'The entire newsroom is at breaking point' - Newsquest journalists speak out on eve of London newspapers strike

Some of the titles affected in Newsquests south London hub

Newsquest has been branded “toxic” by one of its journalists ahead of a seven-day strike at the publisher’s south London office tomorrow.

The industrial action by members of the National Union of Journalists comes as 11 jobs are to be cut at the Sutton hub this month, with 27 out of 29 editorial staff placed at risk of redundancy.

The union claims the publisher is “driving down standards, terms and conditions at work for journalists” with members set to carry out an indefinite work to rule action following the strike.

An editor and two reporters have spoken anonymously about their recent experience working for Newsquest in statements to the NUJ.

One reporter said: “The company categorically does not care about journalism – the ‘news’ in its name has become a sick joke.

“The ‘quest’, it seems, is simply one of asset stripping – degrading newspapers, newsrooms, journalists, until there is no more ad revenue to be sucked out of local communities abandoned by a company that claims to tell truth to power, but actually just tried to bully its hard-working employees into submission.

“It is only my colleagues (more accurately my friends) that have made working here bearable. Newsquest is toxic, there was no way I could stay any longer.”

The union says Newsquest’s cuts will leave 12 reporters and four editors covering 11 local newspapers and eight news websites across south London and Surrey.

Last month Newsquest ended its partnership with a professional picture agency, leaving titles in south London without any staff photographers.

“Year after year, changes are implemented which make simply publishing our papers – let alone quality journalism – harder to do,” said a Newsquest editor.

“In the past few months, though, things have reached a nadir.

“A steady stream of editorial staff have left and without exception their positions have remained unfilled, leaving some papers without any reporters and others with no editor.

“The entire newsroom is at breaking point; stressed, overworked, underpaid and completely demoralised. Newsquest’s response to this is to cut staffing levels further.

“I am appalled by the company’s complete disregard for the health and well-being of its employees, indifference towards quality or public-interest journalism, and lack of respect for readers and advertisers, who Newsquest simply hope will not realise the dwindling amount of relevant local content that is published in its papers.”

Another reporter said: “No one goes into local journalism thinking it will be lucrative or easy, and as a trainee at Newsquest I was fully prepared for a hard slog, being flexible with my hours to break news stories and having doors slammed in my face.

“What I wasn’t expecting was that the buzzing newsroom I joined would become full of empty chairs and dejected, burnt out staff.

“The constant battle between the editorial staff, who are pushing to produce quality journalism even though everyone is overstretched, and the management, who have openly said that we will need to cut corners and sacrifice investigating local stories and holding local government to account, is emotionally exhausting.

“Most of the reporters are living pay cheque to pay cheque in one of the most expensive cities in the world, and are willing to do so to contribute to local news that serves the community it reports to.

“What I’m not willing to do is work for a company that says it values its staff and communicates with them when in reality there is so little communication that I wouldn’t recognise [Newsquest executives] Tony Portelli or Henry Faure Walker if I saw them walking down the street.

“It’s one thing to not respect your staff, but it’s another to not respect the tenets of the industry you’re operating in – and Newsquest’s management have shown that they don’t care about local journalism.”

The NUJ said Newsquest’s latest company accounts in 2014 show the firm made £60 million profits before tax and that its 2015 accounts, audited by Ernst and Young, are now 12 days overdue.

Last minute talks between the union and the publisher aimed at averting a planned 14-day strike broke down last week.

Titles affected include: the Croydon, Epsom, Kingston, Richmond, Sutton, Wandsworth and Wimbledon Guardians, the Richmond and Twickenham Times, the Surrey Comet and the News Shopper (Bexley, Bromley, Dartford, Gravesend, Greenwich and Lewisham editions).

A Newsquest spokesperson said: “The NUJ and its members have been made fully aware of the trading position of the South London business and the need to revisit its cost base to ensure a sustainable future.

“During talks the NUJ and its members were invited to discuss, review and propose a workable structure within a reduced cost base – which they have failed to do. Sadly, as a result, talks broke down.

“Clearly it is regrettable that this restructuring puts a number of roles at risk of redundancy, but we are doing this to ensure that the South London business – which is made up of free newspaper titles – has a credible future.”

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