Regional newspaper giants play god with people's lives in their obsession with remote subbing hubs

The top executives of the UK’s leading local newspaper companies sometimes resemble the vengeful gods on Mount Olympus in the arbitrary way they toy with the lives of their hard-working staff.

I’m referring to the practice of moving sub-editors from their traditional place in newsrooms, within shouting distance of the reporters whose work they scrutinise, out to far-off factory-style subbing ‘hubs’.

The latest such move affects 15 sub-editors on Newsquest’s daily and weekly titles in Worcester.

Subbing has already been centralised once into Worcester three years ago, with some jobs moving 40 miles. Now the 15 remaining subs face the prospect of moving 90 miles to another country or else take redundancy.

For those with families there will be no choice at all. In any case, only perhaps seven new jobs will be created at the new subbing centre in Newport – and it will probably only be a matter of time before the hub moves again to God knows where.

Anyone who has worked in a local newspaper will know what the Worcester titles will lose as a result of this move. Decades of experience and local knowledge and the advantage of having mentors on site to go through reporters' copy and suggest improvements.

Sub-editors on local newspapers have traditionally been more experienced staff who have already cut their teeth as reporters and decided to stay on a newspaper long-term, perhaps because of family ties in the area. They know the councillors and road-names with tricky spellings, they ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated and they have an understanding and feel for the local readership.

They would never rename Brighton Brighten, as the Southampton-based Newsquest subbing hub for the Brighton Argus did in 2010.

Whereas reporters generally stay on a local newspaper for two or three years and then move on (see Alan Geere’s recent study on this ) sub-editors often provide the continuity.

The baffling thing about the creation of the remote subbing centres is that with today’s technology, subs can be based anywhere. If Newquest really wanted to cut costs, why not give them a Mac each and ask them to work from home?

The suspicion has to be that across the country the creation of remote subbing hubs has been a handy way to quickly dispense with the services of more senior and better paid staff by moving their jobs elsewhere.

The tragedy for those affected by this latest move is that there is evidence that remote subbing hubs don’t work.

In 2009 Northcliffe Media, now part of Local World, axed a number of sub-editor jobs when it moved production of its papers in Grimsby, Hull, Scunthorpe and Lincoln to a centralised unit in Hull. Two years later it moved subbing back to the local centres in a move which group editor Neil Hodgkinson said would “boost morale and teamwork at a local level”. He said that moving the creative process “in house” would encourage “entrepreneurial thinking”.

In 2011 Johnston Press centralised subbing of its various newspapers spread out along the south coast of England in Horsham, then a year later, there were plans to move the subs again – this time 130 miles north to Peterborough.

In 2010, Johnston Press gave sub-editors on the Scarborough Evening News the choice of losing their jobs or else moving to a new ‘hub’ in Sheffield – 90 miles away.

And so it goes on, with sub-editors moved around the country like human chess pieces by Newsquest and Johnston Press in particular.

No-one doubts that local newspaper publishers have to cut their cloth according to the current tough economic circumstances. But why the obsession with moving individuals into one physical space?

Sub-editors’ jobs may have to be cut, but why can’t those who remain stay in the communities where their experience is of most use?

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