Rival Hackney newspapers unite against ‘town hall Pravda’

The two newspapers at loggerheads. Pic: Hackney Citizen

The two newspapers at loggerheads. Pic: Hackney Citizen

Hackney’s two newspapers have united in a campaign to prevent the council’s free newspaper from siphoning away their advertisers.

The Hackney Citizen has gained the support of their main commercial rival, The Hackney Gazette, as their war of words with the borough’s Mayor Philip Glanville intensifies.

The Citizen wrote an open letter to Glanville last Monday, calling for the council’s free fortnightly newspaper Hackney Today to cease taking advertising. The Citizen claims it puts extra pressure on local media already facing a challenging commercial environment.

“[Hackney Today] does not rely on advertising sales as its lifeblood. But local news publishers do,” said the Hackney Citizen, itself a free monthly newspaper, in the letter. “The council’s selling of advertising therefore makes the funding of effective government scrutiny more difficult and in so doing has an adverse effect on local democracy and debate.”

But Glanville hit back in a statement, saying: “Despite saying in 2013 that the Citizen had ‘never regarded Hackney Today as a competitor’ and that it was of ‘no particular concern’, its editor is now demanding that the Council gives up between £100-£150k in external income each year, which would be a substantial loss to the public purse.”

Now the Hackney Gazette – a weekly,  paid for newspaper – has weighed in as well, with its editor Ramzy Alwakeel telling the Hackney Citizen: “I hope Hackney Council agrees with me that the existence of a free press is an indispensable asset to public life in Hackney. I believe the best way for the town hall to communicate with the people who live here is by working with papers like the Gazette and the Citizen, not competing with them.”

Hackney Council takes paid-for advertising in Hackney Today, which is distributed free to all the borough’s homes and has a print run of 108,000 copies, as well as for its websites Destination Hackney and Hackney.gov.uk.

Glanville claims that taking advertising brings the council between £100,000 and £150,000 in revenue. The Mayor said that Hackney Today is a highly popular source of information about the council and its services, and that its ad revenue “takes pressure off scant public resources, but that the paper has always been run in a way that does not aggressively compete with other local titles.”

He added that most ad revenue comes from partners like the NHS, schools and housing associations, and that it sells its advertising through a national network rather than competing by taking ads from local businesses.

However, ads in the latest edition of Hackney Today – distributed to all the borough’s homes – included four pages of wrap-around advertising for luxury apartments with “prices from £695,000”.

The Citizen’s editor, Keith Magnum, told Eastlondonlines that they launched the campaign after a recent tweet from Polly Cziok, Hackney council’s head of communications, boasting of how well the council’s ad sales are going.

“With ad revenues down year on year, we’re operating in a very challenging financial environment,” said Magnum. “[Hackney council] are not charging market rates and so commercial publishers can’t compete.”

Free council newspapers elsewhere in the country have attracted criticism in the past as whilst they look similar to independent newspapers; some argue they operate as tools for councils to promote their own work, rather than producing independent journalism.

Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs, when campaigning for his current position, remarked: “I find offensive the idea that you should use council money to provide propaganda on the rates.”

In 2014 Eric Pickles, then local government minister, announced new guidelines which banned councils from distributing free newspapers more frequently than four times a year, however several councils have ignored this recommendation, including Hackney.

In May this year Tower Hamlets council’s weekly East End Life – which achieved notoriety over allegations it was a mouthpiece for controversial former mayor Lutfur Rahman – was closed by new mayor John Biggs and replaced by a quarterly news sheet.

This leaves Hackney as the only Eastlondonlines borough which has a frequent council newsheet: magazines Lewisham Life and Your Croydon are published four and five times a year respectively.

Hackney Citizen’s editor Magnum said he recognised the pressure the council’s budget was under, but said: “The council is operating amidst budget cuts, but previously they said £400,000 a year wouldn’t make a difference, and now they’re saying £150,000 does. They can’t have it both ways.”

If Hackney Today were to cease fortnightly publication, the local commercial press might also stand to gain from more council contracts for statutory advertising. However, some commentators have suggested that the decline of local newspapers cannot be blamed on council freesheets.

In 2010 Hammersmith & Fulham closed its own council newspaper after a similar campaign, but this was not enough to save the commercial Fulham & Hammersmith Chronicle, which itself closed in 2014.

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