As part of the OJB’s response to the government’s inquiry into the future of local and regional media, Nick Booth looks at the role of local authorities in regional journalism. Blog comments will be submitted as well.
I talk to a lot of people who work in council communications departments. They’re all conscious that the regional press is in trouble. If they’ve not recently lost a local paper they’ve certainly seen local journalists lose their jobs.
They consistently tell me one thing: “Because there are fewer reporters it’s easier to get coverage. Those who are left are really grateful for the stuff we give them. More and more they run it verbatim”.
On the one hand we have newspaper editors complaining about direct competition from council newspapers and websites, on the other they intensify their reliance on content from these same sources. This tension amply illustrates the waning value of newspapers as mediators.
Public servants should be talking to the Public.
Public bodies will continue to want to connect directly with an audience. They will find it ever easier to tell their stories in audio, video, text and images and they will attach all that content to rss feeds for the benefit of individuals and publishers of all sizes.
Not only that but public services have a growing responsibility to talk directly to the public. The conversational web and data mashing offer an unprecedented opportunity to collaborate with us to improve public services.
It would be negligent for any media regulation to stifle this. Indeed central government already actively encourages local councils to improve their direct relationship with the communities they serve.
Don’t be a King Cnut
Any minister making decisions now risks being derided in years to come for not understanding quite how powerful these new flows of information are, first to undermine the business model of newspaper and second to strengthen the democratic opportunities for our public services.
I can’t imagine any sensible intervention from Andy Burnham or Hazel Blears demanding that this trend should somehow be stopped!
New standards for Public Information
So, newspaper editors/owners should stop bleating about potential competition. Instead they should fight for new standards for public information.
Clearly all public communications departments take care to be accurate and negotiate the line between politics and public service. Often they check for accuracy more carefully than journalists might because they get more stick for being wrong.
But as more and more content from local government press office is used un-mediated by millions of people how do we guarantee the quality of this information?
So now is not the time for government to stifle council communications teams. Now is the time to ask if we have the right editorial guidelines for council press officers and communications departments. Let us instead ensure every single one is a local centre of excellence for plentiful, high quality and easily re-usable public information.
We already have at least one model for using public money to pay public servants to create content for the public good. It’s called the BBC. This is based on the rather clumsy notion of impartiality. The new model should be built on a much greater guarantee of quality: transparency.
[This post is also on Nick’s blog]