Johnston Press plans to give council branded pages

Johnston Press could hand editorial control of a number of newspaper pages to North Yorkshire Council as part of a plan that will see the authority-run title scrapped.

The council said it needed to deliver ‘significant levels of savings’and would cease publication of its own newspaper and instead forge partnerships with a number of its local papers.

North Yorkshire Council said that an internal review into communications with residents found that costs could be reduced by almost £300,000 annually by scrapping its own newspaper and instead partnering with the local press.

As one of a range of cost reduction alternatives, the council has entered a six-month pilot project with Johnston Press and is in discussions with Newsquest over a similar partnership.

One of the two regional groups, the council said, had offered to provide the council with editorial control of two branded pages in five of its newspapers each month for the local authority to replicate services currently carried by its own publication.

Press Gazette understands that this group is Johnston Press, publisher of titles including Scarborough Evening News and the Whitby Gazette, and that the council is holding discussions with Newsquest along similar lines, however those talks are not at such an advanced stage.

Currently, North Yorkshire Council spends £389,000 annually on its publication, the NY Times.

The council distributes 11 editions of the 20-page newspaper each year to 270,000 households and 30,000 businesses in the region.

The frequency of the publication allows the council to use it to carry recruitment ads and statutory notices, but a meeting of the council’s executive earlier this week ruled that changes needed to be made to save money.

“Partnerships with local newspapers have been explored in some detail, given the potential level of cost saving,” stated the minutes from the executive committee meeting.

“This option has involved an approach by one of the national newspaper groups, owner of local newspapers in the county, to consider how they could cover council news and information, in local newspapers, (both paid-for and free-sheets), at a reduced cost to producing NY Times.”

Proposals to use local papers as an alternative way of publicising services and vacancies, the council said, could reduce costs to around £100,000 a year.

As the initial pilot would only be with Johnston Press it would not cover the whole of North Yorkshire, the council said. However, it is hopeful talks with Newsquest would conclude with a similar proposal.

“Whilst the newspapers cannot deliver the same penetration rate as NY Times, the newspapers would provide coverage in key locations,” the council said.

“There are some limitations to the proposal, in terms of coverage and readership of local newspapers.

“Whilst two pages in each publication will provide some content, the volume of information communicated by the council would be reduced, but will be more than any proposal to remove NY Times totally.

“With most newspapers publishing on a daily or weekly basis, if residents don’t purchase a newspaper on that day, they will have missed the opportunity to read the information – NY Times has a long shelf life, which is not usually the case for local newspapers.

“The use of local newspaper websites will help improve this.”

Local newspapers would benefit from increased income and potentially increased readership, the council add.

The emergence of this deal comes as councils across the country seek to make budget cuts by closing their newspapers.

Tower Hamlets currently spends around £300,000 each year on its publication East End Life but is to consider proposals including abolition and reducing frequency of delivery to save money.

Similar plans are afoot with Southwark Council while Hammersmith & Fulham Council’s H&F News has already been axed.

The thorny issue of council-run papers seemed to be heading for some kind of resolution last year when communities minister Eric Pickles outlined his intention to stop council taxpayers’ money being spent on ‘frivolous town hall propaganda papers”.

However, the Commons Local Government Select Committee threw a spanner in the works last week by questioning a number of Pickles’s proposals.

MPs said his proposals have ‘potentially negative implications for local democracy’and therefore called on the Government to commission an independent inquiry to quantify the impact of council papers on the independent press.

Stephen Plews, managing director of the Johnston Press publishing centres based in Harrogate and Scarborough, said: “I am pleased that we now have the opportunity to work with North Yorkshire County Council and Newsquest to trial this alternative strategy to North Yorkshire Times.

“We have collectively worked on this project to achieve a solution that meets the need and benefits both ourselves, Newsquest and the County Council”

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