Council journalists aren’t ‘best value’.

I had a quick Twitter debate this week with two associates regarding the Dagenham council ‘newspaper’ jobs and how I was outraged at the ridiculously high wages it was going to pay its ‘reporters’.

The 140 character limit of Twitter can make such debates tricky, and I don’t think I made my case clearly enough, so it’s a good job I have a blog, read by at least four people, where I can win such arguments (even if it’s in my own head).

As you may or may not be aware, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham is launching The News, a “new fortnightly community newspaper”.

I can see nothing wrong with the council newsletters most local authorities put up, as they don’t pretend to be anything other than the council communicating its message (I’ve read so many press releases I’m starting to sound like a press officer here).

But this newspaper idea is very dangerous and will undoubtely be confusing for many readers.
A council spokesman said The News would be a newspaper concentrating “on community rather than hard news”. 
In other words it will still be a pro-council product which will carry only positive council stories, but it will be posing as a professional vehicle driven by journalists

If that’s not bad enough, The News will have a very damaging effect on exisiting local newspapers – if not put them out of business entirely.
Not only will the council pull some of its own advertising away from the local press (even without statutory advertising this could be several tens of thousands of pounds), but according to the Press Gazette, the paper will seek to be “self-financing by competing for advertising from the commercial market”. In other words it will actively look to steal advertisers from the Dagenham Post.

I saw an excellent comment on one story about this. The commenter made the analogy of you owning a sweetshop, and then the council opening a sweetshop next door using tax payers money to get started. The council sweetshop can continue to be subsidised by taxpayers money as long as it needs to, so it will have none of the risks of your sweetshop and can sell its sweets cheaper.
Your only hope of survival is that your strawberry bon-bons might taste a bit nicer as they wont have been pumped full of artificial chemicals. But will enough people notice that your lemon sherberts are better for you when they cost so much more?

Councils are supposed to be there to serve their communities. But this move is doing the exact opposite.
Not only will it potentially kill off an exisiting business, it will also seriously damage local democracy in the process because without the Dagenham Post, who is going to hold the politicians and bureacrats to account?
It certainly wont be The News.

Back to my original point – the salaries The News will be paying its staff.
It’s journalists will be paid between £29,223 to £31,353, its sub editor £30,591 – £33,081 and its deputy editor £33,081 – £35,841.

To put this into context – a trainee journalist on a regional paper can currently expect to earn £14,500 – £16,000. A newly qualified senior about £18,500 – £19,000.
I’m the editor of a weekly paper, and I’d be on parity (give or take a grand) with one of these council ‘journalists’.

So my question is, how can the council justify paying so much above the going market rate?

The obvious argument that most people (well, most journalists) will make is that actually the council is paying a fair wage and its newspapers who are the Scrooges.
And they’d be right. The knowledge and amount of work put in by the modern journalist is woefully rewarded. We’re being ripped off, we all know that.

But that argument can only be taken so far. My point is that these council journalists – who are actually going to be doing less indepth, less challenging jobs than the rest of us – will be rewarded far too richly with taxpayers money for essentially betraying their trade.

To steal an awful councilese phrase, the taxpayer is clearly not going to be getting ‘Best Value’ (and I wonder whether The News will be littered with such awful language).

The council could easily fill those jobs by paying ten grand a head less.
I guess one the reason they’re paying so much is that they are hoping to attract some quality journalists, and they know that such reporters will see through their dirty little agitprop rag but will be tempted by the filthy lucre.

I won’t resent anyone who takes up one of these posts as it’s hard to live on a reporter’s wage, but I won’t be able to respect them.

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15 Responses to Council journalists aren’t ‘best value’.

  1. Alex says:

    It’s all very cynical, isn’t it? The wages being offered almost represent two fingers being waved in the direction of the local newspaper industry by smug gits sitting safely in their cosy public sector bubble.

    And the most frightening thing is that nine out of 10 readers won’t be able to tell that it’s not a real newspaper. The stupidity of a mass population hypnotised by our vacuous celebrity culture and declining moral, personal and community standards are the biggest enemy facing our profession.

