A £1m Google News Initiative-funded project seeks to modernise public notices for the digital age and sustain a crucial revenue source for UK local publishers.
Public notices are issued by local authorities to alert the public to new developments in their area. They have to be placed in print local newspapers to make sure they have a full public airing.
More importantly, local authorities also pay for this. The News Media Association (NMA) estimates this is worth around £10m-a-year to the news industry, but last August, a government whitepaper proposed removing this arrangement, citing that residents should not need to rely on newspapers for these updates.
The NMA urged the government to reconsider, citing concerns around transparency of public interest decisions, and the financial impact this would have on local news publishers.
The Cairncross Review into a sustainable future for journalism has also cited the importance of public notices in the long-term: "Although this requirement is not intended to subsidise the press but to ensure statutory notices are brought to the attention of a wide audience, it is in practice a direct subsidy, and it remains an important strand of revenue for many local newspapers - though it is not clear whether it remains the most effective means of advertising public notices."
The new Online Public Notices Portal will see the creation of a common online portal containing public notices published in print by the UK regional and local newspapers. A beta version should be launched in the summer of 2021.
Publishers will use the portal to upload public notices that appeared in the print. The notices will then be accessible both through the central portal itself - fully searchable by postcode, type of notice and keywords - and via dedicated sections or products on 800 publishers' own local media websites.
The portal will deliver notifications for users who have signed up to receive alerts about certain planning notices, or notices relating to a specific geographic area. The type of alerts is still to be finalised but it is likely to include email alerts and push notifications.
£1m is a lot of money for an industry in dire straits. Benedicte Autret, head of news partnership, Google UK, Ireland and France told Journalism.co.uk in an email that Google chose to support the project because it represented a long-term financial solution for the news industry.
"Local journalism is critical to our communities, our democracy and the wider news ecosystem and that is why we want to play our part in enabling a sustainable future. This project will help maintain a vital source of revenue and will be available to all UK local news organisations," says Autret.
She added that it follows on from the Digital Growth Programme, a free training programme to help establish and grow the online business of small-to-medium-sized news publishers who have more recently started developing their digital platforms.
Besides funding the project, a Google user experience expert will also sit on the steering committee to advise on technical solutions for the development of the public notices platform.
NMA chairman Henry Faure Walker also said in an email to Journalism.co.uk that he is optimistic about these new initiatives. He added they will boost the visibility of public notices by harnessing local news media’s online reach and its relationship with local communities.
"The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the vital importance of trusted and accurate journalism produced by local news media in keeping the public informed and holding authority to account," says Walker.
"The Public Notices Portal will deliver additional value for the public and further strengthen democracy at a local level as the sector continues to play its part in the fightback against the virus.
"As the industry works together to deliver these initiatives over the coming months, it is absolutely essential that the government commits to keeping the partnership between local news media and local councils strong by retaining the statutory requirement for local authorities to publish planning notices in local newspapers in print."
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