Seth Goodin’s Idea for local papers is close but not bang on…

Over at his blog, Seth Goodin speaks about how real estate companies should look into setting up local newspapers – and he gives not bad reasons for it.

It’s a cute idea – and something I’ve been thinking about recently as well – but I think he’s slightly missing the mark on this one. Yes, as newspaper companies try to reduce debt/increase profitability (most UK locals are still profitable, US is a tad different) and hammer staff at locals, someone should be stepping up with the local paper but who should it be?

I think it should be the local councils. And I think it could not only be easily done, but also become a great revenue income generator for them

Look at it this way:

• Most councils currently produce a newsletter – monthly, bimonthly
• All councils have a press office/public relations office
• Education is a council service
• Most council press offices are actually better staffed than the local press
• Councils have fantastic – in theory – access to the other main services in the area: other politicians like MPs, MSPs, Euro MPs, senators and so on (this post is going to be fairly UK-centric but the philiosophy could apply elsewhere)

So while it may not work as a daily operation, it would certainly work as a weekly or biweekly operation: a 16-32 page printed newspaper. Free. Delivered through your door. Daily updates/Tweets/Whatever’s delivered via online.

For the council the benefits are:

• Council message is being put out there front and centre
• Also get to inform about what else is going on in the area
• Tie in with the local NHS Trust and others to provide news
• You inform the community about everything that is going on
• You will also learn about council issues/problems instead of the public going elsewhere

Now the one question everyone is going to scream is “editorial independence” – do you have it? Do you allow for someone to come in with a story moaning about a council service? Yes.

Why? Because as part of the balance for that story you can explain why the council hasn’t been able to resolve the problem, thereby engaging people in council activity and pointing out to people that if they want change, they have to get involved in the process. From a journalistic point of view you get a balanced story, from the council PR point of view you get to see the story upfront and have your comment/explanation given good space.

Most councils already provide newsletters that are seen as little more than fluff. By upping the actual news content, you ensure people pick it up and read it – and that way the fluff is read along with the harder material.

Now, this could be costly, but I don’t think so. For a start, there’s already a budget for newsletters so you tap into that as your startup cost. Then you accept something that most publishers seem to have forgotten: printed news is disposable within 24 hours. That means you don’t need expensive paper. Get a decent form of newsprint that allows for decent colour pictures appearing, but that’s it.

Now advertising would also be a strong item – not only from local companies but also national ad agencies and fees from the Scottish Government or Westminster or other government body for their advertising.

Setting up a proper ad sales team for this – you could easily get a few skilled people from all the layoffs taking place – could see it turn a profit in a relatively quick time.

Let’s say it’s a weekly (I prefer twice a week, but let’s start slow to judge success). Now the council has people who already deliver items weekly but if they aren’t available – councils are also facing cutbacks – what about using another group who visit your house every week. Binmen.

Scoff all you want, but think about it. By having them deliver the information (and before anyone cracks the joke: take it away the following week as well, ha ha) you make use of an existing resource. You pay them a little extra for the service, but it would still be cheaper than hiring others.

If this worked you could see councils needing to take on a few more people from local areas in their communications units – people to help gather the information, subs, web types – so there’s employment gains (probably part time as much as anything) while allowing councils to tick the boxes of many of the services they are providing.