In My Opinion: Bill Heaney: Newspapers need to act now to stop more council advertising going on the internet

EVERYONE concerned about the future of newspapers must be deeply worried by the report on allmediascotland, highlighting BBC Scotland local government correspondent Jamie McIvor’s exclusive that our local authorities have slashed their recruitment advertising costs by placing most of their jobs ads on their own central website.

This seems to be entirely against the spirit of what the SNP Government was saying last year when the then Enterprise Minister, Jim Mather, called a summit in Glasgow and very publicly abandoned a plan to scrap the legislation which obliges councils to place public notices in newspapers.

Public notices and recruitment notices are not the same thing, but that decision was clear recognition by the Minister that the result of this proposal would be harmful to the future of the newspaper industry, particularly local weekly papers, whose ‘bread and butter’ revenue comes from council advertising.

It was also accepted that a shift of advertising to the internet would be anti-democratic in that it would mean far fewer members of the public would have important council matters – controversial planning applications, for example – flagged up to them in the press to give them the opportunity to object.

But it appears that Scotland’s councils have simply ignored the message to support their local newspapers.

McIvor revealed that Glasgow City Council had slashed its spend from £668,000 on recruitment ads in papers in 2007-8 to just £137,979 last year. Just a third of that total went to the Evening Times, The Herald and the Sunday Herald.

The remainder was spent in specialist titles such as the Times Educational Supplement – and on the internet, particularly with the myjobscotland website, which was launched three years ago by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

In Edinburgh, it was a similar story with the recruitment advertising spend there slashed by the City Council from £553,000 in 2007 to just £88,000 in the last financial year.

McIvor’s investigation also showed that much smaller councils had followed suit. Fife Council’s local paper spend plummeted from £714,000 to just £23,000. Stirling Council’s dropped from £295,000 to just under £9,000 and North Ayrshire Council’s spend was down from £346,000 to just under £25,000.

Councils expressed bitter disappointment when Mr Mather made his announcement – and it wasn’t just the cost of advertising that was bugging them.

Many of them felt they were not receiving the coverage their affairs merited and some really disgruntled councils even took to producing their own newspaper.

Pat Waters, the Lanarkshire-based president of CoSLA, said at the time that the £6million-a-year that Scottish local authorities spent on public notices was not good value for money.

These notices, Mr Waters said, should go on the internet and the cash budgeted for them should be re-directed to council services for frail and elderly people, which, he rightly predicted, would suffer badly from public spending cuts.

Given the depth of the expenditure cuts now expected from councils, it seems likely that CoSLA will be back to bend the government’s ear a second time on the public notices issue.

And that there will be further pressure from councils to put the bulk of their advertising exclusively on the internet.

If this campaign takes off, then Scotland’s hard-pressed newspapers will have to act vigorously – and quickly – if they want to ‘head the councils off at the pass’.

They may find themselves disadvantaged though in that Jim Mather, the Minister who came to their aid last year, is no longer there. He did not stand for re-election and has retired from politics.

Additionally, the Labour MSP, Pauline McNeill, who led a campaign in parliament to drive home the message that it was important that public notices should continue to appear in the press, has lost her seat at Holyrood.

It will be interesting to see if the Scottish Newspaper Society, the Society of Editors (Scotland) and the National Union of Journalists can unite to persuade the new Enterprise Minister, who will be named this week, not just to keep the current legislation governing public notices in place, but to stop all council advertising revenue being lost to Scotland’s newspapers.

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 chair of the Treasury Select Committee at Westminster and before that to the vice-president of the European Parliament. Heaney is an Emeritus Editor of the Society of Editors (Scotland) and a Life Member of the National Union of Journalists.