Letter to Govt. pt3 extended: Should council news operations be run like the BBC?

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]

5 thoughts on “Letter to Govt. pt3 extended: Should council news operations be run like the BBC?

  1. Jon Bounds

    Well said, transparency is the only model that can free the information channels from political influence and spin – freeing data is important, and will help prevent the clouding by bad statistitics (or reporting only the “right” ones).

    At the moment public trust in both the public bodies and the papers is threatened by a sense of “not beliving anything you’re told” – forcing papers to interpet information (where they would be better served by showing context) or councils to backtrack along the road to openness helps no-one.

  2. James Thornett

    Is transparency enough?
    I’m with you on the importance of freeing data and gaining public trust, but I think equal importance needs to be placed on how the information is communicated.

    To “high quality and easily re-usable” I’d also like to examine how we can reach large numbers of the UK population with simple and intuitive means of accessing this information.

    It’s very easy to get seduced with the increasing number of opportunities made available via social media tools, data feeds and aggregators, and on-demand distribution platforms but how many people living in the UK would even understand this sentence? Certainly a large proportion of my friends and family wouldn’t understand what I was talking about.

    So, yes, free the data, transparency is vital, but please don’t underestimate the challenge of making it easily available to everyone who pays their council tax.

  3. Julian Dobson

    I posted some thoughts on the future of local journalism last month at: http://livingwithrats.blogspot.com/2009/03/dont-read-all-about-it.html

    My view would be that councils should be as free to publish as any other organisations. But they’re not an alternative to good local journalism, and there are issues about the amount of taxpayers’ money that goes into PR.

    The issue used to be that council publications were unfair competition to local papers, and if local papers died, there’d be a municipal monopoly. But newspaper recruitment advertising is dying anyway, so that won’t be the issue much longer – newspapers have to find a different financial model.

    I suspect good, inquiring local papers will be a bit of a niche product in future. But I can see a burgeoning of local online journalism that will help to hold councils to account – though it’s likely to be partisan stuff done by people with a cause or an axe to grind.

    Local newspapers are in crisis and need to reinvent themselves very soon. Some council papers may hasten local newspapers to their grave, but banning them won’t deal with the chronic sickness.

  4. Nick Booth

    Thanks for the comment Julian. Your point about very local blogs and the like being “likely to be partisan stuff done by people with a cause or an axe to grind”, is mostly true. The truth is that even those who work hard at impartiality are still partisan to a degree. That’s why I think we need to shift our media emphasis towards transparency.

    James you are right that we need many ways to get good public information to the public. I’m not against print or other forms of traditional media. I think government of varying form should use them.

    It is thought the digital tools that make both publishing and data mashing considerably easier, that’s really why I mention them.

    The point I’m making here is that rather than trying to stop council’s publishing more we need to let them get on with it regardless of what the papers say, but make sure we have robust standards for that growth in publishing. Again, for me this brings us back to transparency being at the core of those standards.

  5. Pingback: C&binet notes part 2: 10 things government can do to help local journalism | Online Journalism Blog

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