Where will the axe fall?

Those of you who closely scrutinise Press Gazette each week may have noticed a trend emerging in the industry over the past 18 months – job losses.

No one is suggesting that this an Eighties-style recession, but companies are much cleverer these days in covering their tracks.

Very few will go for the big jobs cut announcement but make no bones about it, many of them have been steadily cutting costs for quite some time.

And in the regional newspaper business, cutting costs will eventually mean losing staff.

Once the management team have exhausted trimming around the edges (usually setting up cross-functional working parties to discuss reducing the costs of postage, corporate entertaining, business travel etc) there is nowhere else to go.

And any regional newspaper editor will tell you that, although on the face of it they control their own budgets, much of it is made up of ?xed costs.

If they are tied into long-term contracts with agencies such as PA, the bulk of their budget is already determined at the start of each year.

That tends to leave FTEs (or full-time equivalents as they are known in ?nancial directors’ speak; journalists to you and me).

So while many in the industry may be feeling distinctly nervous at the moment, I thought I would run through the inventory of regional newspaper editorial jobs and assess how vulnerable they are. Let’s start with head of?ce. As Trinity Mirror showed last month, the top brass are not immune from the axe.

For some – ie, those on large salaries with years of service behind them and retirement looming – this can be cause for celebration.

For many others it can come as a bolt out of the blue with all the feelings of hurt pride and panic which are associated with forced redundancy.

Where your regional head of?ce overlaps with a national newspaper organisation you are particularly vulnerable, as Trinity Mirror Regionals directors have just found out.

Communications director (a title which always sounded a bit dispensable) Robin Fletcher got his cards, which he would not have done had he stayed in the safer environs of being editor of the South Wales Echo. But he no doubt feels that the two years at head of?ce have given him a completely different set of skills which he is now using in his own consultancy business.

But back to main newspaper of?ce.

Editors’ jobs have long been deemed slightly risky, although that reputation is not really borne out by recent regional newspaper history.

There have been some high-pro?le casualties over the years, such as Geoff Elliot in Portsmouth and Harry Blackwood in Hartlepool, but generally an editor would have to do something criminal or preside over industryworst circulation ?gures to get the chop.

Gone are the TRN days when it would take over a paper and want to install its own management team immediately – sometimes, it seemed, just for the hell of it.

So while I think editors’ posts are generally safe – after all someone has to take the ?nal responsibility for the content of the paper – being a deputy or assistant editor is certainly more shaky.

Some newspaper groups have, misguidedly in my view, disbanded the deputy editor’s role. Whatever the reason, it will always look like costcutting, and raise question’s over their staff development commitment. As far as assistant editors go, the general rule is the fewer of you there are, the safer your job is.

Certainly on a big paper like the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle we were able to get by with just one assistant, whereas I was always amazed to see other titles sustain several.

Admittedly, some of these had brackets after their name and were glori?ed department heads rather than a de?nite number three, but I always felt they might be vulnerable.

The other stereotype associated with assistant editors is that it is a title they give to people higher up the food chain when they would really like to get rid of them but don’t know how.

One former colleague told me that when he took up the editor’s chair on a large regional paper he stopped opening doors on the newsroom ?oor after the ?rst week, for fear of stumbling across another ageing assistant editor sitting alone in a pokey of?ce.

Once you get down the hierarchy to the department heads, the bulk of the posts should be fairly ?re-proof.

Sports editors tend to get on with it, and a good news editor is a pivotal role.

The production and design side can easily be amalgamated under one person, which might lead to some anxiety in that part of the newsroom.

But that should be beaten hands down by the panic emanating from the features and picture editors.

If a paper does have a features boss – a must in my mind but I am obviously an old-fashioned, high-spending hack – they could at any time make a contents desk and get the newsdesk to look after features as well. And if you are a picture editor in a multi-title centre, be very afraid – joint picture desks have swung in and out of fashion for many years and no doubt saves money. Whether it makes any difference to quality/motivation, I would be interested to hear from you. I have my own views.

As far as the staff underneath all these department heads go, many will already be working in smaller teams than the ones that existed when they joined the paper.

Groups such as Trinity Mirror have made no bones about the fact that they would like to see their main resources concentrated in contentgathering rather than production – and no one should argue with that philosophy.

Certainly, new technology has made the production side much less onerous, but staff are rightly worried that it also allows reporters to effectively sub their own copy and write headlines if required.

It is ironic that the jobs most dif?cult to ?ll on many regional papers are those of a down-table sub – someone fast, reliable, accurate and creative.

And yet many of those staff feel their role has been devalued over recent years.

On the specialist side, jobs do come in and out of fashion; investigations, consumer, political, industrial. But a good health, eduction and crime reporter are worth their weight in gold and should be rewarded as such.

Papers should also value their feature writers – good writers who can make readers laugh with a column, lift a mundane piece with a brilliant piece of colour writing and give some depth and light and shade to the paper.

Unfortunately, this is an area where costs can be made, either by taking centralised features or getting reporters to ?ll the feature pages in between the overnight page leads and nibs.

As editors around the country start to pore over their budgets for next year, journalists can only hope that their jobs are safe.

The only thing to remember is that when editors are asked to reduce numbers they will ?ght like anything to hang on to their best people. The surest way to remain in a job is to make sure you are one of those. 

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle. E-mail her at ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk. She’ll be back in four weeks.

 

by Alison Hastings

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