Tuesday 20 April 2010

Exclusive: 'Confessions of a council propagandist '

Syracuse University College of Human Services and Health Professions
I commissioned this guest-blog from the editor of a council newspaper who, for obvious reasons, wants to remain anonymous. In it he admits his job is "not journalism" and involves producing "anti-news" but he also points an accusing finger at the local press for low salaries, poor circulation and negative reporting.

It is hard to wake up one morning and discover you are an enemy of local democracy. But that happened to me last summer.

I have been working away on editing a local authority publication, one of those ‘council rags’ that comes through the letterbox and most likely ends up in your bin. Or, if you have taken on board its many encouraging environmental stories, the recycling box.

I come from a journalistic background but I never fooled myself into thinking that what I am now doing is journalism. It uses some of the same tools, but it is emphatically not journalism.

It is not true that we don’t publish negative stories. If the council fails in one of the many national ratings exercises or a planned and much publicised development is scraped, we will cover it but our story will be couched in as positive a tone as possible.

And when you get lovely tales about councillors ending up in court for trying to punch each other’s lights out, we can’t touch it.

My job is part of the communications team, pure and simple. I try to tell residents about what is happening in their area; how it affects them and what they can do about it. And I try to keep pictures of councillors in the publication to a minimum. Honestly, I really do.

But if the best definition of news is that it is something that someone doesn’t want you to know, then this is anti-news; this is stuff we do want you to know.

And it is stuff that councils have to get out to their residents. They have a duty to communicate and keep residents informed.

They can do this through the local newspaper, but the truth is the majority of residents don’t ever see a local newspaper. Many councils now have a single, local newspaper covering their area and quite often that newspaper has an aggressively anti-council stance which means every story is a negative story. It is a bit like if we had the current government and the only news source you could get information about it – forget TV, radio and the internet – the only news source - was The Daily Mail.

Of course councils deserve rough treatment – I know mine does – but there is a legitimate public service to be done in terms of keeping people informed about their services. That is what I thought I did. But it now turns out that I am part of a conspiracy to destroy local democracy by destroying local newspapers.
The Council rags are turning from quarterly and monthly to fortnightly or even weekly. They are presenting themselves more as newspapers and stealing advertising from their ‘rivals’, the local press. The idea is residents stop buying local newspapers because they have council rags to read.

Certainly if you look at what some of the boroughs, like Hammersmith and Fulham, are doing with their faux newspaper, complete with motoring, gardening and sports pages and property supplements, they have crossed the line between a council rag and a thing that you would pick up casually, and think ‘this is a real newspaper’. I think that is dangerous.

There was an excellent piece about council publications in the Mirror. Perhaps the message could be even punchier if the Mirror’s parent company [Trinity Mirror] gave up its contracts to print some of these enemies of free speech.

The local newspaper in my area has seen its readership shrink. That could be my fault. Or is could be down to an ageing readership; or that young people are not reading newspapers; that the news staff on the paper have been cut drastically; or that the parent company has closed local offices and now several ‘local’ papers are written and produced miles from the areas they serve. This, in turn, has seen its news coverage of this area contract.

And if those all closures and lay offs and contractions are down to me and my rag then why are they also happening in areas with quarterly council rags?

There is another disheartening story about local newspapers and councils. Sitting across from me are the table of press officers, a very nice bunch, all late 20s, early 30s, you would like them. They all went to university and then straight onto local newspapers because they wanted to be journalists. They worked hard, making it to senior reporter or news editor or editor of their local edition.

Then they wanted to get married or buy flats and they looked around at an industry shedding jobs at every level. And they all applied for council press officer jobs that have seen their salaries jump by, on average, around 50 per cent.

That is not the fault of local government. It is not exactly anyone’s fault but it does highlight an ailing industry that pays people peanuts and hopes they will still do the job because they love it so much.

Anyway the outcome of the election is going to be a dark one for people like me. Whoever gets in is going to slash and burn the budgets of local authorities. And if they are closing Sure Start centres for children and depriving old people of basic home care, then what chance do the council rags have?
Mayor Boris down in London showed the way. One of his first acts in power was closing down Ken Livingstone’s The Londoner newspaper. It did him a lot of good.

Expect to see the drastic curtailing of council rags near you. Just don’t think that it is going to save local newspapers.

No comments: