The UK local news sector is collaborating to create an online planning notice portal “fit for the 21st century” amid a Government threat to the £10m-a-year revenue stream.
The Google News Initiative is providing £1m in funding for the project, which will build a common portal featuring planning notices placed in local and regional print newspapers by local authorities across the country.
The portal will be added as a vertical to about 800 local news websites around the UK, accessible through their homepages as well as running as a standalone site.
The NMA, which represents the industry, said the project showed publishers’ determination to make the traditional print revenue source fit for the 21st century and fulfil their essential role of keeping people properly informed.
News Media Association chairman and Newsquest chief executive Henry Faure Walker (pictured) said: “The new initiatives announced today will significantly boost the visibility of public notices by harnessing local news media’s massive online reach and highly trusted relationship with local communities.
“This will deliver value for the public and further strengthen democracy at a local level – a key function of local news media.”
The Government is currently considering how to modernise the planning process and has proposed removing the requirement for local authorities to print statutory notices in local newspapers in a shift to more online spaces.
The Planning for the Future white paper, which will next see the Government respond to a public consultation carried out on the proposals, said: “Residents should not have to rely on planning notices attached to lamp posts, printed in newspapers or posted in libraries. The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for modern digital planning services that can be accessed from home…”
The obligation on councils to place statutory notices in local newspapers is worth an estimated £10m to the local news industry each year and a joint editorial by Newsquest and Archant titles in September told readers the loss of this would come at the “worst possible” time as sales and advertising revenues have been hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
A crude calculation, assuming the average local journalist costs employers £25,000, suggests 400 jobs could be put at risk without the income from these notices.
It is hoped the portal will help safeguard the planning notice revenue stream but it will only include notices advertised in print and publishers are continuing to make the case to the Government that the statutory requirement must stay.
Faure Walker said it is “essential that Government commits to keeping the partnership between local news media and local councils strong by retaining the statutory requirement for local authorities to publish planning notices in local newspapers in print.
“Whilst we continue to innovate digitally, we must also remember that there are still many people for whom online is not their preference, and they must not be disenfranchised.”
The portal will be fully searchable and allow people to sign up for notifications about certain types of notices or new entries in a particular area, which the NMA said would boost engagement with the process.
A steering group of local publishers, made up of a mixture of larger groups and independents, has been overseeing the delivery of the project and a beta version is expected to launch in the summer.
As well as the Google News Initiative providing £1m for the project, a Google user experience expert will sit on the steering group to provide technical advice and help ensure it reaches as many people as possible.
Ronan Harris, vice president and managing director of Google UK and Ireland, said: “Over the last few months we’ve all been reminded again about the importance of local news in connecting us to our communities.
“Alongside the news industry, the Government and local readers, we want to play our part in enabling a sustainable future for local journalism.
“Building on 20 years of work we have done in supporting the news industry, this project is an innovative new approach to ensure sustainable funding for local publishers and bring people the vital local information they need.”
Picture: News Media Association