Monday, 28 July 2008

Council papers

Simon Jones is a former journalist who now works with Hammersmith & Fulham council in England - a council that is making waves by publishing its own newspaper.

Jones, a journalist for 20 years, responds to mainstream media's complaints about council newspapers gaining ground in England in a Press Gazette online posting.

"Local newspaper bosses should stop bleating about the rising tide of quality council newspapers and start reflecting on some hard truths facing the industry," says Jones, head of communications for the council since 2007.

"The reality is councils such as Hammersmith & Fulham are being forced into producing weekly and fortnightly newspapers in order to fill a vacuum that has developed as a result of a chronic underinvestment from within the industry – especially in London."

Jones goes on to make numerous points about the emergence of free council newspapers, which he says have minimal advertising to cover printing costs.

"If the newspaper industry is worried about the emergence of council newspapers, it only has itself to blame."

Jones says council newspapers are not propaganda publications. They are geared to promote local business, the arts, entertainment and sport.

"This isn't about propaganda – you won’t find many pictures of councillors in our paper – it is about promoting the interests of our residents and what they are doing in their neighbourhood."

Council newspapers haven't made their way across the Atlantic that we know of, but the idea could catch fire in communities dissatisfied with mainstream media coverage.

As Jones says: "It is up to local authorities to ensure that residents are not disconnected from what is happening in their neighbourhoods."

There is no chance of that happening in the GTA, with four major daily newspapers, but council newspapers might appeal to people in communities that have few, if any, local newspapers to read.

Although a Toronto council newspaper - Howard Moscoe for editor in chief? - would be an amusing counterpoint to the mainstream media's constant scrutiny.

Council newspapers in the U.K. remind us of The Crier, Port Hope's protest newspaper first published in 1999 by a group of prominent citizens dissatisfied with Conrad Black's ownership of the local newspaper, the Evening Guide.

Author Farley Mowat was one of the backers of the quality and ad-free newspaper and the locals were disappointed when the protest publication came to an end 15 months later after Black put all of his papers up for sale.

Mowat et al revived The Crier for one edition in 2003 to speak to a major development in Port Hope, not to protest the Evening Guide's new owner, Osprey Media.

We await their editorial opinion of Quebecor/Sun Media, the newest owner of the Evening Guide.

Council newspapers in the U.K. and a spontaneous community newspaper financed by concerned individuals in Ontario . . . it's the need to read and to communicate.

It's not always business.

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