Happy Christmas? Not for many in our trade…

Alison Hastings

SO, NOT MUCH of a happy Christmas for the many thousands working in the newspaper business this year.

Announcements
of job losses at Trinity Mirror regional and national titles – and
again at Northcliffe’s Bristol and Plymouth centres – will have put the
fear of God into many journalists.

For a very small number, the
news could be their best Christmas pressie yet – a chance to get a
pay-out just as they were about to leave for pastures new, emigration,
retirement etc. But for the majority of journalists in both these
groups it will continue to be an unsettling time.

Add to this the
shock news of the impending Northcliffe sale and it seems that each
week the only happy souls are the institutional shareholders and the
publications that report on the media.

The Northcliffe
announcement was genuinely out of the blue for staff. Execs in the
business knew there was to be an announcement and it had fleetingly
crossed their minds it could be this – but it had the longest odds.

Now
the speculation is whether the newspapers, like children in a family
who feel discarded by their parent company, will be sold together or
traumatically split up and scattered to the winds.

Although
Northcliffe always allowed much autonomy at centres, there is a great
affinity between the titles and the staff around the country, despite
normal competition.

That includes pride in working for Northcliffe, until recently universally acknowledged as the regional group to be employed by.

But
the staff have already had to get used to change: the Aim Higher plan
to make cost savings has been exercising minds in the past few months.

Smaller
centres, which might have felt relatively relaxed with the consultants’
findings compared with the betterstaffed titles, are coming to terms
with losing up to 20 per cent of their editorial budget.

Heavily
unionised centres, such as Bristol, are making the headlines with their
protests, and several other centres are just waiting their turn with
trepidation.

So although the news of the sale will have added to
the nervousness, it is Aim Higher which is the first hurdle for
editorial departments.

When companies label an exercise as Aim
Higher or Biggest to Best (Trinity Mirror) it seems they are shooting
themselves in the foot with a cynical staff from the outset.

And
when other centres find out that the consultants talk a strange
language using terms such as shedding the “low-hanging fruit” and job
losses as the “size of the prize” it’s no wonder that they don’t have a
welcome committee at the door.

But maybe the biggest fear for
those at Northcliffe is what happens after Aim Higher. Will new owners
feel that has gone far enough – or will their due diligence have
persuaded them that the budgets could still be trimmed?

AT THIS
time of year editorial and newspaper sales execs are looking at
projections of year-end figures – particularly if they are bonused on
them.

While bulks have rightly become unfashionable, it is still
tempting to creatively sell a few extra copies in the last month of the
year if it will make a significant difference to the figure – turning a
tiny minus into a tiny plus, for example.

If you are in this
position, and need a handy tip, why not make friends with your local
authority’s environmental health department?

Try to persuade it
to carry out food hygiene checks on popular local restaurants – if
possible those owned by a publicity-shy family who own many such
establishments on your patch. If they are embarrassed enough by being
splashed all over the front page, they may be persuaded to travel far
and wide to buy up every edition of your paper they can get their hands
on.

Sound far-fetched? Well, in Bristol – as you may have read in
national newspapers, because this came under their ‘quirky regional
story’ banner – this is what happened to editions of the Evening Post.

Although
the owners of the Chinese restaurant fined £10,000 for a cockroach in
the king prawns denied being behind the “Great Chinese Takeaway
Mystery” (Times headline), it did result in some very handy extra copy
sales.

Newsagents reported two men coming in and buying up all their papers – up to 50 at a time.

It’s
not necessarily something you can repeat in the yearon- year figures
next December – but so what? Don that white suit and start checking
those eateries out right now.

CHANNEL 4’s Demolition programme
this week was due to reveal the 12 buildings voted by the public as
being the ugliest structures in Britain. Having glanced at the list, I
must admit to feeling a tad smug.

In at number seven is Gateshead
car park. I assume this is the notorious multi-storey slapped bang in
the centre of town in the ’60s. (Note to producers: Gateshead is a
large conurbation and there is more than one car park in town.)n This
is the same monstrosity that readers of the Evening Chronicle voted
their “Chronicle Carbuncle” way back in 1998. It was one of our first
bits of campaigning reader interaction – and was really popular.

We
even got into a spat with members of the Get Carter film fan club, who
fondly remembered it for being the venue for the famous Mini car chase
and death plunge scenes, which they thought gave it some sort of
special status and should be retained.

I seem to remember a
typically robust Northern editorial telling them that if they loved the
bloody thing so much they should sell up their Georgian homes in
Islington and come and live next to it. Wouldn’t be quite so romantic
then, would it?

The only thing that took the edge off my rosy
glow was that the aim of our campaign was to persuade the council to
demolish the winning carbuncle – and as it is still appearing in polls
all these years later, you can see that we failed singularly in that
regard.

Alison Hastings is a consultant and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle

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