A roiling debate continues in Britain as to whether council-run newspapers should be curbed through revision of legal code due to their alleged negative impact on commercial papers.
According to Roy Greenslade's blog in The Guardian, a Commons Committee rejected a plan submitted by Communities Minister Eric Pickles aiming to do just this, on the grounds that "the committee accuses the minister of failing to provide proof that council-run papers threaten commercial newspapers."
The proposed new code would limit local authorities to publishing council-run papers only once a quarter. Pickles summarizes that "propaganda dressed up as journalism not only wastes money but undermines a free press and a healthy democracy."
But "'much stronger evidence is required' to justify such restriction," thinks the Committee.
Members of Parliament consider a specified maximum frequency of council-run papers to be unnecessary, according to Greenslade, stating that before a new code is presented to Parliament, they ask Pickles to "commission an independent review to assess competition in the local media market and quantify the impact of council publications on commercial entities operating in their locale."
Greenslade elucidates some of the arguments on both sides, citing that weekly council-run papers could be in direct competition with paid-for commercial papers (though no data was provided to support this claim), and that council-run papers should not accept advertising since the publication is published with tax monies. Another argument brought up in a previous blog entry relates to the question of professionalism and neutrality when it comes to council-run papers delivering the news.
However, limiting council-run papers' frequency of publication may in fact prevent local authorities from disseminating important information to their residential communities.
The argument made by the Committee's report states that the proposed new code could in effect "deprive local authorities of the freedom to decide for themselves how to employ cost-effective publicity within a coherent communications strategy to inform residents about services and to engage stakeholders in challenging decision making."
Greenslade refers to Britain's Newspaper Society, the local and regional press trade body, for a counterargument that justifies restrictions on council-run papers by making an example of the worst ones, few and far between as they are.
But Ministers of Parliament hold that current code has the necessary limitations as long as they are sufficiently enforced, suggesting that accountability of local government in doing its job might be the real issue.
While this debate is local to Britain, the general subject is relevant across borders when considering apparent competition in print between community announcements / newsletters and professional commercial news sources. Is the former truly impacting the success of the latter? Or is this correlation misplaced?
Perhaps the impact noticed is more indicative of a shift in readership to digital news and social media.