  2. Alex says:

    Cracking blog, by the way.

  3. Smug Git says:

    Oh dear!There’s a lot of cynicism here.
    I’m what Alex would call a council ‘smug git’ writer for my council’s newspaper. And I’m proud of it. The fact that you – patronisinly – won’t ‘resent’ me or ‘respect me’ is your problem not mine.

    And I’m proud of what we do. Most of our work is about developing creative campaigns to promote and publcise council services. Local newspapers gave up this territory years ago.

    Most local papers will only cover if there’s corruption or scandal involved. Those stories are easy to write and are often the result of lazy journalism. I know. I’ve done it. It’s not investigative journalism. It’s simply making (yes, sometimes fabricating) a juicy ‘row story’ to keep the editor happy. You know it. I know it.

    Most of our council newspaper pages are filled with stories that most editors just don’t find sexy enough to cover. So yes, we write stories about the difficulties of being a social worker; we give lots of space to road safety; pages devoted to trying to recruit foster carers and celebrating the successes of our schools and local young people (you probably refer to them as ‘yobs’). That stuff is much harder to write than yet another ‘Angry residents have vowed to fight…’ intro.
    And if you seriously believe, as Alex does, that local people don’t know the difference between a council newspaper and their local rag then your readers are much brighter than you.
    Of course they know the difference. They’re a lot brighter than you give them credit for.
    The only thing that coucil newspapers have in common with local newpapers is the material they are printed on – newsprint. Every thing else is different and the readers know it.
    And, yes, the pay is better than newspapers. But that’s not my fault. That’s yours for not finding an employer who can put your excellent writing skills to better use and will value what you do.

  4. gingerelvis says:

    Thanks for the view from the other side Smug.

    I don’t think it’s cynical to highight such a genuine threat to local democracy as this.

    I’ll concede that many readers probably will be able to tell the difference, but not everyone will. So if there is any danger in a council rag being passed off as a proper newsaper, then why risk it?

    My main point is that councils are supposed to be there to serve their communities.
    By competing directly with an independent newspaper for advertising revenues, they are putting the newspapers at risk of having to make cut jobs, or worse, cease trading.

    So not only is the council stepping on the toes of an exisiting business – and doing it without any of the commercial risks – it is also damaging local democracy.
    And it will damage local democracy, because without a proper newspaper, who will hold the council, its officers and councillors to account?
    It certainly wont be the ‘paper’ you work for.

    It is blatantly clear that a level of corruption already exisits in local authorities. It’s probably quite a small amount, but without proper, independent scrutiny, what’s to stop councils becoming a breeding ground for the less trustworthy. And if it’s not corruption, money will be wasted through laziness or poor decision making without anyone ever knowing.

    Even if you believe that a particular newspaper isn’t very good, what right does a council have to decide that?
    Readers and advertisers will stay away if they’re unhappy with a paper.

    Your point about ‘sexy’ stories is true to a point.
    We don’t give much space to stories which are dull as readers will get bored and wont read them.
    I’d love to do a proper feature on social workers for example, but having approached my council they’ve said no in case we publish something that’s ‘off message’.

    And to clarify my point about not respecting those who work for council papers.
    To me, being respected by other journalists is important.
    I’m passionate about what I do and believe strongly in a free press. If my peers don’t respect me, it’s probably because I’m not doing my job properly.

    This should apply to pretty much any industry you care to think of.
    But then just as a council paper isn’t a proper paper, the people who write for them are not journalists. They are writers. Forgive my rudenes, but it is like comparing a security guard to a fully trained police officer.

    I therefore belive it’s scandalous to pay them, with public money, more than the going market rate. It is an easier, less stressful job which requires fewer skills.

    Do you honestly belive writing pro-council stuff is harder to write than a hard news story? The only difficulty I can see in writing a pro-council puff piece would be swallowing my pride as an independent journalist.

    I’m the first to admit that the real newspaper industry has many failings and has gotten worse over recent years. But that doesn’t mean we should give up on the local press or let councils try to put them out of business.

