Future for local and regional media - Culture, Media and Sport Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 161-179)


27 OCTOBER 2009

  Q161  Chairman: Good morning. This is the third session of the committee's inquiry into the future for local and regional media, and in the first half this morning we are concentrating on local authority publications. Can I welcome Sharon Taylor of the Local Government Association (LGA) and Stevenage Borough Council, Gerald Vernon-Jackson of Portsmouth City Council and Mark Loveday from Hammersmith and Fulham Borough Council. We do not usually have long opening statements, but I understand, Councillor Loveday, you wanted to say a couple of words.

Councillor Loveday: I was not prepared to say anything orally, but I suspect the reason our local authority is here is that we have a slightly different model from most local authorities in terms of newspapers, as you have seen, which is practically break even in terms of funding through external and internal advertising. We probably have the largest proportion of external advertising of any local authority newspaper in the country and it is all driven very much by the value for money agenda. That is, I think, encapsulating just the introductory remarks.

  Q162  Chairman: Very good. Undoubtedly, we will wish to come on to ask you about that shortly. The LGA have said that they are encouraging local authorities to improve their communications with residents, and one of the core actions suggested is the publication of a council newspaper. Can you say why it is the view that councils should publish newspapers and why the functions of those cannot be fulfilled by commercial publications?

  Ms Taylor: I would like to start by saying that both points of media are necessary. We need both our local newspapers to be challenging of us and to pick up stories that we may not pick up in our local authority newspapers, but as to the reason that communication from the councils does something unique from what local newspapers can do, I looked at a number of different areas, first of all, supporting the community and voluntary sector. If you look at my newsletters, which have been passed around, you see that quite a lot of space is taken in giving information about our community and voluntary sector activity, and that is something that they would not be able to afford to produce in commercial newspapers. We provide information on council services, and you will find examples both of performance information and information about what we have spent people's council tax on, and I think that is an absolutely vital part of what we do in communicating with the public (to tell them what we have spent their money on and how we are delivering services) and to give them information on council services is absolutely vital, as far as I am concerned, and also our duty to promote democracy. You will see a whole page on electoral registration in one of my council's newsletters, and this duty to engage people and involve them in the democratic process is something I do not think local newspapers would take on so strongly. It is not particularly newsworthy in the sense of a weekly newspaper going out, but it is a very important part of the democratic process. I have got a number of other points. I could go on, but I will not. Lastly, in terms of community cohesion, you will also see in one of my newsletters we started a series of communications for people that had come to the area from another country and we published an article both in their language and in English, so that they were able to communicate with other residents in the town, get in touch with them, talk about their experience of living in our community. That has been very successful, both with the English-speaking community and communities from outside of the area, in generating interest and promoting community cohesion and that is something our local newspaper would not have done. On the other side of this, our relationship with our local newspaper is extremely good. We have run, recently, a very effective joint campaign with our local newspaper called "Buy local, live local, go local", and that came from the editor of our local newspaper, who wanted to do a joint campaign, which we have done. We also spend vast amounts in advertising in our local newspapers. Gerald can give you an actual quantified example of that. I think there is a very good rationale for both councils communicating with the public in their own way and local newspapers doing their job in their own way.

  Q163  Chairman: You mentioned the importance of publishing information about how council tax is spent, about electoral registration. Why can you not just take a two-page version in the local newspaper, which will support the local newspaper, rather than publish your own which undermines it?

  Ms Taylor: I think we do spend large sums of money on advertising. Can I ask Gerald to give you his example?

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: I am Gerald Vernon-Jackson; I am leader of Portsmouth City Council. Just to give you an idea, we do five or six Flagships a year, which costs £45,000 of public money; we spend £970,000 a year advertising in our local paper (so £970,000 of public support for a private newspaper in Portsmouth), but it still only gets to 30,000 houses out of the 85,000 people who live in Portsmouth. There are some things that they do very well, and we work extremely closely with them, but sometimes we need different forms where we are guaranteed of getting it through everybody's letter-box, which not all papers are able to do.

  Q164  Chairman: You are saying, just to be clear, £970,000 on one newspaper?

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: That is what we spend by advertising in our one local newspaper each year. So that is state support for a private newspaper.

