Have I Got Too Much News For You?
The ‘Carmarthenshire News’, the six-times-yearly newspaper circulated by the Local Service Board which includes Carmarthenshire County Council,* was the focus of a focus group yesterday.** About two dozen residents and council representatives, including deputy leader Cllr Pam Palmer, assembled in the Strategic Co-ordination Centre of Dyfed Powys Police in Llangunnor for two hours of afternoon discussion. The residents were members of the Citizen’s Panel, the 50 Plus Forum, and the Disability Coalition.
Gwyneth Ayers, the council’s corporate policy and partnership manager, introduced proceedings and told us how important communications are to the council. Over to us, on three square tables, each with a council ‘facilitator’. Ours was Richard, very polite and patient. I had done a tiny bit of homework and had looked up the costs of printing and distributing Carmarthenshire News, £5,768.26 and £17,400.73 per issue, respectively, a total of £23,168.99 for each issue.
The other residents on our table were surprised at these costs, which the council maintains are almost offset by advertising revenue. The adverts, though, are overwhelmingly from the council itself and other public-sector bodies, and so taxpayers pick up the final bill. The costs of compiling the newspaper do not appear to be in the public domain, but could be somewhere in the budget for ‘direct communications’ which in 2012-13 was £736,000 gross, £691,000 net.
The council wanted to know our views on the content of the paper. What should there be more of? Less of? Our table agreed that the present costs are very hard to justify when services such as day centres and lunch clubs are disappearing, when village and small-town schools are closed to save money, and when public toilets are also a vanishing convenience. Public toilets may not be glamorous, but they are important for folk who do not want to remain stuck in their own homes all day.
In the end we thought, one table out of three,*** that a considerably slimmed-down Carmarthenshire News, carrying information on core services such as rubbish collections and recycling, on consultation meetings open to the public, and on who to contact with queries, complaints or suggestions, could be circulated at lower cost than at present. The expense would fall even more if publication was three or four times a year, instead of the present six times. We thought it worth exploring the abandonment of house-to-house distribution in favour of depositing copies in post offices, shops, pubs, surgeries, libraries and other venues in each community, for residents to take home if they wished. The disabled and housebound would be able to request a mailed copy, but in these days of severe service cuts, it does not seem necessary for the Carmarthenshire News to be delivered, at considerable expense, to every household.
A ‘pick up if you want’ system would require fewer copies to be printed. Rising numbers of residents, me for one, look for information on the county council’s website, and so do not need a printed paper. Why not cut the print run and save more trees?
I found it a worthwhile afternoon. Our views, or some of them, will be fed back to the decision-makers in the communications department, and that’s a lot better than having no input at all.
Pat Dodd Racher
* Other members include Hywel Dda Health Board, Dyfed Powys Police, University of Wales Trinity St David, and Carmarthenshire Association of Voluntary Services.
** There is another focus group today, Tuesday May 21st, at 6pm in Llanelli Library.
*** Summaries from the two other tables gave the impression that some residents are very happy with Carmarthenshire News as it stands, but they did not appear to have focused on weighing the costs against the benefits.