    Major changes are coming and I suspect one of us will soon be out of a job. Either me as the newspaper industry dies, or you if the Govt does it what needs to do and outlaws councils from producing propaganda rags in direct competition to the free press.

  5. Smug Git: I know our paper has covered fostering and road safety campaigns in the recent past, but newspapers can only cover what they know about, the council should be concentrating on sending out information on such events and working with newspapers wherever possible.

    Collaboration is the key moving forward.

    Calling or touting council publications as a ‘newspaper’ is dangerous and misleading.

    We pay for services and information from our council, not muscling in on the news media industry at a time when they are in massively choppy waters – admittedly not of the councils making.

    And the agenda of a council publication is obviously going to be from a pro-council policy stance, which makes the role of the local newspaper even more important, if they were to go, these council publications would become all powerful and unquestioned.

    As for the pay issue, I would guess there are very few regional newspapers offering journalists pay anywhere near what Barking and Dagenham are offering, although this says as much about the lack of newspaper owners’ value of journalism as much as it does about councils attempting to lure journalists away from real newspapers.

  6. smug git says:

    Good stuff. Glad to prompt some debate.
    Firstly, what should we call professional wordsmiths? We are all writers. Some who work in media call themselves journalists others reporters.
    Gingerelvis, I pick up a sense of snobbery here. Let’s be honest – most people who write for newspapers churn out copy to meet their word count targets. Quality writing often is the casualty. Very few news organisations have, or can afford the luxury of ‘investigative’ journalists. You might be one but it doesn’t take much investigation to find out that most hacks don’t go out any more ‘on stories’ – they spend ninety per cent of their time on the phone staring at their computer.
    My dictionary defines a journalist as a ‘writer who aims for mass communication’. That’s the job I do. But my job title doesn’t include journalist – it includes ‘communcations’ (but I still regard myself as a journalist because I have the skills needed to do the job). To claim that professional writers who work for council newspapers are any less competent or capable than writers who work for newspapers is ridiculous. To dismiss our writing as ‘puffery’ strikes me as an expression of fear. As I recall, the same ‘snobbery’ could be seen in the early days of free newspapers. ‘Real’ journalists couldn’t possibly work for them. They weren’t ‘real’ newspapers. So many fearful hacks bricked up their ivory towers and hoped the horrible things would go away. They didn’t and council newspapers won’t.
    I’m still not sure why you don’t respect good writers regardless of who they work for. You may not respect what I do – and its a lot more than just writing – but many in the communications business do. I have the respect of my peers. I aim for the highest professional standards. I don’t lie. I don’t mislead. And I can measure the impact of the campaigns I create and deliver through our newspaper.
    But I think you are blurring two issues here. One is the quality of writing. The other is whether council newspapers distort the market by selling advertising.
    We don’t sell advertising in our newspaper and continue to advertise regularly in our local newspapers. My council accepts that it should invest in communications with its residents and is prepared to take the criticism and praise for doing so.
    But we are not in competition with our local media. And we don’t want to be.
    We want our local newspapers to survive and thrive beyond this recession. I need them to exist because they are well respected and an important communication channel to help us reach those residents who don’t read our newspaper. And I agree that they have a vital role serving the community. Local editors don’t see us as competitors because we aren’t targeting their advertisers or withdrawing our public notice advertising and putting it into our own publication. (And this generates many complaints from residents who think we should do this to save council taxpayers money.)
    Richard is right. Collaboration is the way forward. We work closely with our local newspapers. We respect the work they do and the good writers who work for them.

  7. Alex says:

    Smug, most people don’t know the difference between editorial and advertising, let alone the difference between a council newspaper and a real one. It’s you who’s out of touch.

  8. Alex says:

    And by the way, if you’d actually read my post you’d have realised that the ‘smug gits’ referred to are the council bosses rather than the journalists who, understandably, bite the bullet and join the public sector.

  9. Alex says:

    Going for the hat-trick here… I guess I should have read all of Smug’s post before responding.

    What a grotesque, sweeping generalisation to say local papers have given up on campaigns promoting and publicising council services. Do you regularly read every local newspaper in the UK? Thought not.