  Ms Taylor: I think we would have common experiences of that. The amounts of money will differ, but we all spend a lot of money advertising as well as writing a lot of copy for newspapers, because a lot of the copy that is in our local newspaper comes from news releases which we have written, and that provides them with copy. I think there is a large amount of support, but I agree with Gerald. Our local newspaper in Stevenage, in my district, only goes through about 10,000 doors now, at most, and we do on occasion need to communicate with all the residents of the borough. We have about an 85% readership of our local magazine, and we only produce it six times a year, so it is not in competition with our local weekly newspaper.

  Councillor Loveday: Perhaps I can answer this using some figures. In our part of London there is a media void when it comes to the local newspapers. Obviously, we have a plethora of national media in our part of London. I have attached to my written submissions a table (at the end) which details the audited circulation figures for our two paid-for local newspapers, which shows that over the last ten years their circulation has declined from about 4,000 to approximately 1,500, and when we come to communicate with residents (and local authorities have a need to communicate with residents, not only for statutory notices, but also for many of the demands that are put on us by central government, we need to communicate with 180,000 odd residents in our borough), it is simply not an option for us to rely entirely on the paid-for local newspapers to provide that communication. I have given an example of some of the costs that are involved. A typical statutory public notice in the Hammersmith and Fulham Chronicle, which is the higher circulation of the two local newspapers, costs approximately £650. That works out, from our point of view, with a subsidy of 52 pence per copy just using one advert. So we put a considerable amount of subsidy in for a very low circulation. It is far, far cheaper for us to channel our communications into an in-house produced publication which has a penetration in the order of 80% and you can see the costs per delivery point working out at a fraction of that cost, and I have given the figures in my written submissions.

  Q165  Rosemary McKenna: You said that you were only covered by national newspapers, and then you said there was a Hammersmith and Fulham Chronicle.

  Councillor Loveday: No. In terms of national newspapers, we do have national newspapers. The highest circulation regional or local publication in our borough is the Metro newspaper. We have these matters tested by—

  Q166  Rosemary McKenna: Is there a paper called the Hammersmith and Fulham Chronicle?

  Councillor Loveday: There is a Hammersmith Chronicle and a Fulham Chronicle, which are part of the Chronicle series, and there is, equally, a Hammersmith Gazette and a Fulham Gazette. They are all part of Trinity Mirror and, in fact, latterly, I think, all of the editions in the borough have carried the same copy with a different strapline, but, in any event, they are paid-for local newspapers, yes. They are the figures that you have got in the written submissions for circulation.

  Q167  Chairman: In your submissions and your evidence you talk about the numbers of copies distributed. These are, presumably, free copies that you pay somebody to go and put through letter-boxes.

  Ms Taylor: Yes.

  Q168  Chairman: What surveys have you done as to how many are actually read or are not put straight in the bin?

  Ms Taylor: We test this every year in our annual survey. We have about an 85% readership. It is a very, very high level of coverage in the borough. In fact, it is quite noticeable when the magazine has gone out that people will actually approach you and talk to you about things that are in it, and we survey that every year. That is why I think it is very important that we keep this distinction between what we are doing and what the newspaper is doing. They are very different functions and, as far as I am concerned, they are complementary to each other, they are not acting against each other. In fact, our local newspaper editor—we did a series of "I love Stevenage because", and he actually had one in our magazine, so he is very understanding of the fact that these are different functions and, as I said, we work with them as well when they are running campaigns in their newspaper.

  Q169  Chairman: The editor of your local newspaper is entirely happy with the local council publication.

  Ms Taylor: As far as I know, he is entirely happy with it, because we are not competing with him at all and we provide him with a lot of advertising and a lot of copy for his newspaper and we work very well together.

  Q170  Chairman: But you do not take advertising in your newspaper.

  Ms Taylor: We do not take advertising in ours, no.

  Q171  Chairman: Mark, your newspaper takes a lot of advertising. What contact do you have with the editor of the Hammersmith and Fulham Chronicle?

