Media Management

A newspaper and the non-story of a council’s travel expenses

Because some spending details are available as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request does not mean they are scandalous. Take the Evening Star’s latest revelation under the headline “Suffolk: County Council staff takes 175 trips abroad — at a cost of £98,000″.

That is in a period of six years making the cost of foreign travel less than £16,500 a year. The average cost of a trip is £560.

That looks to me like careful control of expenses. I doubt if many organisations of similar size would appear so frugal if their travel expenses were exposed to scrutiny.

The figures suggest budget airlines and far from luxurious hotels.

The newspaper reports a county spokesman saying that one trip to Africa, which cost £16,000 was mainly funded through the children partaking in the trip raising money. He said that the reason was to take eight children in care to visit orphanages in Africa.

That sounds like a commendable project.

And “almost £500 was forked out” to visit an exhibition in Amsterdam to consider the best speed cameras for the county. It lasted three days which hardly suggests an official living the high life.

We need our officials to get out and talk to people, to hear the experiences of others so that they are better able to advise councillors.

One employee had £2,000 to attend a five day course in Boston as a part of a masters degree. This kind of spending is clearly not common and providing development opportunities to staff is important in recruiting and retaining the able people we need working for us.

Wordblog in its earlier incarnation was about the media, and it is the decision that this story was worth running that worries me.

It is the job of the press to hold public bodies to account. Enquiring into all aspects of spending is an important part of this. And the Evening Star has produced some important stories including the revelation of the money spent on photographs of chief executive Andrea Hill.

The chief executive’s spending on hotel stays in Suffolk, now a part of the investigation into her conduct, is another.

But this story about travel expenses undermines the good work. It enables those who should be held to account to turn on the media with valid complaints. “Just another example of the press pursuing a vendetta,” they can say with credibility.

I fear that FoI requests have given regional newspapers, hit by declining sales, reduced advertising revenue, and the resulting loss of reporters, a cheap semblance of investigative reporting.

The in-depth analysis of what the county council is really doing is expensive, demanding staff time which is no longer available. But that is what we need.

The challenge to our regional media is how to respond the the challenges of changes which are much more long-term than the current economic low. The internet has changed everything but I believe print will be with us for a long time.

I will return to this subject to look at ways in which our regional press could operate in a world of hyperlocal web news and social media to better serve its print readers.

Bloggers can enhance council reporting

In Suffolk we are a bit behind some other parts of the country in developing citizen coverage of councils by bloggers, but we are beginning to make our mark.

I believe there is a need for more people to hold councils to account in an area where there is little pluralism in the mainstream media. In Suffolk Archant controls most, including the two daily papers which now share reporters. BBC plans to develop hyper-local coverage have been hit over the head by government at the prompting of msm which has been building regional monopolies.

Encouragement to bloggers is provided by Kate Belgrave writing about her experiences of covering council meetings at Liberal Democracy under the title, Bloggers are best at covering local cuts across the UK: so we are being banned.

Which reminds me that Simon Higgins, Suffolk County Council’s head of communications, has not responded to my request, made on February 25, to allow filming by community groups in public libraries.

'Investing in news brings bigger returns'

I have always liked research which confirms what I have always believed. So I am delighted that a study by the University of Missouri-Columbia finds: “Newspapers are under spending in the newsroom and over spending in circulation and advertising.”

The full report is to be published in the spring (with convincing methodology, I trust) but one of the academics behind the research, Esther Thorson, has said: “If you invest more in the newsroom, do you make more money? The answer is yes. If you lower the amount of money spent in the newsroom, then pretty soon the news product becomes so bad that you begin to lose money.”

Another researcher said: “By looking at the data, investing in news quality does pay off. It improves circulation and advertising revenues, which are the bulk of a newspaper’s revenues. Better news quality drives circulation and circulation drives advertising revenues.”

The research covers US newspapers with circulations of under 85,000 where editorial spending has seemed generous compared with the UK. Lucas Grindley who led me to this research feels the conclusion is too simple in the face of the development of online news.

I have argued running online alongside print requires greater investment in editorial rather than redundancies. The bosses of the UK regional papers should read this report when it is published in April.

Norway proposes press law to 'tame Montgomery'

A proposal to incorporate the rights and duties of editors and their editorial freedom into Norwegian law to protect them from meddlesome owners is said to be a response to David Montgomery’s acquisition of Orkla Media last year. While denying that it was a direct precedent for the new law, the culture minister, Trond Giske cited a dramatic change in the nature of the country’s media ownership as one of the triggers, according to Kristine Lowe.

Norway has had a voluntary agreement on editors’ rights and duties for more than 50 years, signed by the editors and owners  associations.

Montgomery’s Mecom business’s trail of acquisitions across northern Europe is taking him into very different territory to that he experienced in the UK when he ran the Mirror group and established a reputation for ruthless management. Germany and the Scandinavian countries have a more consensual tradition than the UK.

But the sudden replacement of the Berliner Zeitung’s editor last year suggests he he has lost none of his old style. The journalists were extremely disgruntled about the lack of consultation but there was little they could do about it.

It is difficult to see how a law could make much difference unless owners’ sole rights to appoint editors were taken away. His record suggests that Monty is not easily tamed.

Is Murdoch's blood thinning?

