One thing that was notable about Tuesday’s Greenwich Council decision to go to court to fight for the future of its weekly paper, Greenwich Time, was the response on Twitter that evening – it was unanimously hostile.
The justification for Greenwich Time that appeals the most to its Labour defenders is that it allows the council to reach out to underserved groups.
Yet it’s clear that Greenwich Time annoys more engaged people – the type a public authority would want to keep on side. There’s now an online petition demanding the council scraps the paper and changes its mind.
So how to deal with this? There’s one way the Government could end the row over Greenwich Time tomorrow. But there’s no chance of this happening – yet.
Forget the gripes about bias and propaganda for the moment. The public justification for Greenwich Time is about cold, hard cash. Public authorities have, by law, to print certain public notices in local printed newspapers.
These include planning applications, road closures, consultation notices, and so on. This is effectively an indirect subsidy to local press companies and doesn’t take into account a paper’s content or circulation.
Pay 30p for a copy, delve into the small ads, and you’ll find the Mercury features Transport for London notices next to ads for “adult services“. The News Shopper binned those ads many years ago (at huge cost to its parent firm Newsquest) but Greenwich Council has long grumbled about its more salacious stories.
So the main advantage of Greenwich Time for Greenwich is that the council can cut out the cost by printing its own paper – with the happy side-effects of being able to guarantee decent distribution and avoiding being associated with “massage” ads.
It costs nearly £590,000 a year to produce Greenwich Time – but the cheapest tender it’s had for shifting this advertising elsewhere is £714,000.
That’s an extra £124,000 per year just to produce humdrum notices that very few people actively look for – and that’d be printed in papers that are seen by far fewer people.
Time to revolutionise public notices
If local politicians aren’t acting solely in self-interest, they could start lobbying Eric Pickles (or his Labour shadow Hilary Benn) about removing this rule.
Hardly anyone kicks back of an evening with the public notices in the back of their local paper. You actually have to be an active citizen to search for this kind of thing – someone that’s involved in a residents’ group, for example.
Instead of being printed on dead bits of tree, or dumping it on an obscure website, information could be emailed to residents – or sent to their smartphones. One app that’s been tested by a team from Lancaster University, Open Planning, allows people to share and discuss applications – potentially increasing engagement with planning applications.
Such a system would require a revolution in council IT – planning systems in many boroughs, not just Greenwich, aren’t friendly to use. It could even see all local authorities moving to the same platform – in the same way central government departments have all been shifted to Gov.uk.
Of course, this isn’t just about planning – there are all sorts of public notices, such as consultations, that need promoting. A recent “consultation” into a faith school on Greenwich Peninsula only emerged as a single notice in the back of Greenwich Time, for example.
Yet the same principle can apply here, and would end this meaningless box-ticking. Backed up by printed notices in council offices and libraries, this would be at least as effective as the current system at a fraction of the cost.
It’s all about the subsidy to local papers
Actually, the last Labour government proposed such a move. But the local newspaper industry lobbied against it, and in 2009 it backed away.
More recently, Eric Pickles has announced a pilot into “bringing statutory notices into the 21st century“, but has made it clear local newspaper advertising is still part of the mix.
While it remains that way, Pickles’ demands for Greenwich to increase its costs in the name of acting fair (which, effectively, its what he is doing by demanding Greenwich Time’s closure) will ring a little hollow.
One measure announced in Wednesday’s Budget was a consultation into tax breaks for local papers in England – in the same way that film production attracts tax breaks.
It’s another indication that the government is keen on keeping this indirect subsidy going. But in future, could this tax break replace the money from public notices?
How valuable are local newspapers?
One side-effect of Greenwich Time is that – in print, at least – it has become the dominant media voice in the borough of Greenwich.
That wasn’t always the case. Journalists have a bad reputation, but even in Greenwich – where both the News Shopper and Mercury are neglected by their owners – local journalists still play a role in holding power to account.
Whatever you think of the News Shopper, its Greenwich & Lewisham reporter Mark Chandler has played a vital role in holding both councils to account. The Mercury‘s Greenwich reporter, Mandy Little, has also highlighted important community stories.