    My newspaper, for one, is involved on one very high-profile campaign with our local council to get people involved in improving all aspects of life in our town.

  10. gingerelvis says:

    Some interesting points Smug.

    First of all, I do indeed admit to being a snob when it comes to journalism.
    There are many types of journalists, and my snobbery is that I hold truth seekers in a higher regard to a writer of soft features.

    Both have a role, and both can be called journalists by a dictionary definition, but I believe that the writer of hard news, the person who delivers stories that the public has a right (and a need) to know, is a proper journalist.
    The other type of journalists are merely professional writers.
    I’m also a bit arrogant by the way, (what editor isn’t?), but enough of my character flaws…

    Writing is certainly part of being a journalist, but it actually isn’t anywhere near as important as other skills.
    The best journalists obviously write very well, but I’ve worked with plenty of talented reporters who write using quite basic language.

    People who can ferret out information, bring in off-diary stories and talk to strangers like old friends are much more valuable to me than those who can write beautiful prose but need to be spoon-fed everything.
    I, or my subs, (if I had any) can knock copy into shape. It is easier to teach someone to write than it is to instill the right hunger and nose for the job.
    Quality writing isn’t the issue, quality journalism is.

    I’m not claiming that people who work for council newspapers are less competent or capable, but I am claiming that they can get away with being so. You may be the best journalist in the world, but if you’re working for a sanitised, censored product, you don’t NEED half the skills of someone working for the free press.
    You don’t have to ask (and print) the difficult questions. You don’t have to try and discover the facts that others are trying to hard. All you have to do is paint the council in a positive light.
    You may well be truthful and accurate in what you write, but if you’re deliberately skipping over any facts your masters will find uncomfortable, even if they are in the public interest, then the value of what you’re writing is considerably less than my proper journalist.

    You are right about me fearing council rags, but it’s not a fear born out of snobbery.
    It’s a fear that they can kill off the free press in their areas. I know the free press term has its flaws, but without real newspapers, corruption will flourish.
    Just look at the Ian Tomlinson story and how the evidence gathered by journalists has changed the police’s account of events. Without the reporters/newspapers, it would almost certainly have been covered up.

    Your paper sounds different to the Dagenham one which got my blood up as you’re not targeting our ad revenues. However, I still feel that if it looks like a newspaper, even one with the words Council blazened across the masthead in 100 pt, from my experience of the general public, not everyone will be able to tell the difference.

    You do have some good points about the quality of today’s journalism. It certainly isn’t all it could be and I certainly can’t afford to give my reporters the time to do thorough investigative pieces. And yes, they’re pretty much desk-bound these days – the word ‘churnalism’ wasn’t formed in a vacum.

    But even with our tight resources, it is still more than possible and important to hold councils to account.
    Not as much as we’d like, and our lack of resources make it easier for councils to keep stuff hidden, but we’re still doing enough to keep most of our local authorities in check.

  11. smug git says:

    Gingerelvis, I read your post very carefully, several times. You put forward a strong, well argued case which I don’t disagree with. And I think you accurately describe the real difference between a professional writer and a hard news investigative journalist.
    There are no writers in our team who perform the role of an investigative journalist within the council. And there won’t be a council newspaper in the country that uses one in that role – no council newspaper has ever been the first to break a council corruption story and they never will. We are doing a very different job, I accept. And that’s good because, I say again, I am not in competition with my local newspapers.
    The last thing I want to see is the demise of local free press, both as a writer and as a resident. Councils, government and business need to be held to account for their actions or inactions. If local newspapers aren’t there to give this scrutiny no-one else will do it.
    Yes, we do show our services, our council workers and our council in a positive light. But we’re happy to admit our mistakes and say sorry when we get it wrong. And yes, we do overwhelmingly cover positive stories and what you might call ‘soft features’ but I repeat, ours is not a ‘newspaper’ in the sense you view it. It communicates the tremendous breadth of positive contributions local council workers and councillors are having in our community. I think by concentrating almost continually on stories where local councils have ‘cocked-up’ local newspaper have made a major contribution to their own demise. By ignoring their community leadership role and giving little or scant coverage to the good work that councils do for their communities. Some reporters and editors start from the position that their council is corrupt, councillors are all ‘on the take’ and council workers are all ‘pen pushing jobsworths’. And their coverage of councils seeks to find stories which confirm these judgements. The effect of this is often to criticise at every opportunity and give grudging praise only when there’s no other angle left. PRO’s across the country have complained for years that positive stories are often ignored or twisted out of context to find a sensational story line. You’ve seen it happen, so have I.
    There is one major reason why council newspapers have become so popular (amongst councils if not residents)- its because they feel they’ve not been give fair coverage by their local media and have decided to talk directly to your readers. You used to be the gatekeepers of all local news – you would decide whether to give a story coverage, how much coverage and when – often holding ‘soft’ council stories for times when you were short of ‘news’. But competition from free newspapers, local radio and more importantly, the internet changed all that.
    You are no longer the gatekeeper and councils, and others, go directly to your readers through their websites, direct mail and their own newspapers. Editors and journalists must take some of the blame for that.
    I’ve just read all the posts again and I admit, I am still a little confused. The main objection to council newspapers appears to be that they jeopardise the future of the free press because local people can’t tell the difference between a council newspaper and a commercial newspaper. I don’t agree but if it was true, would all your objections to council newspapers evaporate if they changed the format to a magazine? I doubt it.

  12. smug git says:

    Alex – apologies for not responding to you points.

    In you posts you appear quite angry and bitter. And that’s a pity as I would prefer to have a reasonable debate rather than an abusive argument.

    In answer to your comments I should make clear I did read your post very carefully. Your post did not mention ‘bosses’ at all. You referred to ‘smug gits sitting safely in their cosy public sector bubble’.
    In my previous post I mentioned editors and reporters who start out with a negative view and then find stories which reinforce their own prejudice. This is a fine example. Everyone is clear of your view of council bosses. They probably know your view as well.
    How on earth could anyone ever convince them you are going to give fair and balanced coverage.
    But, perhaps more importantly, why do you draw a distinction between ‘journalists’ and ‘bosses’? I don’t suppose its ever occurred to you that journalists can be bosses at the same time? I am one and there are many more in local government. Heaven forbid, some of us are also members of the NUJ!
    But I did find your reference to ‘smug gits’ very amusing. Of course, there aren’t any smug gits in newspapers are there?
    You seem to be contemptuous of your readers. Your references to the ‘stupidity of the mass population’ and their inability to distinguish between advertising and editorial is breathtaking. I am sure I wouldn’t see that printed at any time in your newspaper. Could be a great way to increase your readership – put it on the front page and tell all your customers how stupid they are! Gerald Ratner tried something similar. Perhaps you will be more succesful.

    No, I don’t read all the newspapers in the UK. And I’ve never been to Iraq but I know a war is going on.

    And on your final point about a campaign with your local council to improve aspects of the town. Good for you and your editor. But I get the feeling its a one off. Shouldn’t you be doing this all the time – shouldn’t you be celebrating your community most of the time telling the good stories as well as the sensationally bad?

    As for your heartfelt views about “declining moral, personal and community standards” I will not comment other than to let you know that mine have never been higher. Make of that what you will.

  13. […] The statistic “Almost 60 per cent of council publications contain 10 per cent or less of advertising” is framed as part of the case that local magazines are not a threat. A casual reader would swallow that. A critical writer would point out that this means a very significant 40% of council publications carry reasonably large amounts of advertising – and even those carrying less than 10% of advertising are still having an economic impact on local newspapers. Not mentioned is whether there is an increasing trend towards carrying more advertising, which anecdotally looks to be the case.  […]

  14. Alex says:

    Smug, you’ve found your niche in life. Your pomposity makes you a perfect fit for local government.

  15. Alex says:

    ‘I get the feeling it’s a one off [sic – hyphen missed. What a great writer you are]’.

    And how do you KNOW we don’t publish all the good news we get? How do you KNOW this? You’re just assuming based on a horribly inaccurate cliche.

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