£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?
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
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.
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).
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
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.