Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers
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.
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
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
Ms Taylor: I think we do spend
large sums of money on advertising. Can I ask Gerald to give you
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 editorwe 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 authoritiesthere
are various studies done in respect of local authority readershipwe
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
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
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
Ms Taylor: At the moment we are
still paying newspapers, yes.
Q177 Mr Sanders: What happens in
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.