Memorandum from the Local Government Association

 

The LGA Group works with and on behalf of the local government sector. The Local Government Association (LGA) represents over 400 local authorities in England and Wales; together these councils speak for over 50 million people and spend 113bn a year delivering services on their behalf. For further details please see www.lga.gov.uk.

 

Introduction

 

1. The Committee has sought views on a wide variety of issues, which this submission addresses in the round from the point of view of local authorities. Councils have a close relationship with their local newspapers, and want to see a strong local press undertaking more proactive scrutiny of local democracy.

 

The role of council magazines

 

2. Many local authorities operate their own newspapers as a means of communicating with the public. The LGA has actively encouraged councils to do this since the launch of our Reputation Campaign in 2005. This campaign aims to encourage local authorities to improve their communications with residents, and sets out five basic core actions for councils that are proven to improve resident satisfaction when delivered well - one of which is to produce a newspaper. More than 250 councils have signed up to the campaign.

 

3. The Reputation Campaign was launched following independent research conducted by Ipsos/Mori that showed two-thirds of residents know nothing or next to nothing about local government. This lack of knowledge is not confined to the intricate workings of a town hall - it extends to the full range of services local councils provide. One of the biggest complaints made about local government is that people feel a disconnect between what they see as ever increasing council tax bills and what they actually receive in return. The reality is that a typical council is involved in 800 different activities, delivering a range of services that are vital to keeping local people safe and secure.

 

4. A typical council magazine is distributed three or four times a year, and 98% of councils say they produce their magazine to provide information about public services; often including police and health services. With the best will in the world, the local media cannot provide the same amount of information about how to access services as a dedicated council publication can. Whether it is by providing a number to call to report nuisance neighbours, offering information on how people out of work can access training opportunities or featuring the work council staff do to keep the streets safe and clean, only council newspapers can keep residents fully informed about the services on offer where they live.

 

5. Councils have recently come under fire for competing with the local press by producing magazines. The LGA strongly opposes this view, and supports councils' right to communicate with their residents in a direct and value for money way.

 

6. The LGA's Analysis and Research team (LGAAR) undertook a survey of local authorities to gather the most up to date and informed picture of how, why and when councils produce magazines. The results of this survey are enclosed as a technical annex to this submission. The LGAAR survey supports three statements about the relationship between council magazines and the local and regional press:

 


Council magazines do not pose a threat to local newspapers

 

7. Local newspaper proprietors have argued that council magazines take advertising that previously went to local papers. Our survey does not bear this out. A quarter of council magazines carry no advertising at all, and a third comprised less than 10% advertising.

 

8. Council magazines are not produced frequently. The Newspaper Society definition of a newspaper requires it to come out once a week or more frequently. Over half of all respondent councils produce a magazine only three or four times a year, and 79% up to only 6 times a year.

 

Local newspapers are suffering because of falls in advertising revenue and the rise of digital platforms

 

9. The local newspaper business model relies heavily on advertising - which accounts for 68% of turnover. Advertising spend has been in a general decline in recent years of between 10% - 20%, but since the recession hit, key advertising sectors such as housing, cars and jobs have plummeted. Newspapers are also exposed in the trend towards advertising online. In 2007 all media sectors except Cinema and Radio lost market share to the internet.

 

10. The corporations that own the local press are though seeing growth in revenue from digital and online operations, for example Trinity Mirror has seen digital revenues increase by 35.6% (34.3m) and 27% (43.6m) in 2007 and 2008 respectively. In February 2008 Trinity Mirror acquired 13m worth of new digital assets. Over the same year (2008) the group closed 28 newspapers.

 

Councils want to work closely with their local newspapers

 

11. The LGA and local councils support a successful and vibrant local media. It is essential for local democracy that journalists scrutinise the workings of local councils and help hold elected representatives to account. 20% of councils in areas with struggling local papers have taken action directly to help their local paper, usually through taking out longer term advertising contracts or running campaigns in the local press. Many councils also use distribution networks owned by the local press for their in house magazines.

 

12. Statements of support for the local press that were written in to the LGAAR survey by councils are included at Annex A.

 

Annex A

 

 

Statements of support for the local and regional press from the LGAAR survey

 

"Newspapers form a vital part of the local community and we recognise them as a key partner in the work we do, often as a critical friend. They are invaluable for getting messages out to the public and especially for consultation and community engagement."

District, North-West

 

"We distribute our magazine with a Newsquest title thus providing one of our two local weeklies with a further revenue stream."

District, West-Midlands

 

"We are a key sponsor of Newsquest's Green Guardian environmental initiative"

London Borough

"We are currently in conversation with the only local newspaper on advertorial spreads and website presence to continue to support the local media while maximising the effectiveness and expenditure for the council."

Unitary, East of England

 

"We work closely with our local media. We don't do news, they do. They don't do Council information, other than when it's news, we do. We don't take advertising, they do. It's a good working relationship that we both understand."

District, East of England

 

"We rely on our local paper for distribution."

District, West-Midlands

 

"'One of our local papers moved out of town to its neighbouring office. We met with the local group editor to protest about the move and see what we could do to help - even offering them use of offices or the potential to use a new community building we are constructing"

Borough, South-East

 

May 2009