This post was written by Alan Pickstock.
It must have been about 15 or 16 years ago; we ran a workshop on council newspapers at the LGiU’s annual conference. It went pretty well. Council newspapers – and most of them were newspapers then – had been around for a while, but more authorities had cottoned on that these publications could serve a useful purpose. The best were getting more professional and, yes, less overtly plugging the policies of the ruling group.
At the end of the workshop, the head of press from a London Borough who had spoken at the event said he thought the LGiU should carry out a survey of council papers, so authorities could find out what others were doing. And that was the start of the series of benchmarking surveys, the latest of which has just been published.
The idea from the start was mainly to help councils compare costs. You could, for example, look to see what a similar council with a similar publication was paying for print, design or distribution. Or you could get an idea of what you’d have to spend if, say, you were a district council aiming to move from a quarterly to a monthly publication.
All good and useful information. But for me, what’s been most interesting has been to see how publications in general have developed over the years. For example, there’s been a growing move to magazine formats: in the 2005/06 survey just 45 per cent were magazines; this year it’s 63 per cent.
In terms of frequency, four issues a year is still the most popular, but an interesting change is an increase in the number of councils producing three issues a year, from six to 19, with a reduction from 18 to seven in the number publishing twice a year. In 2005/06 just one respondent was publishing 12 times a year, in 2010 it was five.
For each survey, I’ve asked councils to send a couple of copies of their newspaper or magazine. For the first couple of surveys, the standard, frankly, was pretty poor. There were a few very good publications, but while many authorities had recognised the benefit of a regular means of communicating with residents, most hadn’t grasped the need to make sure that what was going through every letter box in the borough should be professionally produced.
But gradually things started to change. More councils hired journalists to edit papers; fewer allocated the job to whoever had the capacity to take on the work. More publications became colour magazines rather than black and white newspapers. More of them introduced the readers’ voices and more looked to clearly express the council – and sometimes the local strategic partnership’s aims.
And, of course, more started to take adverts and publish more copies a year. Our 2005/06 survey showed 24 of the 90 respondents bringing in just over £350,000 from external ads; the latest survey’s 110 councils included 52 who took external ads, raising just over £1 million.
Here were the seeds of their downfall. National politicians took issue with the ads, claiming they were affecting local newspapers (a claim that’s never stood up to analysis as Roy Greenslade acknowledged) and that they were once again ‘town hall Pravdas’. From now on, four a year would be quite enough, thank you.
So, this latest benchmarking survey is something of a state of the nation report as the world changes. Next year’s will show far less diversity, and probably far fewer publications. But I wouldn’t bet against a comeback in few years.