The Scottish Government, under Cabinet Secretary John Swinney, has long identified for reform the practice of local authorities and the Government spending money on newspaper advertising of public information notices (PINS) such as planning applications, tenders and public health information.
It felt, rightly, that the mass migration of audiences and content to the Internet left this practice of paying for print publication out of kilter with today’s society and unnecessarily wasteful.Local authorities currently spend a total of £6 million per annum on advertising such notices.
Government has a statutory duty to provide such notices to the public domain but this can now be fulfilled in more than one way.
Its consequent proposal to remove PINS to website-only availability in the near future caused a predictable furore. The newspaper industry, national and local, found an energy for vigorous protectionist lobbying against the proposal which it has failed to show in taking steps to ensure the viability of its own future.
The move to the Internet of audiences, content and advertising revenues has been marked and constant for a considerable time. The threat to much information delivery by print has been serious and clear.
Newspapers, in the days before they lost a high proportion of their audiences to the Internet, had the opportunity to seize change – as any vigorous industry must do. They should have accepted the inevitable, embraced the opportunities of the new medium with invention and shepherded their audiences, while they had them, to their own new online services.
Instead of this they have fought a doomed rearguard action, seeking to preserve their traditional practices in the face of evidence of progressive failure.
Yes, they have websites – but with few exceptions, these do not use the immediacy of the internet in information delivery to any great extent. News can be a day old in the nationals and the major provincials and, as in print, a week old in the local press websites.
As we have often said, the concept of ‘keeping’ news for a week is nothing less than bizarre in today’s world – but hey, that’s what they do and that’s what we’re used to.
The ‘last orders’ call in the last chance saloon is daily nearing.
But instead of getting to grips with what they need to do to survive, the newspapers – an industry whose previous weddedness to so-called ‘Spanish Practices’ almost killed it off before – have simply fought to protect what is nothing more than a public subsidy: being paid to print government public notices that can more effectively, searchably, be provided free elsewhere.
With opposition parties grasping at anything resembling activity, the lobby has been successful.
The minority Scottish Government has accepted that it cannot muster the support needed from the other parties to get the reform measures through the Scottish Parliament. It has now withdrawn from this proposal.
This is of course no more than a stay of execution. PINS will, sooner or later, be published only on the Internet and will be freely available there.
If the newspaper industry uses this subsidy to buy itself time to make up lost ground on Internet services as best it can, it will be money worth paying – in the short term.
It is in Scotland’s interest that it should do so.
The growth of a strong, independent, vigilant, informed and fast news information service is the only hope we have to offer scrutiny to an increasingly authoritarian, unaccountable and baldly dishonest UK government.
In the meantime, For Argyll will continue what, presciently, it began last week – publishing free the weekly digest of planning applications submitted to Argyll and Bute Council.
The Scottish government will continue to develop its online advertising portal for the public sector; and the vacuous Ian Gray, Leader of the Scottish Labour group described the withdrawal of the legislation as ‘a victory for local newspapers’.
Can he spell the word ‘pyrrhic’? He – and the newspapers – may learn to do so.
Note: Argyll and Bute Council spent £118,000 on advertising public information notices in the year 2008-2009.