But distribution of both papers is patchy, and the collapse in classified advertising has hit the industry hard.
And neither Mercury owner Tindle Newspapers nor News Shopper proprietor Newsquest (part of the giant US Gannett corporation) have really invested in their local papers, nor have they innovated to make their reporters’ lives easier.
Mercury owner Ray Tindle dislikes people seeing his company’s work for free – either online or in print. He’s opted to abandon free distribution of the Mercury altogether in some areas, producing paid-for editions for Charlton, Blackheath and west Greenwich. But this has just increased the workload for a skeleton team, struggling to produce papers for an area where buying a local newspaper hasn’t been a habit for three decades.
The News Shopper – London’s first free paper when it launched in Orpington in 1965 – has stuck to its free guns, concentrating more on its website and specialising in salacious or humorous stories.
One aspect of Greenwich Time has been to try to keep the “mayor at a local school” genre alive. The Mercury has also attempted to do this in its paid-for “hyperlocal” editions. But resources are so slim, you might pay 30p for a Charlton Mercury only to find the story’s about the Lewisham mayor in a school in Sydenham.
So, there’s a genuine question. How much do you value this kind of journalism? In these days of social media, is it even valued by those in the story? If it is valued, does the state have a role in producing this community journalism – either by doing it itself (Greenwich Time) or by indirect subsidy (public notices or a tax break)?
And in any case, would Tindle or Newsquest put the proceeds from a big council advertising contract into expanding their papers?
The community alternative
One idea that’s been talked about on and off over the years has been spinning off Greenwich Time to the community – putting it into a separate organisation, which would, in theory, be able to be report freely on the council.
But would it really do this? If a council leader was accused of bullying, let’s say, it’d be a very brave editor who ran that story in a publication that depended solely on advertising from that council.
While the row over the Daily Telegraph’s relationship with HSBC shows that these issues are alive and well even in the nationals, a publication in the gift of the council could be fraught with problems – especially given its recent track record.
While community-run papers are an interesting idea, the concept may be better off being put to use on an existing commercial title rather than the council paper.
And is the borough of Greenwich a “community” anyway? It’s a big, ungainly slab of south-east London. It’s never felt a cohesive borough, either geographically or emotionally. What unites it other than the name at the top of the council tax bill?
Of course, every other Labour council in the country manages to survive without a weekly newspaper, so why can’t Greenwich? Lewisham gets by happily on four editions of Lewisham Life each year, for example. Nobody’s really been able to answer that question properly except on the grounds of cost.
There’s been no study in just how effective Greenwich Time is at anything other than retaining Labour council seats – Greenwich Time was credited by a cabinet member in a Labour group meeting with helping the party in the 2010 election.
Greenwich Time may be cheaper than other options – but nobody knows how many people actually read it rather than throw it in the bin. Greenwich may be spending less than other councils – but may be getting far worse results.
The one remaining defence, its advertising of council homes, was breached accidentally some years back by cabinet member Maureen O’Mara, who said she had watched council tenants “come in every Tuesday to see what properties they could bid for”. Yet if tenants come into council buildings to collect GT to pick up a list of properties, why does that list need to be pushed through every door in the borough?
So what next?
It’s not going to be a pretty few weeks – with even Labour critics of Greenwich Time feeling forced into defending it for the sake of unity at election time. Others feel duty-bound because while they may hate GT, they hate Eric Pickles’ interference even more.
It’s likely the council will win by default – the election making it hard for Pickles’ law to be implemented – or on a technicality, on a badly-drafted point of law. Greenwich claims Pickles is acting outside of his powers.
But if Pickles had simply withdrawn the rule about local councils having to subsidise local papers with ads, we simply wouldn’t be here – because that’s the only argument that definitely stacks up. If we do think local papers need an indirect subsidy, the tax break option outlined in yesterday’s Budget offers a different way.
In the meantime, we’re set for a legal battle in which there may be a winner, but definitely no moral victory.