Everybody wants to spike the council magazine – until they get into power

THE new issue of the Camden magazine is out, although we are still wondering what our former mayor Lazzaro Pietragnoli meant when he said the council’s good news only publication was “doing better than its opposite” while on his feet at the last all member meeting.

He had just said, provocatively some might say, that 60 percent of people got information about Camden Council from the Camden magazine, compared with 30 percent who he said learned it from the Camden New Journal.

This was definitely fact, you’ll understand, because he was equipped with a piece of paper – a council-run survey of 500 people, no less – which said so. It wasn’t just what’s left of the press bench (one journalist) who took his use of the word ‘opposite’ as a suggestion that he felt the Camden magazine was in opposition/opposite to the New Journal.

Or, as one of his Labour party comrades swiflty texted, that he was somehow intimating it would be wholly fine for a publicly-funded council publication – which residents all pay to be produced without the need of a sales revenue and distributed to every home in Camden – to compete with the very local newspapers that hold the Town Hall to account. That’s not his words, obviously, just how it was interpreted in some quarters.

Now the really funny thing about council mags is that every party in opposition thinks they should be spiked, as if doing so would solve everything. But then, once in power, local politicians suddenly see the importance of spending on communications. For example in this budget season, while Labour was attacking the spend on the Westminster Reporter, the local authority magazine in the Tory borough next door, it was conversely defending the Camden magazine to the hilt on this side of the borough boundary. Westminster’s magazine, the Conservatives will no doubt remind us, is delivered less frequently, once a quarter, but here’s former Labour group leader Paul Dimoldenberg view:

While politicians have this love-hate relations with the cost of communications, so do some residents, who want less spent on it, but then complain when a new policy catches them by surprise or leaves them arguing that nobody had asked them what they thought. The truth is Lazzaro has a fair deal defending the need for the council to talk to its residents. While there will always be a debate about cost and frequency, there is clearly a need for the communications department and for it to make sure residents have basic information about the local services open to them. People need to know that their local authorities aren’t just taking the bins away, that common misconception which strangely colours almost every debate we ever have on wot I’m payin ma’ council taxes for.

Camden, to its credit, has not gone down the route of the most excessive local authorities who have blurred the lines by trying to act like a straight newspaper; inexplicably there are councils who run things like court stories in their magazines. This idea was encouraged here by one enthusiastic councillor about ten years ago – no, not Theo – but the idea was sensibly parked. These days, the council could do its communicating more cheaply by booking information pages in the local papers and saving the cost of printing and distributing an entire magazine ten times a year, while at the same time feeling warm and fuzzy about supporting a free press but there you go, I would say that, wouldn’t I.

Beyond that, even the most one-eyed councillor understands that a borough with only the Camden magazine to read would, to put it mildly, be unhealthy. It’s not just about our paper, for the CNJ does not have a right to exist simply for the sake of it – the right to scrutinise is earned, with essentially our readers acting as our boss – but there are already too many areas in England, including some in London, which are either not served by a newspaper or have a synthetic title which asks no questions of public bodies and are often used as tricksy advertising vehicles.

Hyperlocal blogs, especially ones that capture the thoughts of its catchment area rather than just those of its authors, can add a new layer – often out of volunteer determination – but a local media with the resources to ask questions should surely be part of a healthcheck of any local democracy. Perhaps the best example in recent years of why this makes sense is the successful campaigns to save accident and emergency services at the Whittington, but I could bore on with lots of other examples.

Lazzaro explains his comments in our letters pages:

I simply pointed out that our residents’ survey shows that 60 per cent of our residents receive information about the council’s work from the Camden magazine (a double figure in comparison to the New Journal and other local newspapers) and questioned the Conservatives for proposing to close the magazine, while wanting to reinstate unaddressed letters on planning applications that were not effective at all.

He does not explain in his letter what he meant by that word ‘opposite’ and if he hadn’t used that word, his comments are unlikely to have led to a prickly response. As he’s a journalist and communications guy, a champion of the press, let’s take his word for it, as I think he’d miss the local papers if they were beaten down by their opposites.

If you return to his speech and his piece of paper, however, and that 60 percent figure he cites, maybe it is possible to flip it around and come to a different conclusion.

Camden, after all, has confirmed it delivers or tries to deliver to every home in the borough, and its magazine is exclusively about council news – not about crime, or the arts, or sport, or all the other things that people read local newspapers for. And yet, by these stats, around 40 percent of all households in Camden are getting a magazine nearly once a month and gleaning no information about the council at all from it.