  Councillor Loveday: Given that his ultimate boss, I think, has given evidence before this committee already, I would be surprised if he would take a forthright position supporting us, but that is one thing. In terms of our circulation, because we are fortnightly, we are ABC audited, so our figures are audited independently, but of the local authorities—there are various studies done in respect of local authority readership—we have a score of something in the order of 80% readership on various scores. You can look at it over six months, or a month, or two weeks, or whatever, but we are one of the highest in terms of penetration certainly.

  Ms Taylor: Can I just clarify the point on advertising? I said we do not take advertising, there is no commercial advertising in our publications, but we do promote our voluntary and community sector, and I think that is an important distinction. They would not be able to advertise in the local press. So although we are not taking commercial advertising, we do use the publication to inform people about what our Voluntary Community Sector (VCS) sector is doing.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: We take advertising from the Health Service, from the Fire Service, from the Police Service, because they want to guarantee that they are getting things through everybody's letter-boxes across the city, which they cannot do using the local paper.

  Q172  Mr Sanders: I think there are some clear distinctions here, are there not? There is the magazine type thing that does not take advertising, there is the one in the middle, which is Gerald's, that takes some advertising from some other public bodies, and then we have got the communist council that believes in the state ownership of newspapers and is putting the private sector out of business. Certainly all the representations we have had from newspapers are about their fears about councils taking away from them things that used to go in the local newspapers, in particular official notices, planning notices and that sort of thing. That is not something that you do, is it, in Stevenage and Portsmouth? You do not use your magazine for official notices, planning applications, that sort of advertising.

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: No, but Adrian, I am terribly sorry, we spend £40,000 a year doing our public notices for planning and, as far as I can see, that is a complete and utter waste of public money. I do not know anybody who scans page 49 of the Portsmouth Evening News to look for the planning applications. When we drop letters to everybody in the local area to tell them there is a planning application, we put a sign up outside the property to tell people there is a planning application. All that money is money out of council tax payers' pockets to subsidise a private newspaper. It is, in my view, a waste of money. Unfortunately, the Government tells us we have to waste that money.

  Q173  Mr Sanders: It is a statutory duty, is it not?

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: It is a statutory duty, yes, but actually, if we put it up on the website and did things properly in terms of telling local people, then you could actually give a much better service for a lot less money.

  Q174  Mr Sanders: Are you still advertising in whatever the Portsmouth newspaper is?

  Councillor Vernon-Jackson: Yes, because we have to.

  Q175  Mr Sanders: In Stevenage do you still do that?

  Ms Taylor: Yes, we still publish our planning notices, but, as far as the LGA is concerned, on the district councils network we have been asking for a long time not to have to publish those statutory notices in newspapers. We have very stretched budgets in district councils now and it is a huge strain on our budget, newspaper advertising of statutory notices. We would much prefer to publish them online. I would not publish them in my council magazine because it does not come out frequently enough.

  Q176  Mr Sanders: At the moment you still pay—

  Ms Taylor: At the moment we are still paying newspapers, yes.

  Q177  Mr Sanders: What happens in Hammersmith?

  Councillor Loveday: First of all, I welcome your comment about communism. It is a rare day when Hammersmith and Fulham are outflanked on the right! We actually consider ourselves pragmatic about this. There is a point. Is it really proper for us to be subsidising the shareholders of Trinity Mirror to the extent that we have been, or are we doing better to go out there and grab as much help to alleviate the burden on local taxpayers that we can? We have taken the second route. I have worked for the newspaper industry for very many years myself, I am married to a journalist, my father-in-law was a distinguished newspaper editor and I have a lot of time for the industry. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, there is no evidence at all that local authorities taking newspaper advertising is hitting the paid-for commercial sector.

  Q178  Mr Sanders: That is an answer, but it was not actually the answer to the question. The question was: where do you place your statutory duty planning advertising? Do you do it with the existing newspapers or do you do it through your own publications?

  Councillor Loveday: We place the bulk of it with our in-house newspaper. The reason for that is that there are technical reasons on the lead-in time that you can have with planning notices and licensing notices which mean that it is almost impossible to place them with an in-house newspaper unless it is fortnightly or weekly. If it is a monthly publication, it is simply impossible to comply with the statutory requirements.

  Q179  Mr Sanders: This is monthly?

  Councillor Loveday: This is fortnightly.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2010
Prepared 6 April 2010