Posted by 147/Miles Barter
15 August, 2005
Britain’s local papers - and the journalists who work for them - are being run into the ground by five big companies who care nothing for communities, and are obsessed with profit.
The vast majority of regional titles are owned by one of these companies:
- Newsquest - the UK arm of giant US publisher Gannett. Last year’s record word-wide profits were 1.3 billion dollars. Yet many Newsquest journalists are paid so badly they have to claim family tax credit.
- Trinity Mirror - publishers of the Daily Mirror which wants to make poverty history. Last year they made record profits of more than £200 million but fully qualified senior journalists on their Midlands weeklies earn £14,000pa.
- Northcliffe- owned by the Daily Mail. They make profits of more than £100 million but have just announced a cuts package of £25 million. And they aggressively oppose union recognition.
- Johnston Press - based in Edinburgh. Their owner, Freddie Johnston, was placed above the Queen in this year’s rich list. Graduate trainees on many of their weekly papers routinely start on less than £13,000.
- Guardian Media - yes the ones who own the liberal Guardian. Fully qualified senior journalists on their weekly papers in Greater Manchester earn £17,172 – that’s £172 more than a McDonald’s trainee manager earns from day one. The company even de-recognised the NUJ when journalists at the Greater Manchester group had the temerity to vote for industrial action in 2002.
Journalists are streaming out of the industry for jobs in PR, teacher-training courses, and - in a growing number of cases - to work as train drivers.
The news editor of the Salford Advertiser left this summer for a management job at McDonald’s on nearly twice the money and with a car thrown in.
Despite the cash overflowing from their bank accounts - all the big players made record profits last year - there are almost constant cuts.
At the Yorkshire Post - where profits have been rising steadily - journalists over 55 have been asked if they would like to volunteer for redundancy.
At the Manchester Evening News and the Birmingham Evening Mail the number of pages has been slashed in the past two months.
Journalists at the Sheffield Star have voted for industrial action over the non-replacement of people who leave.
The companies say they are being hit by a fall in advertising revenue - but they aren’t in danger of losing money, just faced with the prospect of not making record profits again.
These cuts, low morale, poor training, the constant loss of experienced staff, and ever earlier deadlines mean that the news service provided to communities is becoming worse and worse.
When the Manchester Evening News outraged staff by announcing an early morning edition with no consultation one sub-editor summed things up at a chapel meeting by quipping: ‘It’ll be yesterday’s news tomorrow.’
It is taken as read that most evening papers are already yesterday’s news today. New technology, staff cuts, and printing in remote sites are forcing deadlines earlier and earlier.
The editor of one Lancashire evening paper boasted to me that they never missed their print deadlines - they hadn’t even tried to changes pages on September 11 2001.
Coverage of courts, of councils, and of almost everything else is being run down.
The editor of the Lancashire Evening Telegraph issued a memo to staff urging them not to challenge secrecy orders in court without checking first that he really wanted to. The journalists were outraged. The implication was that it was best not to bother, and getting the editor to the phone would take so much time it would become pointless.
The commitment to the local community has almost completely disappeared. The last time I checked with Companies House the directors of Newsquest (Blackburn) and Newsquest (Bradford) were the same four people. Three lived in Surrey and one in Staffordshire.
Everyday these companies suck thousands of pounds out of local economies they claim to champion and send the money to rich shareholders hundreds, or even thousands, of miles away.
The Bradford Telegraph and Argus ran a campaign called 'Buy it in Bradford'. Everyday the newspaper was taking more than £10,000 out of the West Yorkshire economy and sending it to shareholders in McLean, Virgina, USA.
The South Yorkshire Times recently slashed its sports pages by half to save money. How can, for example, Mexborough judo club be expected to find a medal winner for London 2012 when its local paper is being forced to cut coverage of community sport?
The South Yorkshire Times is owned by Johnston Press - a company with a profit margin last year of 33 percent. That’s higher than the HSBC Bank.
All the other media companies point to that figure, say their shareholders are clamouring for the same, and use it as an excuse to pay low wages and to slash and burn.
In an Orwellian move Northcliffe have called their £25 million cuts package 'Aim Higher'. They don’t want higher standards. They don’t even want higher sales. They just want higher profit margins.
It’s short-term thinking on a giant scale. Only this year’s profit margin matters. High staff turnover is regarded as good – because gaps between replacing people mean less money spent.
As well as low pay journalists on local papers complain constantly of over-work, long hours, bullying bosses and stress.
People are starting to notice. In South Wales a group of businessmen have announced plans to start a new morning paper because they perceive the Western Mail as down market and irrelevant to them.
But the there is some light. The NUJ has won back union recognition at scores of new papers. Thousands of young people, a large proportion of them women, have joined the union and taken militant action over pay – although it is never reported in the mainstream media.
The lowest paid are 20 to 30 percent better off than they were in 2002 when the strikes started.
This summer journalists in Coventry and South London have been on strike over poor wages.
The provincial press in 2005 is living proof of one of the CPBF’s key principals – that organised labour is the best tool for fighting for a properly resourced and diverse media.