FT editor Barber warned by NUJ chapel: 'Strains are appearing in very many areas'

The National Union of Journalists chapel at the Financial Times has criticised plans to introduce a single edition of the newspaper. (Picture: Shutterstock)

According to one well-placed source around half of the FT's 15 night editorial staff could lose their jobs as a result of the proposed change as the print edition does away with late-night updates.

Editor Lionel Barber told staff in an email in May that the plans were being brought forward from March 2016 to 1 October this year.

He told staff in the email: “We have progressively simplified the production of the newspaper.

"We made another breakthrough with last year's redesign.

"The next step, supported by the FT's commercial teams, is to move to a single edition, one for the UK and one for international."

Barber said that newsdesks in New York and Hong Kong have "taken on more responsibility for the global news operation", but added: "More needs to be done."

"It is not enough to cater for regional audiences," he said.

"We must turn the principle of passing on the global news baton into practice.

"This means, in effect, that the New York operation will exert more influence on the global news agenda after 8pm London time.

"A small, versatile late production team in London will focus on digital output."

In the email, Barber also told his staff that it was time for the FT to “end the print-dominated mentality and process in the newsroom” as it strives to reach a combined print and digital circulation of 1m by 2018. The newspaper announced in February that it had reached 504,000 digital subscribers.

He also said in the email: “Reporters are the sine qua non of a successful digital newsroom.

"They have to adjust the rhythm of their working day to assist the timely completion of breaking news stories and pre-planned articles in sync with the broadcast schedule.

"They must also provide relevant data and other material to achieve the full text-plus expression of their journalism.”

In response, Steve Bird – the FT's NUJ father of chapel – told Barber in a letter (which has been circulated to staf) that members were concerned the plan to move to a single edition in October is "premature" and that the plan "runs the risk of hurting our reputation, particularly in the US, and, by virtue of the erosion of night staffing levels, will damage our ability to live up to the demands of becoming a 24-hour operation”.

He was critical of the “broadcast schedule” outlined by Barber, saying it “exists more in theory than in reality” and said that the “erosion of numbers of production staff” was not compatible with plans for the "timely completion of breaking news stories and pre-planned articles in sync with the broadcast schedule”.

Bird said in his letter that editors "fear that their specialist skills and the time required to keep up on fast-moving or breaking news is being compromised by a less responsive, more hierarchical system that leaves managers and teams struggling to cope with too many demands on their time".

He said that production staff are concerned a lack of numbers after 8pm is delaying online publishing "beyond sensible hours for a European audience".

Bird said: “Poor staffing levels have also meant that some desks can all but stop functioning when hit by sickness; important stories can be overlooked because of other competing demands; and there is a noticeable breakdown of communications on the first floor. Bottlenecks are also appearing in the visual departments as demand outstrips supply.

"Strains are appearing in very many areas because of a mathematical fact: we cannot produce two high-quality publications (print and digital) across more hours in the day with the same number of staff and not damage product quality, staff morale and health or all three.”

Bird added: “To do what you would have us do requires a commitment from you to increase resources. It is not enough to rob one desk to supply another. Nor to act as if all staff are interchangeable and can be master of all skills at all times. This blithe assumption that seems to underpin much of what passes for ‘change management’ has contributed greatly to the unsettling climate across FT desks, with all journalists feeling vulnerable to apparently haphazard changes to their roles and career paths, with few or no pay incentives for increased responsibility and workload.

“We remain encouraged by the fact that managers and FT chapel reps have maintained a dialogue for two years during which time both parties have acknowledged the need for a transformation of journalism that could benefit us all. But we are very concerned that your latest proposal fails to recognise the existing strains on our operations. We also note that from October our stories in print will be constrained by one of the earliest deadlines compared with rivals in the UK and US. This has already provoked unease among US and UK-based staff, many of whom believe that damaging the newspaper damages the FT brand.

“We strongly urge you and other senior managers to seek new investment before increasing the pace of change in the ways you have outlined and to consolidate already significant digital achievements that could yet be lost in an accelerated pursuit of rigid strategic targets.”

An FT spokesperson said: "Digital subscribers now make up more than 70 per cent of our total circulation. We have successfully simplified the production of the newspaper over the last two years in response to greater reader demand for digital news. The newspaper is now both profitable – before advertising – and in demand, complementing our journalism in other formats.

"The move to a single print edition isn’t about cutting jobs. It is a natural evolution to reflect the new balance between digital and print. As readership habits change, the way we deliver news must also evolve.  

"With the same number of staff, we have boosted our digital capacity with new roles in London and are doing the same in New York and Hong Kong. Recent appointments include a head of aggregation, FirstFT and fastFT writers, communities editor and a head of audience engagement."

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