Local press 'only has itself to blame' for rise of council papers

Local newspaper bosses should stop bleating about the rising tide of quality council newspapers and start reflecting on some hard truths facing the industry.

The reality is councils such as Hammersmith & Fulham are being forced into producing weekly and fortnightly newspapers in order to fill a vacuum that has developed as a result of a chronic underinvestment from within the industry – especially in London.

Let’s look at the situation in my own borough. Just seven per cent of residents read traditional local newspapers. It was once said, in some parts of London, you could reach more people with a loud hailer than you could with the local paper. I’m not even sure we need a loud hailer here in Hammersmith & Fulham.

Disconnected

Unless local authorities like Hammersmith & Fulham step in, we will see large sections of our community disconnected and disenfranchised from their neighbourhood. In many London boroughs, you will be lucky if one in 10 residents read paid-for newspapers.

With some notable exceptions, in places such as Enfield, Barnet, Croydon and Camden, free newspapers are often afterthoughts, poorly produced by undervalued, disillusioned sub-editors in centralised ‘pods’where the only relationship to the area they are serving is through a worn-out A-Z.

The numerous national commentators jumping on their high horse to criticise council newspapers should spend a day subbing on an average local paper to find out what is really happening. If the newspaper industry is worried about the emergence of council newspapers, it only has itself to blame.

The reason why H&F News is succeeding where others are failing is because, as a council, we are passionate about the borough we serve. We have built up alliances with our communities. We understand the DNA of our borough far better than papers produced miles away.

The second reason why we have developed such a strong relationship with our readers is because we want to be positive about our residents. We want to promote local business, the arts, entertainment and sport.

This isn’t about propaganda – you won’t find many pictures of councillors in our paper – it is about promoting the interests of our residents and what they are doing in their neighbourhood.

In H&F News, the council is happy to accept criticism and happy to spark a debate. We carry negative letters about the council as well as positive ones. I am not pretending every council newspaper is as good as ours or as successful in ensuring taxpayers do not have to foot large production bills. The truth is that many councils still have to play catch-up.

We have a tiny team in Hammersmith & Fulham working on our newspaper, consisting of one editor (Geoff Cowart) and one freelance sub. But they are both quality, experienced production journalists producing one of the best free papers in London. If we could we would enter it into the Newspaper Society awards.

We cannot make a profit, nor are we interested in doing so. All we want to do is carry enough advertising to ensure that local taxpayers are not footing the production bill.

It is up to local authorities to ensure that residents are not disconnected from what is happening in their neighbourhoods. We have a duty to inform people how we are spending their hard-earned money. We have an underlining obligation to promote community groups, businesses, charities, local sport and the arts. Many free newspapers in London don’t even get to first base. Some paid-for newspapers have failed to take into account the demographic shift, and are catering for a dwindling audience.

It is not to say that our model of producing a fortnightly newspaper would suit every area. There are still many well-read newspapers in London that are doing a good job of informing people about what is happening. The very best papers want to be at the heart of their community and are produced by people who understand the area. Sadly, however, the trend is very much on the decline. It is up to local authorities like ours to pick up the mantle.

Simon Jones joined Hammersmith & Fulham council as head of communications in July 2007. He was previously a journalist, with 20 years of experience both in the UK and overseas

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