Council web news plan draws cautious press response

Plans by Surrey County Council to expand its online news service have been met with a cautious response by members of the local press in the county.

Surrey Council, which already publishes a free magazine, Surrey Matters, at an annual cost of £340,000, intends to replace its press release site with a service carrying news stories about its activities.

The site, which is set to launch later in the year, is aimed at making council news more accessible to the public, however, it has raised fears that it could damage the prospects of newspapers locally.

Neville Wilson, news editor at the Reigate-based Surrey Mirror, said: “At this time of recession we are trying to put as much into our website as we can.

“Anything that comes along that takes readers away from us is going to be a very bad thing.”

Wilson expressed concerns that council-run publications were “slowly eroding the industry and with taxpayers money” and luring away staff with irresistible offers of high wages.

He said: “Councils can pay top dollar for what effectively is writing out very light press releases.

“I doubt very much that they’ll [Surrey’s own publications] be as sceptical and critical of the council as a newspaper would ever be. And I would hope that the general public would be able to see through all of that. That’s my hope anyway.”

Brian Doel, managing director of Tindle Newspapers owner of the Haslemere Herald and Farnham Herald, gave a guarded welcome to the plan, saying council sites could be a “good thing” if the local authority used them simply to publish news about its activities.

He said: “The problem comes when they [council-run news sites] start selling third-party advertising or using it for their own advertising than it starts taking away the lifeblood of local papers.”

In November, the Office of Fair Trading conceded that council’s running ads in their own publications were a problem for local papers but said that it was unsure of the extent of their impact.

A spokesman for Surrey County Council said the authority had no ‘immediate plans’to carry advertising on the site, but the council may consider making changes if it would provide value for money.

Improvements to the council’s news pages, the spokesman added, were to ensure the authority’s work was open for public scrutiny.

He said: “We are not looking to replace local papers or local journalist.”

Adding: “We want to be as open and transparent as possible…My feeling is that if you try and cover things up you’ll get found out.”

The proposed introduction of news stories to the council’s website has left others in the industry unmoved.

Colin Parker, news editor of Woking and Aldershot News & Mail, said: “I really can’t see members of the public going to their council website to find news, and scrutinising the stories themselves.

‘I don’t think people will read the website for the same reasons that they read a newspaper.”

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