Tales from the regional press frontline: 'Management is obsessed with increasing our web hits at the expense of all else'

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When a local newspaper’s star reporter takes redundancy at just 29 and then publicly denounces everything about the way his title is being run it is right that the industry sits up and takes notice.

Following four-time regional press award-winner Gareth Davies’s attack on the way Trinity Mirror is running the Croydon Advertiser Press Gazette asked readers in local newsrooms to share their experiences.

Sadly, Davies is not alone in feeling disillusioned at the way the industry is going.

Press Gazette reckons that at least half the local newspaper journalism jobs in the UK have gone over the last decade, from over 10,000 to maybe 5,000.

Everyone in the industry, from the chief executives downwards, is going to feel deflated by this. The question is whether this decline could be managed better.

Classified advertising fell of a cliff in 2008, never to return. Paid-for print local newspaper readership is in sharp decline across the Western world. Google and Facebook are now hoovering up most of the online ads which might have replaced lost print revenue.

Without drastic cost-cutting we would have lost many more regional newspaper titles.

Against the negatives we should note that (in readership terms) online growth is more than cancelling out print decline.

The Croydon Advertiser is one of 80 newspapers in the Local World group taken over by Trinity Mirror last year. The strategy since then seems to have been one of making drastic editorial cutbacks and also shifting the focus of reporters purely towards online, with production staff then collating online journalism to create print editions.

Davies feels “heartbroken” at what he sees as the decline in the quality of the print edition, and highlighted the fact that web-style listicles appeared on facing pages.

Gareth Davies Croydon Ad PAINT COLLAGE

But responses to a Press Gazette request for readers to share their local press experiences also suggest that trying to maintain the same level of focus on print, whilst also producing content for online (with a vastly reduced staff) may bring its own problems.

We have had several reports from one Newsquest daily where the pressure on staff led to claims of bullying and stress.

This was just one newspaper, and the sources were all reporting the situation of at least 18 months ago (when the last one left).

But it perhaps helps explain why some publishers have felt that a practical response to coping with less staff is to shift the reporting focus purely to online.

What follows then are some reports from the frontline of local newspaper journalism (note, Newsquest sources already covered here). Many of those quoted have a dim view of their owners, so I will let the publishers who provided a response to Press Gazette have their say first.

Newsquest:

“We take the welfare of our staff extremely seriously.

“Clearly, there are significant commercial pressure on the print publishing model and we have restructured our business in response to this, whilst ensuring that strong local reporting remains at the heart of what we do, and that our teams are properly resourced and supported to fulfill this.

“We wholeheartedly reject the claim that there has been a diminution in the strength of local news – the audiences and engagement with our local news brands has never been stronger.”

Trinity Mirror:

“Nobody has more of an interest in seeing the local media industry thrive than Trinity Mirror, so the idea that we are set on destroying it is ludicrous.

“We all have to face up to the fact that the world has changed. We have no choice but to make changes too – it’s very simply adapt or die.
“Yes, in an ideal world we’d have newsrooms in every town and city packed with journalists covering every aspect of local news and life, but that is simply not possible anymore as there is no longer the money coming in to pay for it.
“Of course some of these decisions are difficult and there are going to be some people who are unhappy with them, but there are also lots of journalists leading this change with us.
“Everything we do is about trying to make sure our titles are fit to survive in a world where advertising and circulation are down, we are competing with more content sources than ever before (including the huge social media and digital powers) and what consumers want from the media is very different than it was ten, or even five, years ago. Those things are not going to change, so we have to.”
It should be said that these are just a few sources from what is still a large industry and it would be unfair to tar the reputations of entire companies because of what they say. People who have had bad experiences are perhaps more likely to speak out.

But nonetheless these voices deserve to be heard.

A Trinity Mirror staffer said the picture was like this: “Experienced and capable staff made redundant, while cheaper, younger and less experienced staff have been brought in.

“Editors, news editors and other staff who were well respected, produced high quality content which generated large numbers made redundant, leading to newsrooms being grossly understaffed and teams working over and above to plug the gaps with the threat of redundancy hanging over them all the time.”

Another source who contacted us gave this account: “I recently left one of the TM titles before one of the many restructures in recent months. The idea that newspapers will remain local is the key issue – not the clickbait, which I think is now already (mostly) a thing of the past.

“TM’s policy of a digital-first publishing policy is sound; working very well with its big-ticket, glamorous northern titles, like the Birmingham Mail, where there is enough big and breaking news to warrant digital-first publishing and the live blog, which seems to be the latest wheeze.

“It does not work so well in the lesser-loved weekly titles in ‘godforsaken’ places like the Crewkerne, Broadstairs and Banstead.

“Editorial staff in the South East was slashed by at the very least 50 per cent this year alone – most of the experienced hands departed before or as a result of the restructure.

“TM now have a proofing system before stories go online – a very good move; but errors in print were only prevented by the experienced editors, who read everything on screen before sending to pages and then again on proofed pages (still finding errors) which were badly and lazily subbed at a remote production pool.

“Newspapers are now put together according to which stories do well online. In the week when I had two good stories for the front, I took a look online to see which went best.

“Neither. The top story was news of a fading crooner coming to town. My (old) readers want traditional news: development stories, council, politics, parish pump stuff – all this will be lost in the new world.

