How brutal cost cuts lie behind creation of 'newsroom of the future' at Johnston Press Yorkshire weeklies

Yorkshire journalist Granville Williams reflects on the decline of the Yorkshire Weekly Newspaper Group

It was an accidental find, tucked away in the TUC Resources Library in London.  A single copy of the Pontefract and Castleford Express in a dusty box stuffed with posters, photographs, leaflets and pamphlets on the UK 1984-85 miners’ strike. The newspaper, dated 7 March 1985, was printed two days after the miners had returned to work at the end of an epic year-long strike.

A range of conflicting emotions hit me as I started to read the 30-page broadsheet newspaper, densely printed in black and white (no colour then),  and packed with news and advertising. I had a real sense of excitement as I read the detailed, informative stories. The paper presented a vivid overview about what was happening in the Five Towns – Normanton, Pontefract, Featherstone, Castleford and Knottingley – of West Yorkshire’s mining community at that critical moment. It brought to mind the oft-quoted phrase about newspapers publishing ‘the first rough draft of history’.

Take the one written by Chris Page with the headline "Lifeline That Will Live On" and starts: "Miners’ wives and mothers have been the backbone of the pit strike in the P&C area.  Kellingley Miners’ Wives Support Group made 500 meals a day, 7 days a week." It quotes one of the key members, Corinne Walters: "The fellowship women have built up is one of the good things to have come out of the strike." What follows is a full report, with quotes, from the women involved in the different miners’ support groups in Featherstone, Ledston Luck, Brotherton, and so on.

Three reporters (Chris Page, Matk Witty and Ian Bevitt) and one photographer (Alf Harrison) provided ten different stories and images connected with the end of the strike for the paper. Reading the stories you can tell the reporters grafted to write them. They weren’t based on recycled press releases, but the result of phone calls, shoe leather and good knowledge of local contacts. It was a striking example of high quality local journalism produced by reporters working for the Yorkshire Weekly Newspaper Group (YWNG), a string of papers which included the Wakefield Express, Ossett Observer and Hemsworth and South Elmsall Express.

In stark contrast to the politicised headlines and stories in most of the national press attacking the miners, the P&C went in for straight reporting. The paper did have an opinion column though, written by Peter Brearey, with the headline "A Time For Calm After The Storm" which argued it was a time for reconciliation, to get the pits working again and make the Five Towns a centre for investment. 

My other emotion, as I read the newspaper, was one of anger at what has been lost in local journalism.

In 1952 Lindsay Anderson was commissioned to make the film Wakefield Express to celebrate the paper’s 100th anniversary. The film follows the local reporters of the different newspapers as they travel around the area in search of newsworthy events: the local rugby team, a school concert, a constituency political meeting, the launching of a ship and the unveiling of a war memorial, among others.

In 1978 the Falkirk-based Johnston Press acquired YWNG and took the first steps in its frenetic acquisition and expansion which transformed it into one of the biggest publishers of local and regional newspapers. It was listed on the Stock Exchange from 1988.

Until the 2008 recession Johnston Press regularly announced yearly operating profits in excess of 30 per cent. In 2009, with debts of £465 million and plummeting ad revenue, it suffered a catastrophic share price crash from 490.5p to 7.1p. A destructive process of job reduction at YWNG and other JP newspapers, which some journalists call "a death spiral", has gone on remorselessly since then.

The local offices of the YWNG papers, which were at the centre of the communities they served, have been closed, with journalists all moved to Wakefield. The Hemsworth and South Elmsall Express, in a decision announced from above, without any discussion with journalists on the papers, was merged with the P&C in January 2016.

The contrast is stark between the well-resourced newspaper produced in March 1985 and now. Then twelve journalists and photographers worked on the P&C, and more than sixty in total across the YWNG titles. Now dedicated journalists on the YWNG struggle to produce papers as staff leave and aren’t replaced, and the threat of further redundancies continues to hover over them. Under the Newsroom of the Future there is a team of seven news reporters for all the papers and three community reporters who wait to process the letters, events information and news that comes in to the different papers.  Two feature writers contribute to the papers but they also contribute to lots of other Johnson Press titles in Yorkshire.

It has been a brutal process which has seen the local newspapers diminished in terms of their circulation, quality and importance.

What price 'the first rough draft of history’ now?

Granville Williams was secretary of Wakefield NUJ branch until it merged with Leeds NUJ branch in 2008. He is the editor of 'PIT PROPS: Music, International Solidarity and the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike', which will be launched at With Banners Held High, Unity+Works, Wakefield, on Saturday 5 March. Contributors include former BBC Labour Correspondent Nick Jones and journalist Paul Routledge

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