No sooner had Eric Pickles, the Conservative party big cheese, declared war on local council Pravdas, than guess what dropped on to the door mat of Inside Croydon Towers?
Yes, the July issue of YourCroydon, the 28-page tabloid from our Conservative party-controlled local council arrived as if on cue.
Pickles’s diatribe against local councils publicising their activities and services seems aimed at left-wing controlled authorities, hence the reference to Pravda, which as we all know is the Russian for “truth”, and was used, either euphemistically or ironically, as the title of the state-run newspaper in the old Soviet Union from Stalin’s time.
But as Pickles ought to realise, right-wingers know a thing or two about propaganda, too, as Joseph Goebbels ably demonstrated in Germany until his national news sheets met a rather abrupt end in 1945.
“Too many councils are spending a lot of time and a lot of money on publicising their activity, telling local people how wonderful their members are and using public cash to give themselves a big pat on the back,” our Eric wrote in The Observer, although sadly he did not declare whether he’d seen YourCroydon, which runs with the snappy tagline “Your primary source of community information”.
But as anyone who saw Big E on the telly in his pre-election spat with John Prescott, once he gets into his stride, there’s no stopping him.
“Sometimes that’s all well and good. When councils deliver for local people, it is right and proper that they let those people know about the improvements in their neighbourhood and the opportunities on offer.” Nicely put, Big E.
But, you sense, there’s a but coming…
“But the worry is that what you see isn’t always what you get, particularly when what you see comes delivered through your letterbox in the form of a glossy, council-owned freesheet.
“In some cases, there’s a real danger that taxpayer-funded council newspapers that purport to offer ‘independent’ local news are actually eroding local democracy.” Pickles then echoes the argument adopted by many local newspaper owners that council-funded freesheets are undermining commercially run local newspapers.
Too many council-funded papers “are branching out into non-council content such as TV listings and sports reviews, swallowing much-needed advertising revenue from local papers and providing a vehicle for councils to dress up their literature as ‘independent’ publications. Some are as glossy as Vogue and probably cost nearly as much,” Pickles says.
Well, there’s little evidence of that in YourCroydon, which is tabloid and printed on environmentally friendly, recyclable paper. “You’d be hard-pressed to find mention of a councillor in YourCroydon, never mind a photograph of one,” a Croydon Council spokesman said.
Thin, in terms of pages and news content, and only distributed monthly, it would be hard to make a case that our Council’s freesheet is the reason for decline at the Croydon Advertiser.
The Advertiser sells less than 17,000 copies each week according to their own figures. That compares to their weekly freesheet, which has “70 per cent penetration” (ad sales speak for the fact that 3 out of 10 properties in the borough do not get it), yet is still received by nearly 109,000 households each week.
No, the Advertiser‘s real competition is not from Croydon Council, but from the South London Press (with its Tuesday edition as well as Friday issue, and generally sharper journalism, it is often at least one step ahead of the game), and the freebie Evening Standard.
Where local papers have been hit is in the reduction in ad spend by local councils – instead of buying space in their local newspaper, councils have been printing their own.
YourCroydon has a 145,000 print run each month, at a cost of £1.20 per household, per year. That comes to a total of less than £200,000 per year, or the cost of about a one-page ad each week in each of the Advertiser and Croydon Guardian. That sounds like good value for money, and yes, it does give the Council control of its message.
“It makes absolute sense for the council tax-payer in Croydon,” the spokesman told InsideCroydon. “You could not guarantee that all the detail would get out to the people of Croydon if we relied just on the local newspapers. Getting information out about our key services remains vital.”
You can imagine that the Advertiser management is fairly unhappy, though, in the midst of the worst advertising down-turn in a generation, that Croydon Council is also under-cutting their ad rates.
While a half-page ad in the Advertiser will cost you around £1,972, plus VAT for their 16,553 weekly sales, a half-page in YourCroydon, distributed to all of Croydon’s 140,000-plus homes and businesses, costs “from £464”.
[As an aside, we note that the Council has a rather odd ad pricing system for their paper, where it works out less expensive to book four quarter pages, each at £233, than it would to buy a full page at £1,040. Not that they don’t really know what they are doing…]
But even at these bargain-basement prices, the Council has only around 2 pages of ads in its latest freesheet, suggesting that few Croydon businesses or events think being associated with the Council’s newspaper is a good thing, and maybe doubtful, too, about the number of people who actually bother reading it.
As the new local government minister, Pickles says he will “stop unfair competition, ensure a tougher value for money test, and prevent council PR passing itself off as independent journalism”.
Ahhh, so this has nothing to do whatsoever with inappropriate use of public money. It’s all about competition with local papers (who blame anyone and anything for their own shortcomings) and local council propaganda.
A survey by the Taxpayers’ Alliance two years ago found that council spending on their own newspapers had doubled, to £430 million, in a decade. It is a fair guess that much of that cash was previously spent on ads in local newspapers. Certainly, Croydon Council confirms that they have shifted their publicity budget away from ads and towards their own freesheet.
But the large groups who own local newspapers – the likes of the Daily Mail & General Trust and the Trinity Mirror group – can make powerful and influential lobbyists. For the record, the Advertiser is run by Northcliffe Media (part of the Daily Mail & General Trust).
So might we be about to see Pickles applying his rules on council newspapers, regardless of any real impact they may have had on their local papers, thus ensuring that they spend public funds with his mates who own the Daily Mail?