'We could be producing baked beans for all it matters'

The
arrival of management consultants at some of Northcliffe’s West Country
papers has created an atmosphere of stress and mistrust in the
newsroom, claims an insider at the Bath Chronicle

ONE DEPARTMENT head calls
them “the grim reapers”. Another uses language that would make a sailor
blush. The management consultants are in at one Northcliffe newspaper
group, and few are enjoying the experience.

After losing David Gledhill, their editor of 11 years, staff at the
daily Bath Chronicle were given a letter at the end of June saying that
business consultants would be coming in. Northcliffe was undergoing a
major cost-cutting effort and it aimed to save at least £20m annually.

The
letter, from group managing director Michael Pelosi, said that it was
“very probable that the number of staff we employ will reduce”. On the
reverse of this letter was one from Chronicle managing director Andrew
Calvert, which told staff that – since there was little concrete
information from Pelosi – they would get a presentation later that day.

“It
doesn’t bode well when they start double-sided photocopying for their
own announcements,” saysone reporter. “Money must be tight.”

The bottom line figures don’t look encouraging. Five years ago the Chronicle was averaging 17,000 sales a day. Now it is 13,500.

One
reporter looked up Effective Consulting, the firm employed, on the
internet. Its website describes its approach as: “We work in
partnership with our clients to implement practical, efficient
solutions which produce bottom line results. Our success is built on
our ability to go into any company, in any business sector, and add
value.”

Among its previous clients have been Trinity Mirror, a
paper manufacturer and a company which makes gas meters. “We’re just
another industry to them. We could be producing baked beans for all it
matters,” a reporter says.

Effective will spend about nine weeks
observing all the departments at the Chronicle and its weekly sister
paper at the Bath headquarters and small regional offices. The process
is about half-way through at the moment. There will then be a further
eight weeks for the analysis and recommendations to be discussed with
editors.

The process going on in Bath is being repeated elsewhere
across the West Country, with consultants in Exeter and Plymouth. In
Bath, editorial staff quickly became concerned that it was an exercise
in measuring raw numbers rather than quality.

“The newsdesk has
to source every piece of copy,whether it has come from a correspondent,
staff or freelance on all publications, for all the papers whether free
or paid-for,” says a sub. “But they don’t have to see how it has come
in, off-diary or whatever. A story can take five minutes or five hours,
but what matters is whether it is any good.

Similarly, we have to
account for everything we produce, such as all the supplements. But
they’re not putting initials by everything to see who has done what. I
know they are doing that on the weekly.”

Over on the picture
desk, the order of the day is to look busy or be out working. “We’ve
been chucked out of the office as soon as we come in in the morning,”
says a photographer. “They are giving us far more jobs than normal and
cramming them into the paper.”

On the weeklies, the deputy
editor, who has an intense subbing workload, has had to spend time
marking up who has done what for every story in back issues. The one
department which has escaped intense scrutiny is the sports desk,
although no-one can work out why. The extra workload for the department
heads is taking its toll.

“The picture editor came out of a meeting and he seemed to have been through the mill,” says a photographer.

There
were concerns that the news editor was called in for two hours in the
morning when he is usually putting together the news list. “The stress
levels are definitely up,” claims one reporter. “The news editor said
he was having a stress competition with the chief sub – and was
winning.”

Each department has a nominated contact person.

“The poor sod given the job is constantly plagued with a barrage of questions,” says a staffer on the weekly.

So
far, it’s been a phoney war, with the vast majority of staff watching
and waiting. But soon the process will move on to assessors sitting by
selected staff through the day. There were mixed feelings as to whether
this would be a good or a bad thing.

“You get the chance to talk
yourself up. But then you think, are these assessors using covert
psychological methods, picking up on key words, clocking your body
language?” says a reporter.

“The other way of looking at the
interview is using it as a chance to flag up concerns. Can these
assessors change things for the better or will you just be marked down
as a moaning destructive type the company could do without? Then
there’s the issue of loyalty. Are people going to use the interviews as
an opportunity to whinge about each other? This horrible issue of trust
arises from the fact that you feel distrusted and questioned in your
position as a result of this whole hideous process.”

A memo from the Chronicle news editor tried to allay any fears about these so-called Dilos, or Day in the Life sessions.

“These
see a consultant shadowing a member of staff – and like all of this
process, it is the role NOT the individual being studied – to check
that the brown paper exercise has been accurate and that the
consultants have a detailed understanding of every part of the system
of producing the Chronicle,” he wrote. “Everything that the consultant
jots down is open to view and challenge.”

The “brown paper
exercise” is the consultants’ first task. With help from managers
seconded from Bristol, they have been mapping the mechanics of
producing the newspapers.

The news editor explains: “This is
likely to be the most labour-intensive part of the process and involve
a range of staff being called on to check that the mechanics of their
jobs are accurately reflected.

Essentially the result will be a
giant strip of brown paper with documents – such as copies of notebook
pages, grabs of subs’ screens etc – stuck on it to map all the parts of
a process.”

Meanwhile, the rumours keep flying. “We heard that
they’re going to get rid of process and transfer it to Exeter; that
we’re are going to become a two-daya- week paper; that the new editor
has six months to turn it around or they’re going to cull people; and
that there’s going to be a subbing pool with Bristol,” says one senior reporter. “It’s a horrible atmosphere.”

A
senior sub says that the “biggest doubt” is about how much staff on the
paper will have “the power to influence those decisions and how much
has been pre-determined”. But among others there is a certain
resignation. Many insist that, if they are offered good redundancy
terms, they would take it.

A sub-editor adds: “It’s all doom and gloom. Everyone is talking about us becoming a twiceweekly and no-one knows what these consultants will say. We’re on a real low.”

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