“They want a figurehead; someone who stands up for their town, who is well known – a part of town life but aloof. All this is gone in Trinity Mirror land.

“Newspaper sales and print advertising still make up the bulk of revenue – but most newspaper groups seems to be putting this income at risk by bumping up the cover price.”

A further source said: “Earlier this year I left a former Local World daily title that was acquired by Trinity Mirror. In the past three years the circulation has dropped from 33,000 to hovering just about 20,000.

“I was reliably informed by people in the know that around 85 per cent of our revenue comes from the print title, but Newsroom 3.1 means efforts are now almost entirely focused on digital.

“Despite the best efforts of the staff – and they do work diligently – more mistakes than ever are being made. That is not a criticism, just an obvious knock-on effect if you have one person doing two jobs and working ludicrous hours to get everything done. If stories are missed, an inquiry begins.

“The reason often given: ‘I’m sorry, there are so few staff here now that we are going to miss the occasional story,’ is perfectly valid. But it is never accepted.

“Should sales figures continue falling at their current rate – and there seems no reason to suggest they won’t – the paper will be selling around 10,000 copies a night in four years’ time. Who knows how many journalists’ jobs that will support, because the digital revenue alone is nowhere near enough.”

‘One-size-fits-all design wipes out independence and tradition’

A journalist who said they used to work for Archant until a month ago said this: “To be honest, I got out at the perfect time.

“I had, rather naively, been taken in by the company’s seeming re-invigoration by CEO Jeff Henry, who I’ve spoken to in person several times, and he proclaimed that rushing in and cutting back was not the way to go. In fact, we had a visit from Mr Henry earlier this year denouncing what Trinity Mirror have done with their business model at Local World.

“With that in mind, it was a surprise to hear from my rather dejected editor soon after that, following a conference involving them and their colleagues at head office, that we would be taking on a fair amount of shared content (eventually eight pages) across all titles made in our newsroom in the near future, which would be inserted in place of news pages towards the back of the paper. The same has been rolled out across all Archant papers.

“The intention of these changes was apparently to give us more time to build our digital brand, which had been flagging somewhat in a paper-first culture at the company. In isolation, it didn’t seem like the worst idea in the world.

“The reality was rather different. It has only been implemented since I have left, but, like Trinity Mirror, smaller, perhaps less fashionable stories from villages, parish councils – even a considerably large town which is towards the edge of our patch – have often fallen by the wayside, because the priority in a physically smaller paper has naturally gravitated towards the nucleus of the area.

“Part of the change has involved all Archant papers being redesigned with the same one-size-fits-all design, no matter where you’re from, wiping out much of the sense of independence and tradition which keeps papers unique, in my view.

“And that includes what is, to be blunt, a horrendous page two and three design. Pick up any Archant paper this week, and you’ll see two pages of essentially picture-heavy nib content on two of the best patches of real estate in the whole edition.

“Now that would be bad enough, without the fact that one of the office’s two photographers has since been made redundant, to be replaced with a ‘photo curator’ (I still don’t know what this means in the Queen’s English, it’s certainly not a photographer).

“But the photo diary hasn’t got any smaller – if anything, it’s increased to fill up this dirge on pages two and three. And reporters are expected to fill the gap, meaning their time saved is already being heavily eaten into.

“And in other cases, submitted pictures will have to be used, and could be assigned to pages long before reporters have any idea whether they could be too blurry, pixelated or a photograph of the back of someone’s head.

“Next week, in my old office, the one remaining photographer is off the whole week, which is fair enough on their part. I understand the newsroom will be expected to fill a paper entirely of submitted content, or from photographs that have been taken by reporters, taking potentially hours out of the time they could be writing – or improving the company’s websites.

“All in all, it makes for over worked staff producing a smaller paper with weaker content, and not representing the community as well as it used to, through no fault of its own, and entirely against the wishes of its own editor. This is not a phenomenon unique to my old newsroom.”

A journalist who did not say which company they worked for said this: “Management is obsessed with increasing our web hits, at the expense of all else. There is a pervasive culture of short-termism in that regard.

“While management pays lip service to the importance of quality, none of its decision-making reflects any commitment to quality. Every change which is brought in, without exception – from staff cuts to web targets to requests that we copy stories from our rival – makes it more difficult for reporters to produce quality stories.

“Seemingly, no value is placed on the skill and professionalism of reporters. For example, one regular suggestion is that we compensate for our severe under-staffing by getting in school children and college students on work experience.

“There is little or nothing editorial staff can do to counter these extremely damaging changes. As with many companies now, we have a group editor who manages multiple centres in different locations.

“Their job is too large for one person and that burden is increased by the severe shortage of staff, which means they work probably in excess of 70 hours most weeks just to ensure the papers are actually produced.

“The editor has no time to do battle with management and, if they did, would likely just be sacked and not be replaced.

“A more junior member of staff would probably be given a new title for a minimal pay rise, if any at all, and asked to pick up the editor’s slack.

“Nobody would be hired to fill the hole left by that person’s ‘promotion’. Meanwhile, staff levels have dwindled to such an extent that we no longer have enough to even qualify as an NUJ chapel.”

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