Council spending £250,000 a year on adverts in Leeds daily papers. Is anybody reading them?

The group that owns Leeds’ two local daily papers – the Yorkshire Post and the Yorkshire Evening Post – received payments of £290,000 from Leeds City Council over the past year.

£250,000 of the sum was for advertising placed in the two papers by the Council. And £200,000 of that was spent by the Council’s Highways Department.

It’s no great fortune, but not a bad little earner for both ailing papers, given that circulation and advertising revenue have been falling steadily and the Johnston group as a whole is saddled with declining profits, substantial debt and a share price down from £5.00 in 2005 to £0.06 today.

Though the data doesn’t say so, it seems pretty clear to me that the lion’s share of the advertising spend is on ‘public notices’. What isn’t known is who, if anybody, amongst the dwindling readership of the papers, reads them.

What ‘public notices’, I hear you ask?

Forbidding gobbledygook

If you’ve ever read the Yorkshire Evening Post, you may well have glimpsed them as you’re flicking from the ‘Stars with Claire Petulengro’ to the runners and riders for the day’s meeting at Catterick.

They come at the start of the “classifieds” under a little banner designed to make you stop and, erm, take notice.

To the right is an example: it’s a consultation invitation from the Council to inspect the revised draft Travel Plans Supplementary Planning Document on which it is, erm, seeking representations… (click on it to read it. Go on!).

Now it may seem to you or me like an impenetrable bit of gobbledygook, presented in a forbidding retro format and buried away in a section of the paper that time forgot. We’d be wrong.

It’s an example of citizen participation and grass-roots consultation. It is democracy in action. No more “they could have asked us!”. They just did.

(Check out the first 1.50 of this video on the same. It’s a laugh!)

Road closures in Garforth

Here’s another one, this time in the Yorkshire Post, advertising the forthcoming closure of a road in Garforth:

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favour of people in Garforth (and frequent or even casual visitors to Garforth) getting advanced warning about road closures. But think of the odds of someone getting the information they need this way.

First of all they’ve got to get hold of a copy of the paper (how many people buy the YP in Garforth?), then they’ve got to know where to look, and then they’ve got to scour all the other notices to see if there are any about Garforth.

And if they really want to know about road closures in Garforth they’ve got to do it every day. Because you can bet your boots that the day they’ve sold out of copies at the Tesco on Aberford Road is the day all the road closure notices will be about Garforth.

And what if you’re someone who never buys the Yorkshire Post? Or never buys any local paper? You’ve probably got grounds for going to the European Court of Information Rights.

Outdated law 

The issue is one of getting good value for the money the Council is spending. So, maybe Johnston Press and the Council can tell us exactly how many people a day are getting real use out of each of these notices posted in the papers? A thousand? A hundred? Twenty? Ten? Five? Three? One? None? And how much does each advert cost?

I don’t know, but as you can see from the table below the Council’s Highways department alone made payments to Johnston Press of £196,979 last year (that’s equivalent to five Yorkshire Post journalists at £40,000 a year).

Figures compiled from LCC open data Dec 2010 - Nov 2011

By the way, there’s no criticism intended here of the Council for placing these ads and making these payments. The law says there are certain public notices that have to be advertised by every Council – and not just advertised, but advertised in local newspapers.

The laws, of course, were drafted in the days before the internet and nobody has got round to changing them.

There’s no criticism intended either of Johnston Press for taking what must these days be very welcome cash. And it would be a real shame for the two newspapers (the only decent sources of news for Leeds) to lose that income and fall on even harder times.

But quite clearly something has to change. Everyone must know it – central government, newspaper managing editors and cash-strapped council executives.

It’s only a matter of time.

Press the least effective medium

As long ago as 2004 a report written for central government by consultants Arup showed that local papers were the least effective medium for local authorities to keep the public informed.

And more recent research has shown that council notices in local newspapers about major planning applications (one of the other things that they also have to publish by law) get the lowest response level from all media channels used.

Since those reports were written, the readership of local daily papers nationwide – our two included – has continued to decline.

To make matters even more illogical, the Council already makes available to the 12,500 unique users visiting its website each day a wealth of up-to-date information about planning applications, the environment and highways news. Some of it is even reproduced on the local papers’ websites.

With a bit of collective effort from all local online news and information sources (from the YP/YEP to the ‘public service’ BBC to hyperlocal sites like South Leeds Life) loads more people could be directed to the parts of the Council’s site that hold the information they need.  At minimum cost.

True, there are members of the public who can’t currently be reached online. But there’s little or no guarantee that they’re being effectively served by the current system.

Time for a change.

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7 Responses to Council spending £250,000 a year on adverts in Leeds daily papers. Is anybody reading them?

  1. Alex says:

    If you haven’t come across Dave Meslin before his thoughts on public consultancy and apathy might appeal. Good video of him up on TED – http://www.ted.com/talks/dave_meslin_the_antidote_to_apathy.html, it mentions the appearance of council notices vs adverts from companies that actually *want* your engagement.

  2. Alison says:

    I feel a quote coming on:

    ‘But the plans were on display…’
    ‘On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.’
    ‘That’s the display department.’
    ‘With a torch.’
    ‘Ah, well the lights had probably gone.’
    ‘So had the stairs.’
    ‘But look, you found the notice didn’t you?’
    ‘Yes,’ said Arthur, ‘yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.’

    The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979)

    Well done for highlighting this issue. I suppose until truly everyone has good internet access it would be unfair to take away the printed notices, but certainly all concerned should be looking at alternatives in coming years.

  3. Yes, it is indeed time for a change. That’s the easy part. The hard part is – what to?

    A survey on behalf of the council a few years back found that the majority of citizens preferred to get their news about what the council’s up to from the council’s own “free” newspaper. But I think you can imagine the outcry if that doubled in size (and cost) and was full of nothing but council adverts. Besides which, it’s had to be cut to twice a year, which wouldn’t be often enough for road closures.

    Everybody in Leeds has free access to the internet in their local library. Or at least in the ones which are still open. But as with newspapers, at present it’s still a question of the citizen having to go and look for the information. Perhaps the new website, when it finally arrives, will have the option to ask for alerts whenever there’s an update in chosen categories or geographical areas.

    Although that £250,000 sounds scary, it’s 56p per person per year. All those adverts should be somewhere on the website, but until we’re all cyborgs it’s not a massive price to pay and as you observe it helps keep the local press afloat. (I’m glad that YPN ltd had the good taste to change their name from Yorkshire Conservative Newspaper Company Limited back in the 60s, but that’s another story.)

    • Agree with all of that, Henry. They’re bound to be building the capability to provide email alerts into the new website. The shame is that when it comes the scrapping of the redundant print system will almost inevitably damage the local papers – something I really wouldn’t want to see.

  4. Yorkie says:

    Email alerts for planning applications have been available for some time now via Public Access on http://www.leeds.gov.uk. People need to register, say what are they are interested and they automatically get an email listing the appplications in that area. Unfortunately, advertsing in the local papers is a statutory, so until the law is changed there is no way to stop doing it. The last government did some consultation,but decided to maintain the status quo due to the numbers of people without access to the internet who would rely on newspapers.

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