Journalism 'on brink of extinction' - NUJ says it's a war

The cutbacks which have costs hundreds of journalism jobs in recent months have been condemned as the actions of greedy media owners trying to squeeze more cash out of already profitable businesses.

This was the view of many of the speakers at a special summit organised by the National Union of Journalists in London on Saturday morning at which the union’s president described a new campaign against the cutbacks as a “war”.

About 180 journalists from all over the country gathered to discuss the severe job cuts which have hit all sectors of UK journalism.

In recent months hundreds of journalists’ jobs have been cut from the national and regional press in response to falling print circulations and the drastic drops in advertising revenue which began in the second half of last year.

And in broadcasting, ITV has already announced 430 redundancies in its regional news division – and is set to further scale back its journalism network in the run-up to digital TV switchover in 2012.

NUJ president James Doherty said: “This is a crisis that’s not of our making. Two decades of excessive profiteering has led to thousands of journalists losing their jobs.

“Our industry is not dead – the appetite for local, regional, national and international news is not dead. It has in fact increased.”

Profit margins

Citing figures for 2007 – the most recent available – the NUJ quoted operating profit figures, and profit margins, for some of the UK’s biggest journalism companies.

Johnston Press made £178m (a margin of 29.3 per cent), Reed Elsevier £1.137bn (24.8 per cent), Informa £259m (22.9 per cent), Trinity Mirror £196m (20.2 per cent) and IPC £67.1m (15.8 per cent).

In a handout to delegates, the NUJ compared these figures with the profit margins achieved by the likes of Sainsburys (2.8 per cent), Tesco (six per cent) and BAE Systems (9.4 per cent).

Doherty cited the example of Newsquest Glasgow – where 40 journalists are being made redundant on the Evening Times, Glasgow Herald and Sunday Herald.

He said: “They made £23m profit in the last year and are on course in the next year to make £15m to £18m profit.

“Five years ago Newsquest gave a commitment to the Competition Commission that they would invest in quality journalism – since then there have been five rounds of redundancies.”

He claimed that Newsquest Glasgow made £36,000 profit per employee in the last financial year.

Speaking more generally, Doherty said: “Our industry is on the brink of extinction – but if we expose the lies and corporate greed we can fight back. This is a question of what’s right and what’s wrong, this is a moral question.

“Who will ask the difficult questions when all the journalists have gone?

“We are in a war. We will fight for our titles and fight for our role at the heart of our democratic society.”

‘Whistleblowers’

Guardian journalist Nick Davies, author of the book Flat Earth News, also spoke and condemned “the big lie that you find all over the world that you can cut staff and cut resources without damaging the quality of news that is produced”.

Hitting back at the suggestion from some media commentators that amateur citizen journalists can replace trained professionals, he said: “It’s like saying that the movie industry has closed down, but don’t worry people have video cameras at home.”

Davies urged journalists to publicise the knock-on effect to society of editorial cutbacks.

He said: “We all need to become whistleblowers in our own newsrooms. We need to show how we are not doing court reporting, how we are getting court reports from police websites.

“We need to reveal stories about the local government civil servant who goes to a newspaper with evidence of corruption but who is sent away because they don’t have the resources to do the story.”

Davies urged journalists to phone the NUJ and Press Gazette with stories about the effects of cutbacks.

And he said that the solution to the current crisis may be the use of public funds to help set up new journalist-led news organisations.

“It may be that we are looking at funding mini-media or a foundation that will give money to groups of journalists if they can pass the quality threshold,” Davies said.

But he added: “The fatcats have to be taken out of the picture.”

A motion put to the summit, and passed unanimously by the NUJ national executive, condemned “the latest round of job cuts in profitable media companies” which it said had “further eroded the ability of journalists to properly serve their local communities”.

It said: “Such cuts not only damage quality but are a false economy, losing our readers and viewers and ultimately advertisers, as overworked staff are forced to cut corners and compromise on the range and depth of coverage”.

It also stated: “This meeting believes the economic model practised by media employers over recent years – a sub-prime media market – is dead.

“It is scoops, quality editorial content, strong images and an engaged readership which will see media survive and flourishment not retrenchment and soaring executive pay.”

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