Stephen Glover in the Independent thinks Rupert Murdoch may be losing his touch. He cites a string of problems for the News International empire, and writes: “We have got so used to the idea that Mr Murdoch is invincible that we forget that he is made of flesh and blood like the rest of us, and that the flesh is ageing and the blood thinning.”

Dacre's attack turned against him

The knife with which Paul Dacre, the Mail’s editor-in-chief, attacked the “subsidariat” — loss-making media — is neatly turned against him by Peter Preston in today’s Observer.

In his Cudlipp lecture Dacre attacked the BBC, the Guardian, The Times and the Independent, saying: “Subsidised papers are, by definition, unable to survive in the free market”

Preston writes:

But pause! Is that a shiver of apprehension running down Kensington High Street? He couldn’t really have been talking about the Evening Standard he edits-in-chief, could he? Losses, when last disclosed: £18m – though the resourceful (departing) MD has taken £14m and then £12m swings at its cost base over the past couple of years, which might have produced a smile if circulation, down 18.1 per cent in a year (and only 209,000 of it paid for) hadn’t kept falling along with those costs; a familiar litany of decline.

He is writing in the context of the London free evenings battle between Dacre’s Associated and News International. One set of questions is about Associated’s subsidy of the Standard and the other is for News International. He asks:

What’s the strategy here? Is it to tear into Daily Mail cash reserves (on behalf of the Sun) and do Associated damage? Is it to slug out a victory that kills the Standard and London Lite, leaving thelondonpaper as a monopoly asset with a possibly golden future? Is it to start a paid-for London evening of Murdoch’s own, or broker some kind of merger? Or just to swamp Westminster in waste paper?

With neither free paper producing anything like enough advertising to turn a profit, it looks like an increasingly futile and damaging battle.

Telegraph's Will Lewis at the blog front

Having revisited The Times blogs (see previous post), I felt it was time to take a look at the Telegraph’s, another of my targets last October when I asked what was the purpose of newspaper blogs. There I found editor Will Lewis busy at the Davos Diary.

He was tired of talking about blogging. He had gone to one of the high-powered meetings to talk about how traditional media has to adapt their business models to meet the challenges of the web and broader digital changes.

But he found it all got bogged down by colleagues, Americans in particular, who wanted to talk about the “meaning of blogging” and whether old media journalists should do it.

In his mind there was no debate to be had. “Blogging and enabling readers to interact and comment on our thoughts is part of what we do at the Telegraph,” he writes.

I still have not looked at changes in the paper’s blogs but I did find the editor leading from the front.

Changes coming at top of News International?

Is Les Hinton about to step down from his role as supremo of Rupert Murdoch’s News International business in the UK?

I suspect that Roy Greenslade must have had a better source than the “rumour-mongers” he mentions before suggesting that Hiton will stand down soon. The replacement suggested is John Witherow, currently editor of the Sunday Times.

Montgomery finds new friends in the City

David Montgomery, and his Mecom investment vehicle which has been collecting newspapers across Europe, seems to be gaining new friends among london’s institutional investors.

Remember that back in July when he acquired Orkla Media in Norway there were rumours that he could not raise enough money in the City. In the even the Orkla group, keen to get rid of their media arm, took £73 million in Mecom shares and made a loan of £93 million.

Now Orkla has sold its 20% share in Mecom to various new and existing shareholders following a series of presentations to institutional investors. And the price of 68p a share gives the Norwegian group a nice £25 million profit.

Kristine Lowe who, as ever, is on top of this story, quotes an employee representative as saying: “I think they realised they would have attracted a lot of criticism for some of the unpopular decisions Mecom makes.”

As a result of the sale, Orkla’s Roar Engeland leaves the Mecom board. In the Mecom announcement Montgomery said: “We are delighted to have widened our shareholder base as a consequence of the placing.”

Only last week employee representatives from Mecom businesses in Norway, Denmark, Holland, Germany and Poland met in Oslo to set up a formal network. They fear that the 713 job losses announced for 2007/8 will not be the last and that the high demands for profitability will need more extensive cost cutting.

Job cuts and fears of more, bring Mecom staff together

I have neglected David Montgomery and his investment vehicle Mecom’s activites in Europe since the purchase of the Norwegian Orkla group last year, but Kristine Lowe has been following events. Her latest post is here.

She writes:

Fundamentally, this is a story of globalisation and the democratisation of finance: what happens when a venture capitalist or a big corporation from abroad comes to a small country and make big acquisitions with borrowed money? It often creates fear and uncertainty about distance to the decision-making, the extent of restructuring called for with dramatically higher demands to profitability, and fear that the new owner will challenge established practices and force the acquired businesses to abide by foreign ideas and foreign principles.

Employee representatives from Mecom businesses in Norway, Denmark, Holland, Germany and Poland met in Oslo a week ago to set up a formal network. They fear that the 713 job losses announced for 2007/8 will not be the last and that the high demands for profitability will need more extensive cost cutting.

Olav Skjegstad, an employee representative and board member of Mecom Europe, was one of those at the meeting and he told Lowe:

We expect very turbulent times ahead; new situations may develop as a result of new acquisitions and similar, and we need to be prepared for that. The network is no guerilla group, we want a correct relationship to our new owner, but we also feel the need to keep up to date on what’s happening throughout the media group: what happens in one country might happen in others.

And if all that looks as if it is happening a long way from the UK, remember there has long been speculation that Montgomery, former chief executive of the Mirror, would like to get back into British newspapers.

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