In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Why public notices need to stay in newspapers, not migrate to the internet

WHEN I worked for First Minister, Henry McLeish, it was my job to get weekly and regional newspapers interested in the devolution project.

Everywhere Henry went on his travels around the country, from Orkney to Aberdeen to Dumfries, I made certain the local newspaper office was on his itinerary. I arranged for the Society of Editors (Scotland) to come to a reception at Bute House and a coachload of them turned up from weekly papers and local radio.

I arranged for Henry to speak to the Scottish Newspaper Proprietors Association (SNPA) conference at Dunkeld – I deputised for him in the end – about the value of weekly newspapers and local radio in the distribution of news from the Executive and the from the Parliament.

Reporters were invited to come to Edinburgh to do special one-on-one interviews with the FM at St Andrew’s House about issues of specific interest to their circulation areas. Most MSPs were given the opportunity to write regular columns in their local paper and it was generally agreed that more public information advertising – health and justice-related campaigns, for example – would appear in the weeklies.

This developed and expanded under McLeish’s successor, Jack McConnell, and is still happening now, the latest of these being the festive drinks driving warning and a messages to people to drink sensibly and look after their personal security over the holidays.

These campaigns have proved effective in the past. Many local authority public notices used to be statutory – they had to appear in newspapers by law. Councils placed them in their local papers and readers paid attention to them. This was a valuable public service.

For example, it made certain that planning applications were open and transparent. and their publication acted as a deterrent to graft and corruption in local government. Tenders for council contracts and Licensing Board applications were advertised. Advertisements alerted the public to environmentally-unfriendly projects being sited on their doorsteps without them being given fair warning and a chance to object.

They told people when council meetings were on and when they could turn up to see democracy in action. The advent of council newspapers undermined these practices and hit newspaper advertising revenue hard. There was an exodus of good local journalists to council PR and marketing departments and many of them were never replaced.

Pagination, based on the ratio of advertising to editorial content, was reduced accordingly.

Council meetings were often covered only by PR people.

Controversies of genuine public interest were routinely covered up or watered down.

Bad news was buried.

Now, most councils have switched news and information bulletins to their websites. If all their advertising now follows that route then newspapers will shrink in size and some will inevitably close. There will be no space for MSPs’ columns and local council and parliament stories – even if they are the sanitised versions sent out by PR people.

That sense of community we are desperately striving to preserve in Scotland, and which weekly newspapers are an integral part of, will disappear forever.

I have no up-to-the-minute figures, but I have been told that only 32 per cent of households in Scotland make use of the internet. The weekly newspaper I edited, the Lennox Herald, had a household penetration of 78 per cent in its core circulation area. I don’t know what it is now but I feel certain it must be higher than the internet.

If all government advertising goes on the web then people in rural areas and areas of multiple deprivation – and people who are not IT literate – will be left in the dark about the impact of local and national government decisions on them and on their communities.

The Scottish Government and local councils and NHS boards should look for savings in other parts of their communications budget – at council freesheets perhaps and government publications and at the army of people who produce them?

Bill Heaney is a former award-winning editor of the Lennox Herald and special adviser to First Minister, Henry McLeish. He was media adviser to John McFall MP, chair of the Treasury Select Committee, until June this year. He is now a media consultant.