A working week in the life of Michael Burton, editor/editorial director of The MJ, formerly Municipal Journal.
I am on the 9am train from King’s Cross to Newcastle to interview the chief executive of Northumberland County Council. Tea and papers before me, I wonder what to tell the readers of Press Gazette in this column. Will they see the words “local government” and “trade mag” then turn the page?
As our press day is Tuesday, it means Wednesdays and Thursdays are good days to be out meeting the punters, a key part of the job.
Despite its fusty image this is a fast-moving business. The pressure on top council managers to perform is immense and their role is getting tougher (and their salaries higher but more of that later). Furthermore they expect us to know what’s going on and in turn I need to keep my ear close to the ground.
At Northumberland county hall in Morpeth the chief executive already has today’s copy of The MJ before him. He is interested in a row we have covered between education secretary Charles Clarke and councils about cash to schools. Over sandwiches we discuss his strategy for improving performance, a big issue for councils, and talk about inspections.
He is also concerned at the uncertainty the prospect a possible regional assembly in the North East could have on his council since it will mean local government reorganisation and the end of the two-tier system of counties and districts.
Afterwards, I take the train back to York for a conference where I am speaking tomorrow morning. At the conference dinner I chat to fellow speaker Mick Graham, organiser for the public services union GMB, with whom we converse regularly. He is flushed with the success of a recent deal with Tony Blair over pay and conditions for contracted-out public sector staff. Ex-councillor and now Labour MP Neil Turner, PPS to the pensions minister, is also in our group. Naturally the subject turns to pensions and then Iraq.
I could write a book about seaside conference hotels considering the number I have visited in this job, and the smell of cleaning fluid – combined with cooked breakfast – is implanted into my brain, but the Moat House at York right on the River Ouse on a glorious spring morning is special. My session, “What the media think about local councils”, seems to go down well with the audience of councillors and council managers even though I’m pretty blunt about external perceptions of them. They particularly like the poll that found the celebrity most people associate local government with is Mr Bean.
Ring the office. Luckily all is calm and no one wants to speak to me – our editorial secretary Mandy Murray has sorted out most of the queries in my absence.
I arrive back in the office on Monday morning to find the staff have liberated all my biscuits from my legendary stash. Must launch an inquiry.
In the meantime, most of the feature pages have been laid out by our chief sub-editor, Jermaine Ivey, so I check them over.
This week’s articles include a profile of the new black whizz kid chief executive appointed to run a Lancashire district council dubbed the worst in England and a piece on council tax changes. There is a light-hearted multiple choice questionnaire for council managers “how popular are you?”.
Deputy editor Heather Jameson, who is also news editor, goes over the news list. Rising council tax is a big issue at the moment, as is the escalating pay of chief executives caused by the fact that the job has got more demanding and less attractive.
Heather has taken a few calls from the nationals of late on the issue, including The Sunday Times which quoted us, and the News of the World which carried a full-page on chief executives salaries a couple of weeks back, naming what they called the “Greedy Burghers”.
The coverage is obviously causing a stir. Our features editor, Nicola Carroll, was even warned to “lay off” by a senior council manager at a recent function which is definitely unusual. Most senior managers are far too refined to start sounding like members of the Russian mafia. Anyway the story goes on. This week our senior reporter Paul Marinko has a front-page exclusive on pay.
A pretty smooth press day which ends at 7pm. We’ve managed to get in the final council tax highlights and Paul has a nice angle on council tax capping. The education row between Clarke and the councils has also been resolved for the moment, but it’ll be back.
As usual we have struggled a bit to find pictures without resorting to shots of middle aged men, but picture editor Sean Sparham has come up trumps again.
As I’m out tomorrow I quickly chat with Nicola over next week’s features.
Go home with copies of entries for an award I have agreed to judge which I look over on the train back home to the outer west London suburbs.
Head back up north for the day for a tour organised by our northern recruitment sales office who like to wheel me out from time time for their council clients. Lunch is in a trendy restaurant in Leeds with recruitment headhunters for whom the public sector market is booming. Long may it continue. Thanks Gordon.