In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Public notices in newspapers

THE decision by the Scottish Government to ‘put to bed’ their proposed legislation freeing local authorities of the obligation to place public notices in newspapers is welcome – but it hasn’t gone to sleep.

Pat Waters from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities is disappointed with the decision. He thinks that the £6 million a year that Scottish local authorities spend with weekly newspapers is not good value for money. The notices should go on the internet and the budget spent on council services to frail and elderly people, which, he says, are about to be axed in the next round of public spending cuts.

Labour MSP, Pauline McNeill, meanwhile, is delighted. She claims that putting notices for planning permissions, licensing applications and road closures on the web would have led to a democratic deficit. She points out that 60 per cent of Scots do not have internet access at home and that the side-effect would be to jeopardize the future of already financially pressed local newspapers.

As a special adviser to First Minister Henry McLeish, I helped to bring the local press and the Scottish Executive closer together. I persuaded the Executive that local weekly newspapers were read avidly.

The readership was interested in how national and local government decisions made an impact not just on their town but in their street. This was information so local that it would not be considered for publication in a national newspaper.

The Executive seized on the opportunity and started spending their money with local newspapers, which carried special features on devolved matters such as public health and justice. Millions of pounds rolled into the publishers’ coffers, which were already brimming with advertising cash from the prosperous last decade of the 20th century. The newspaper industry’s future looked distinctly rosy until the internet came along and started to attract advertising away from the papers; recruitment notices at first, and then other lucrative ads.

But crisis followed when CoSLA persuaded the now Scottish Government that they didn’t need to advertise in newspapers at all. Running scared, the newspapers, which had seriously damaged their own business by cutting back on investment in journalism and production, sought help wherever they could find it.

I have gone on record in allmediascotland and in The Herald calling for the advertising to stay with the papers. But I have mentioned the catalyst for CoSLA’s move: the extremely high rates the newspapers were charging the councils who were obliged to advertise with them. The proprietors have reacted to this with some giving local authorities discounts of up to 60 per cent.

I have also pointed out that part of the reason CoSLA gives is that local newspaper sales have fallen. In my view this has a lot to do with the decline in editorial standards. For this the proprietors have to take responsibility. They have cut back on journalism to the extent that some local newspapers no longer have editors and are run from factories miles away from the communities they cover.

To arrest the decline in readership and keep the advertising, the newspapers now need to up their game. The quality of the journalism content requires to be improved. They must provide better coverage of councils and local politics. To do this, they will need to concentrate on print. They are cutting their own throats by providing free to access local news online.

A presence online is important. But putting the entire print edition up is counter-productive. The Aberdeen Evening Express is trying to hold the line by publishing just the first few pars of their stories on the internet and directing the readers to the newsagent if they want to read the rest.

CoSLA’s demands are an alarm call for newspapers to arise from their slumbers, re-adjust their priorities and realise that, while the whole newspaper package is important, it is good journalism that matters most.

If they do not there will be no new day dawning. The Grim Reaper, in the form of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, will see to it that they never wake up.

Bill Heaney is a former award-winning editor of the Lennox Herald and special adviser to First Minister, Henry McLeish. He was also for four years media adviser to the Rt Hon John McFall MP, chair of the Treasury Select Committee. Heaney is an Emeritus Editor of the Society of Editors (Scotland) and a life member of the National Union of Journalists. He is now a media consultant.