Saturday, 7 April 2012

Is it time to question the relationship between our local media and the advertising industry?

The Leveson Inquiry, which has kept many of us entertained, saddened and shocked in pretty equal measures for months - has been taking a pretty wide look at the role of the media, particularly the print media, and the ability of the Press Complaints Commission to regulate it when things go wrong.

It has been quite focussed on News International - and the scandal of illegal 'phone hacking by some of its reporters in search of salacious stories about celebrities and even victims of crime - but it has been shining a spotlight on the whole business of media ethics, corruption in the police, and the relationships between politicians and the media.

It's exposed the sometimes cosy links between the media and spin doctors working for the Labour and Tory parties - and the fact that some journalists themselves have been perhaps the biggest 'spinners' of all, and the ways in which meetings and cosy chats behind closed doors has often shaped the way  newspapers have reported the news.

In extreme cases, journalists have been given closer access to politicians in exchange for favourable reporting, and the opposite has been true too: journalists have, on occasion, threatened spin doctors with negative coverage to get their own way.

Chilling stuff: but hardly a surprise. I'm sure all this happens all the time, even at a local level.

But one thing that has escaped the Leveson spotlight is the very business model of the local print media. (The broadcast media is quite different - and I'll examine that in a later post)

Up and down the country, local papers make most of their money by selling not news, but advertising space. Yes, the cover price helps, but it doesn't even begin to cover the costs of printing and distributing a newspaper. The real money comes from selling a potential audience to advertisers, both locally, and to big agencies - sometimes internationally - who then sell-on the space to agencies employed by big-ticket clients like  car manufacturers and supermarkets.

That's why there are so many free newspapers cropping up all the time - we've got loads of them here in Brighton alone. That's why local newspapers are so coy about admitting exactly how many copies they distribute, and are so keen to include on-line readers, who pay nothing for the privilege, in their totals.

And that's why you'll rarely - if ever - find a newspaper that employs as many journalists as it does advertising sales staff.

Fine - you might think - that's the way the economy works.

It's just the free market at work: regardless of whether you think advertising is, essentially, pollution of our mental environment, or if adverts fuel  consumption-based lifestyles which in turn lead to massive household debt and environmental degradation.

But I think it's worse than that: a free media is an essential part of a functioning democracy, even at a local level - and if newspapers are dependent on advertisers for their very survival they can hardly be said to be free.

If a regular advertiser does something illegal, say, or just embarrassing, a local newspaper is very unlikely to report it: that wouldn't exactly be good business sense!

I've seen this cosy relationship between advertisers and the media at first hand myself.

Nearly two decades ago I worked as Editor of a group of London local papers owned by Newsquest, the US-owned publisher that also owns our very own local Argus.

One edition covered Enfield, and when I dared allow a reporter to quote an environmentalist group celebrating the closure of a local car factory on the grounds that 'there will be a few less cars', my boss, the regional Managing Editor gave me a proper dressing down, telling me that the local Chamber of Commerce was upset by the coverage, and that in order to preserve 'his' newspapers' relationship with 'his' advertisers, I should promise never to mention - let alone quote from - the group again! Suffice it to say, I didn't stay in that job for too long!

So if the Leveson Inquiry is really going to get to the bottom of the so-called 'cosy relationships' that affect the news we read - and the very ability of the media to do its job and contribute to stronger, better-informed, more democratic communities - I hope it will consider the way 'local' newspapers work with advertisers, and perhaps even the very way their business model works.


  1. Ben, how do you propose that papers are financed then? People reading for free online = the print media industry being brought to its knees. Staff are drastically reduced, subs desks decimated, picture desks redundant in favour of free 'citizen' photography... It's almost impossible for newspapers to survive. How then do you propose that they stay alive without advertising? Or indeed - how do you propose that journalists manage to survive? I make my living writing - I don't do it for free. That needs to be paid for by advertising.

  2. I agree it's hard: I make my living writing too (well some of it, on a good day, anyway) and you'll see I even have adverts on this 'blog (to try and make my time pay for itself). I think a good start would be a share of BBC funding going to other media serving a community interest (to weaken reliance on advertising revenues) and tax breaks to encourage local advertising. I would also require total transparency about any relationships with / meetings between advertisers and the media, as for me the issue is very similar to the relationship between politicians and lobbyists... Of course I don't have all the answers, but I think the most important thing is that we question and understand the link - most media consumers, in my experience, do neither...