breed of council ‘newspaper’ or magazine, often monthly or more frequent, which uses taxpayers’ money to compete head to head with independent local papers for readers and advertising.

“They are nothing more than propaganda sheets in the guise of impartial news reporting, they threaten the existence of the only voices which can hold councils to account, and for that reason they should be banned.”

Mrs Trevelyan has watched with interest from her home in Northumberland, where the council is seeking to advertise and place notices in its own new publication.

She is of the opinion that where councils need to advertise, they should do it in newspapers. “It seems reasonable to assume that quite a lot of advertising space must have been taken by these bodies.

“By producing their own, that is a very real threat. It reduces a newspaper’s ability to balance the books. That of course puts the paper at risk.”

But she argues that council magazines are not likely to stop people buying newspapers – because of that role of holding local authorities to account.

She said: “The benefit of councils doing their own publications is they do not get any editorial criticism. What is in these is rubbish. What we are getting is poor quality journalism paid for by us.

“Newspapers have a much greater level of impact and a level of scrutiny.”

The LGA and Coun David Faulkner, deputy leader of Newcastle City Council, say authorities recognise the role newspapers have to play in scrutinising their activity, and are not seeking to undermine them. Chairman Coun Margaret Eaton said: “Councils want to see a successful and vibrant local media.

“It is essential for local democracy that the workings of local councils are scrutinised and elected representatives are held to account. From spending substantial amounts on advertising to sponsoring campaigns, local authorities are doing a great deal to help the media through difficult times.

“Councils do not operate their own publications to jeopardise the future of the local paper.”

The association says most magazines are only distributed a handful of times a year and are not significant competitors for advertising revenue.

Coun Faulkner said his authority has had to put some advertising in its publication to keep costs down for taxpayers. He said it is up to companies where they advertise but said his council is not trying to undermine newspapers and that there is still room for partnership working.

“The decision lies with the advertiser because advertisers are going to take a very hard-nosed views of what the most effective way is of reaching an audience.

“If a civic newspaper is part of that hopefully it will not take advertising away from other services, I guess it might. I am reasonably confident that what we are doing is not threatening newspapers and is not intended to do.

“I do not think we are trying to do the newspaper’s job. There is a really important partnership there between local authorities and newspapers.”

The LGA and Coun Faulkner argue councils are producing their own magazines to provide public information.

Both believe the growth of the internet has had a bigger impact on newspapers than local authority publications.

Page 3: 'Just a vehicle for the Lib Dems'

'Just a vehicle for the Lib Dems'

ONE North East council has come under intense criticism over its magazine.

Northumberland County Council put out the first edition of Northumberland News earlier this month, in place of its previous quarterly publication Your County, and it will be delivered to all homes within its boundaries on a monthly basis.

But the Liberal Democrat run council has faced criticism over its decision to spend money on producing a magazine at a time when it is having to cut services in order to make savings, including the proposed closure of adult day care centres in Amble, Bedlington, Blyth, Prudhoe, Haltwhistle, Hexham and Ponteland.

By looking to attract advertising revenue, the council has also been accused of reducing a vital source of income for the Press, and asked why it cannot use the media to communicate with residents.

The opposition Conservative group, who have vowed not to contribute to the magazine, have also labelled the magazine a propaganda vehicle for the Lib Dems.

The Tories have also claimed the decision to produce the publication was taken without approval of full council or any scrutiny committee.

They have also slammed the authority for awarding the contract for printing the publication to a company based outside Northumberland.

Other critics are the Tories' parliamentary candidate for Berwick Anne-Marie Trevelyan and Steven Bridgett, a Liberal Democrat county councillor who is not a member of the party’s council group.

Coun Bridgett has tabled a motion to a full meeting of the council next week demanding no further editions of the magazine are produced until a review has been carried out by an authority scrutiny committee.

He claims the newsletter has had an adverse impact on the Press in Northumberland and is calling for discussions between councillors and the county's newspaper editors.

The council says it had to make improvements to the way in which it communicates with residents and to make substantial savings on its communications budget.

It says advertising in-house rather than in newspapers will save money as will partners paying for space in the publication and its chosen printing method.

The council hopes the magazine will eventually become self-supporting, with further revenue from advertising.

Page 4: What we pay for

What we pay for

SOUTH TYNESIDE Council puts out Onview four times a year.
It spends £10,000 per edition on printing and £5,000 on distribution.
The total cost per edition is an average of £22,000.

NORTH TYNESIDE Council produces its magazine five times a year.
It would not say what its total outlay is on print although its expenditure on print and design is £23,600 per edition, while it spends £5,000 on distribution. The total cost per edition is £28,682.

DURHAM County Council puts out Durham County News 10 times a year.
It declined to say how much it spends on print per edition and on distribution. The total cost per edition is £33,982.72.

SUNDERLAND City Council puts its magazine out four times a year.
It would not say how much it spends on print per edition but it pays £8,000 for distribution. The total cost per edition is £20,995.

GATESHEAD Council puts out Council News six times a year.
It spends £7,540 on print per edition and £15,237 on distribution. The total cost per edition is £29,447.50.

NEWCASTLE City Council puts out Citylife six times a year.
It spends £15,000 per edition on printing and £6,180 on distribution. The total cost per edition is £26,330.

NORTHUMBERLAND County Council is to put out Northumberland News 12 times a year.
It would not provide distribution and print costs per edition.
The total cost of the first issue was £15,920 and the council believes the cost of the second will be £10,600 or less.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer