As part of a group response to the government‘s inquiry into the future of local and regional media, Paul Bradshaw looks at the role of local authorities in regional journalism. Blog comments will be submitted to the inquiry as well as the blog posts.
So. The Committee for Culture, Media and Sport want responses on “The appropriateness and effectiveness of print and electronic publishing initiatives undertaken directly by public sector bodies at the local level”
The question of what public sector bodies should be allowed to publish, how that affects local journalism, the local economy, and local democracy, is one of the most difficult to resolve – not least because it involves so many interconnected elements.
The first problem is that any discussion runs the risk of conflating a number of separate but interlinked elements:
- local councils and local democracy are not the same thing;
- local newspapers and local journalism are also two different things.
Whatever model emerges must recognise that papers are not the only places where public discussion takes place, and print journalists are not the only people holding power to account.
We must not prop up newspapers at the expense of the opportunity to support other emerging forums of public engagement. Any question about the future of local media must acknowledge that ‘local media’ now includes any number of blogs, websites, forums, social networks and other, distributed, media.
As local citizens increasingly receive their ‘news’ from those forms of media, and local journalists increasingly rely on those to understand the concerns of local people, the actions of public sector bodies need to be responsive and supportive of that.
The economic role
Equally, while newspapers have an important role to play in local economies, we should not ignore the growing number of independently owned local print and online publications that have the potential to provide another source of economic growth.
In other words, just as local newspapers protested at the potential effect BBC Local might have on their markets, we should be aware of how support for local newspaper chains might undermine the efforts of less vocal, independent news operations.
The same economic argument is used to criticise the increasing number of local authorities publishing newspapers of their own.
The Local Government Association recently released research claiming council magazines were “not a threat to local media” – a useful survey, but the way it is reported by the LGA demonstrates the dangers of allowing local authorities to report on their own activities.
The statistic “Almost 60 per cent of council publications contain 10 per cent or less of advertising” is framed as part of the case that local magazines are not a threat. A casual reader would swallow that. A critical writer would point out that this means a very significant 40% of council publications carry reasonably large amounts of advertising – and even those carrying less than 10% of advertising are still having an economic impact on local newspapers. Not mentioned is whether there is an increasing trend towards carrying more advertising, which anecdotally looks to be the case.
The move into council newspapers is a move to cut out the middleman, with little obvious benefit for local citizens: for the reasons given above it is unlikely to be informing in any meaningful sense, and even less likely to hold its paymasters to account.
The financial implications are concerning: there is the drain on public funds of of publication and distribution. There is the negative economic impact of reallocating communications and marketing budgets that might otherwise go towards local media. If indeed “People deserve to know what their council tax is being spent on” then there should be restrictions on how council newspapers do that: just the facts, please. No spin, no adverts. They used to call them leaflets.
Rather than publishing pre-packaged, pre-selected information, one way local councils could make a major difference is through publishing information in formats that make it as easy as possible for users to build media of their own from, i.e. ‘mash up’. Examples of this would include:
- RSS feeds of newly published documents
- Documents ‘tagged’ with key names, places, organisations, etc.
- The ability for users to tag documents themselves
- The ability for users to comment on or annotate documents
- Full audio or video of council meetings, etc.
- Use of microformats
- Use of free platforms that support some of the above technologies, e.g. WordPress, Twitter, Delicious
For newspapers, this would provide an efficiency not just in newsgathering (a key way to help reporters find the information they need, quickly, to interrogate it and make connections), but also production and distribution (RSS feeds and tags, for example, can be easily filtered, aggregated and mashed up).
Equally, because this makes it easier for web users to interrogate information, it helps facilitate local amateur and startup media production, including those members of the local community that journalists are increasingly relying upon to do this work.
This is obviously not to say that anyone will be able to use the data in these ways, only that it makes it possible for a wider number of people than before to create media – and to distribute it. The nature of the web is such that it also becomes easier for a wider group of people to find out about that media, and to become engaged with local issues on a social level.
But this is not a technical solution to a social problem, but an organisational and cultural solution. It is about openness.
Automate, aggregate and distribute
And if councils are serious about informing their citizens I think they could go further still. They could publish relevant stories alongside their council webpages.
If a user is on the council website planning applications page, why not have a feed from local news websites and a selection of top local blogs that have relevant tags? That information is more than likely going to be more readable and informative than the council’s own version, so it is fulfilling the council’s own stated aim of ‘informing the public’ at no extra cost. It is also helping to distribute the news and drive traffic to local news websites (a virtual version of Craig McGill’s suggestion that binmen deliver the news), not to mention the possibility of newspapers selling advertising into those feeds.
This needn’t be limited to the council website: local authorities distribute information electronically in all kinds of ways – emails to staff, information to bus stops, text messages, local digital TV – providing a future possibility of further automated distribution.
You then have a built-in incentive for local news organisations to cover local government (needless to say this should be enshrined somehow so that councils cannot hold news organisations to ransom).
Anyway, I’ve said enough. It’s a complex area – what should local authorities do?