* The editor of the Camden New Journal, Eric Gordon, is due to appear at the London Assembly’s Economy Committee, which is discussing the future of local news provision, tomorrow. The meeting starts at 10am.

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3 Comments on Everybody wants to spike the council magazine – until they get into power

  1. Why can’t residents just subscribe to it if they want it for a small contribution towards the social care precept? A pound a month say with distribution costs? With a money back guarantee if it doesn’t arrive every month- or on time. I thought the green view was it could be done online and didn’t Camden just pay an infamous sum for the Love Camden website. Even though we can walk in an active way and pick up the CNJ? If residents don’t want it, can’t we have a special ‘No Camden junk mail@ sticker issued? It could then be recycled by the dleivery company.

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  2. You are right to highlight this Richard – cutting the communications budget & the magazine is presented as a tonic for everything like the old ‘1p on income tax’ which would pay for everything. In fact the comms budget has been slashed heavily and the relatively modest amounts spent on the magazine are tiny compared to £160m+ in budget cuts.

    From memory I don’t think Camden Labour called for the magazine to be cut when the Tories were in power (and your statement works the other way too, let’s remember they didn’t abolish it between 2006-2010 when they had the chance but have called for it to be cut ever since).

    As you say, the magazine exists to fill a gap which can’t be covered by the CNJ – that public information on complex changes to services (something which is happening all the time due to the cuts) can’t be conveyed in the format provided by the New Journal or the Ham&High or is simply seen as ‘not newsworthy’ by journalists.

    It was a vehicle for the huge consultation we did on cuts in 2014 and will be again when we set a long-term budget – It’s obvious why the opposition Tories don’t want us to talk about that! Looking at what the council published it’s also clear that the local press simply couldn’t provide that amount of detail. I also get the sense in journalism in general that reporting on cuts is not top of the news agenda these days.

    The next magazine has more information on how people should recycle post 1 April new waste contract, details about new apprenticeship schemes. It also updates on regeneration/Community Investment Programme, which the CNJ rarely covers. The magazine exists because we also need to respect digital inclusion at a time when more and more services are online. I can see a day when we do much less in print, but now is probably not the time.

    If the council were not to communicate on important changes we would be attacked for not explaining things by the same people who want us to end the council magazine.

    So I don’t see it as a rival but there are often gripes about the magazine – maybe aimed at the CNJ wanting more advertising. But resources are finite and I don’t think advertorials are particularly effective and there are limitations on space. That aside, the taxpayer already supports the local press and since 2013 the CNJ has received over £500k in advertising and the Ham&High about £100k. I’d imagine the take from emergency services, colleges etc boosts this amount somewhat, as does (more indirectly) advertising arising from development secured by the council – so the public sector supports the local press a lot.

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    • Richard Osley // March 25, 2017 at 1:39 pm // Reply

      Thanks Theo, always welcome your comments and glad that you do not see the two publications as rivals.

      Just a couple of things in reply: I think your ‘maybe’ at the end is a little misplaced and doesn’t really represent the CNJ’s work or aims, as there’s hardly been a catalogue of ‘gripes’ from the CNJ about the magazine. We have occasionally reported the concerns of the opposition and residents over the years – or the spend on a completely separate website duplicating work done widely elsewhere. It’s a debate wherever you go in the country, but we have not had the problems seen in areas like Hackney, where the council is actively competing against the local press for the same ads, and Tower Hamlets – and I think Barking – where the council magazine was made to resemble a newspaper with court stories, etc etc Above, I actually provide the defence for the council’s right to communicate.

      Also, it’s a little unfair to say cuts are not part of our reporting agenda, when the issue runs through so much of what we are do – and often on our front page, such as the effects of childcare changes coming. We ran a whole campaign on cuts to the Fire Brigade, we’ve done several lead articles on cuts to schools budgets in the last couple of weeks, Georgia had a very large piece written herself on cuts to social care and in every piece where the council is spending, councillors have had room to put forward the view that all of the cuts decisions locally are rooted in settlements from Westminster… It’s certainly newsworthy to us, and it would take me all afternoon to put links in to all the cuts stories we have done in the last few years. It’s funny, though, people embedded in the council sometimes say we are not writing about the council’s issues enough or we’ve missed a story, but then there’s a whole different share of the audience across Camden who say we write too much about the council!

      I guesseverybody is an editor (in George Osborne’s case, literally) and we get scrutinised on every week even if its 35 pages back in the paper… but I like it that way, as it means they are still reading and, even better, that they care.

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