Online Journalism

Advertising on council websites – a few thoughts from the dark side

There was a really interesting conversation this morning on Twitter about councils advertising on their websites – which was started by Adrian Short (see his blog post, here, about his complaint to Nottigham City Council). I’ve tried to put the pertinent tweets together into a Storify, so that people can follow the debate. There’s probably more out there, so if you’ve got anything to add, please just tell me.

Anyway, I don’t have much to add to what Dave Briggs said here, or the debate, other than a few thoughts that come from my experience of working as a local journalist, where advertising often causes ructions.

The most salient example of this came for me a few years ago when the BNP chose to try to advertise in the Ham&High, a venerable liberal north London institution which has many Jewish readers. At the time I was a sub editor for the newspaper. The editor, Geoff Martin, chose to allow the advertising – pointing out, I think fairly, that the newspaper group, Archant, had chosen to take advertising from other political parties. To distinguish between different parties (choosing to accept advertising from some, but not others) wasn’t a consistent position. It would, he felt, be better to either accept all or decline all. And, consequently, it was only sensible to accept the advertising.

There were those who disagreed with his position, quite vehemently. This is as one would expect, given the BNP’s politics and it led to a very heated debate. Geoff was interviewed on the Today programme, defending his position.

There are a number of conclusions (and questions) that follow from this example that I think should concern any council that chooses to allow advertising:-

1). Do you have a policy for your advertising? Because if you don’t you leave yourself open to criticisms of inconsistency, which may be spectacularly unhelpful to you.

2). Can you ensure that the people who broker your advertising can avoid adverts that will break your own rules – much harder online than might at first appear to be the case?

3). Is it worth the effort? After all, revenues are often small (from things like Adsense) and don’t necessarily stack up if you consider the potential cost – in man-hours, e.t.c., from defending your position when things don’t go well?

This third point I think is crucial. Councils don’t know much about advertising – and therefore they don’t really understand the risk (or costs) that putting advertising on a site may generate. As a consequence of that how many have really thought through what might happen? For newspapers – and for other businesses who generate much of their revenue through advertising – these risks are understood and managed (but actually not entirely). For councils they are not likely to be a chief concern, nor should they be.

Councils, by their definition, are there to serve the people who live and work in their area. And it is, I think, unclear how that is best served by advertising – even if it might generate some small amount of money. Imagine, for a moment, what happens if an online service does generate income. Should the council continue to offer it even if it doesn’t serve the best needs of the council’s citizens?

My point here is that councils shouldn’t really be in the business of generating income. Other people can do that – and pay taxes that will contribute towards these websites. All of which, I think, seems a great deal more sensible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *