Over last summer I spent some time with a hyperlocal newspaper (with the emphasis on paper, as they produce printed news) where I was undertaking primary research for my PhD project. During my time there we all became quite interested in statutory public notices — those small ads in the back of the paper that tell you about planning applications, road closures, and people applying to the local authority for various commercial licenses.
The current situation is that local government has a legal obligation to take out these notices in newspapers. That leads to the charge of subsidy and it also leads to people noticing that the statutory notices seem to cost a lot more than other similar adverts — “upwards of three times” according to Rob Dale of LGiU.
Local newspaper closures, the disruption of the local media industries by new entrants, and the financial pressures being faced by local authorities have meant that a debate about statutory notices has been gathering steam for some time. This month the government itself has started asking questions, and looks ready to put some money into finding answers through the Statutory notices for the 21st century pilot scheme.
You won’t be surprised to hear that the ears of hyperlocal producers have pricked up at this, and you also won’t be surprised to hear that some commentators have already championed them as possible saviours of the statutory notice — after all, as Rick Waghorn points out, most statutory notices are relevant within a very small area — an area congruent with hyperlocal activity. As Dave Harte puts it:
Hyperlocal media operations play into this debate for a couple of reasons. Firstly, many of them have significant local online audiences and also, in some areas they serve localities that might no longer have local newspaper representation.
Indeed the hyperlocal newspaper I was working with provides a news service to several communities that are not currently served by a local newspaper. They wanted to be able to take these notices as a public service, but they also wanted access to a slice of the pie. But any changes in the way notices are published that come about through these pilots will most probably reduce the size of the pie because the pilot is partly informed by the need to reduce costs within local government.
That’s a good thing on the one hand but on the other we are removing a large chunk of money from the media economy. There will be repercussions. One likely knock on is a further squeeze on local newspapers and that might lead to more closures: if the cash spent on these notices is reduced and if the market is opened to new entrants then local newspapers will earn a lot less. There are those who welcome this creative destruction (see some of the language here ), but there are counter arguments about accountability and local democracy: what is lost by saving this money? Will we not miss local papers? Is hyperlocal really ready to step up and take on all of local level accountability?
When we looked, last summer, into the rules that governed who could take statutory notices they were pretty simple: the notices had to be placed in a publication with ABC verified circulation. ABC verification can only be given to publications that meet very specific criteria about frequency of publication and methods of delivery. It costs about £3,000 to get ABC verified which isn’t a fortune if you can get at that ‘subsidy’ money. What seems clear to me, but what is unwritten, is that the important thing has always been for statutory notices to have some external verification and validation. An ABC audited newspaper has that, a hyperlocal blog doesn’t. Bureaucratic systems rely on everything being auditable. That’s why larger companies have approved supplier lists and purchase orders, that’s why I have to pay a service fee to a travel agent if I need to book a train fare at work… this is an accountability process, and the roots of statutory notices rules are surely based on accountability too. So in a sense the criticism that newspaper circulations are dwindling and therefore taking an advert in them gives a poor return misses the point of what a newspaper circulation is: it’s a safe, audited number that fits into a bureaucratic system.
I’ll be interested to see what comes out of the pilot schemes. For all that the statutory notice content could be location aware, hyperlocal, or personalised the most important thing will surely be that it can be audited and that it can fit into a bureaucratic process.
I do wonder about about how hyperlocal publications can fit into all this. It feels like they should fit because they get to those location niches better than anyone but hyperlocal coverage by postcode is very patchy: so we could deliver statutory notices by hyperlocal media but not to everyone.
The biggest problem with hyperlocal publishers playing in this space is that a lot of them run in an ad hoc manner when compared to a commercial newspaper. Not all of them, I should say, but a lot of them. Commercial newspapers have a routine that’s visible and obvious and pretty much the same from place to place: there’s a cut off time when things hit the presses, there’s a known number of copies produced, those copies go into the world, and then the cycle starts again. Hyperlocal publishing, as I keep arguing, is not a singular easily contained thing in the same way as newspaper publishing: there are so many different ways to operate a hyperlocal media operation, very few of them have a known production cycle and a lot of them, still, have to fit in around people’s domestic lives and paid work. Any model for working with hyperlocal media as part of the changes to statutory public notices would do well to bear that point in mind.