Council newspaper journalist hits back: 'We all work in the same industry, let's stick together'

The NUJ has been criticised for backing council-run newspapers which are under threat of being closed down by new legislation. Here a journalist on a council-run weekly hits back

The editorial team that produces Tower Hamlets Council’s weekly newspaper East End Life have become accustomed to reading articles about our paper and our alleged part in the destruction of the newspaper industry.

Most of them quote newspaper owners, editors, PR chiefs and media commentators. As ordinary NUJ members, we would like to add a few points of our own to the debate.

The East End Life team are all professional journalists who mostly come from local, regional or national newspaper backgrounds. Many of us worked for years as editors, subs and reporters on papers up and down the country.

Most of us came here because it represented a better offer than the publications we were working on. Our wages and conditions were much improved, it allowed us to provide a better standard of living for our families and helped us achieve a decent work/life balance.

Furthermore, the demise of local and regional newspapers has nothing to do with the rise of council publications or the recession. Most local newspapers have been run down for years –jobs cut to the bone and salaries pitifully low but we haven’t noticed a corresponding cut in shareholders’ dividends at the big newspaper companies which dominate the British media.

And many of the group editors and senior managers on these newspapers, who bemoan the demise of editorial quality, have also been enjoying the benefits of boom, whilst squeezing the staff writing the stories, taking the photos and subbing the pages.

It seems odd at a time when journalists’ jobs are being culled all over the country that some call for more to be lost –if our newspaper ceased to exist tomorrow, would the rest of the industry up their game, increase pagination, raise wages and create more jobs in the newsroom? We think not.

Our position is, and always has been, that we work in the same industry. We must stick together to defend the jobs, pay and conditions of all journalists, regardless of who they work for.

We “jumped ship” because the papers we worked on did not pay “grown-up” wages –try paying a mortgage and bringing up kids on less than £20k for a 45-hour week,especially in London. It might be feasible if you’ve just left uni or have benefactors who can help you pay the rent while you struggle through on poverty wages. But those options are just not open to the majority, especially those from working class backgrounds where spare cash is hard to come by.

Many of us are women and have children, qualifications for low status, low paid jobs in a lot of industries. Working for a local authority allows us access to flexi-time, decent maternity leave and pay, better holiday entitlement –advantages not given by profligate council bosses but won after long years of struggle by public sector trade unions.

We should all strive not to play the newspaper owners’ game –it’s classic divide and rule. If we all blame each other for the crisis in British newspapers, we’ll be too busy to see who the real culprits are –those who have profiteered for years off our labours, slashed jobs and driven down wages, only to complain about how editorial quality is plummeting.

If journalists stick together, we have a fighting chance of stopping the rot.

Helen Watson is Tower Hamlets Council NUJ Chapel and Unison shop steward and is writing on  on behalf of NUJ members in Tower Hamlets Council’s communications team.

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