Local newspapers under pressure from falling circulation and declining ad income face a new threat from the local councils they rely on for much of their advertising.
Two London boroughs – Greenwich and Hammersmith & Fulham – have decided to boost the frequency of their own publications by going weekly and fortnightly respectively, and turning former information sheets into slick competitors containing much of the TV, sport and local news expected from a traditional weekly.
Lambeth, another inner London borough, took its monthly Lambeth Life magazine fortnightly earlier this year. Council magazines in Hackney, Waltham Forest and Havering have also gone fortnightly.
Chris Payne, head of commercial operations for eastend life, the Tower Hamlets council organ which started as a lone pioneer of the recent trend 12 years ago, says there is now an unstoppable momentum.
‘A head of steam has built up recently among town halls to move away from monthly magazines,’he said, adding that he expected a number of boroughs to start producing weeklies over the next 12 to 18 months.
Critics say the move leads to unfair competition.
A spokesman for Trinity Mirror, which publishes independent newspapers in Hammersmith and Fulham, said: ‘It is wrong that local authorities are using council tax-payers’ money to produce newspapers.
‘This market is already very well served by local publishers who are, of course, entirely independent of, and free to challenge, the town hall.”
Lynne Anderson, of the Newspaper Society, said: ‘It is another example of publicly funded competition and it is quite wrong for local government to be competing with local media for ad revenue.
‘Some of these councils are getting into the territory of being media owners in their own right.”
Hammersmith, which claims to have the ‘most value-for-money communications team in the country”, freely admits that the rationale for its move from a monthly publication is driven by commercial competition.
‘Part of the reason why we went fortnightly was to mop up local advertising, which saves tax payers huge amounts of cash,’said Rob Mansfield of Hammersmith council.
Mansfield also said the local newspapers were so poorly read nowadays that using council cash to place advertisements was uneconomic.
‘When you have legislation that says you must put planning notices in the public domain and you have a local newspaper that reaches comparatively few people, what is the best use of your resources?
‘We reach 90,000 homes and businesses and, of our main rivals, one reaches less than 1,000 readers and the other has 2,000-3,000.”
Malcolm Starbrook, editor of the East London Advertiser, said town halls hide the true cost faced by tax payers and provide news favourable to the party in power.
‘From a competitive point of view we have no problem as long as we are dealing with something that is fair competition,’said Starbrook.
‘Unfortunately, eastend life – while very attractive and well designed – is supported entirely by council tax, and even though it does take advertisements, the bulk of the ads come from the town hall budget so it is not operating in a competitive arena.
‘For example, we have never been given the opportunity to tender for council public notices.”
Starbrook says council claims about the cost to the local taxpayer are also disingenuous.
‘We have a good and accurate understanding of costs because at one stage we were being asked to go into collaboration with them. I would estimate that their figure of a £250,000 loss is closer to £1m.”
Starbrook argues that issues which would have had an even-handed and objective approach by their local paper are now getting the party line.
Chris Payne conceded that eastend life was ‘not actively putting council policies under scrutiny’but claimed that, in his borough at least, press freedom was served by three Archant newspapers, one Trinity Mirror publication and eight Bangladeshi papers, as well as local radio and television.
Local newspapers in the areas covered by Lambeth, Greenwich and Hammersmith were not available to comment at the time of going to press.