The possibility of a group-wide strike at the UK’s second biggest regional newspaper publisher, Johnston Press, moved a step closer today as journalists at the Scarborough Evening News and Sheffield Star opted to hold a strike ballot.
Journalists at sister titles the Blackpool Gazette and Herald are already “working to rule” after voting for industrial action earlier this month.
The catalyst for the current wave of disputes at Johnston Press is the introduction of the Atex content management system which the NUJ today said had been “a shambles”. But sources say that the underlying problem lies with low staffing levels.
This Saturday union reps from across Johnston Press will be meeting in Sheffield and they could decide to hold a group-wide strike ballot. Union sources say such a move would be the first such nationwide strike vote at a UK newspaper group in at least 20 years.
In Scarborough, six sub-editors have been told they must move to a new centralised subbing hub in Sheffield, 90 miles away, or else lose their jobs.
According to the NUJ, the journalists concerned have been told that if they refuse to move to Sheffield they will be deemed to have “resigned”, although they have been offered severance payments. Such a move would impact on employees’ rights to claim benefits.
One NUJ source said that journalists are being forced to work long hours to make the Atex system work and in some cases stories and photos have disappeared from the systems as papers approach deadline.
NUJ north of England organiser Chris Morley said: “Johnston Press has used up all the reserves of goodwill among its journalists and it is now running on empty.
“The introduction at breakneck speed of the Atex production system in other parts of the Johnston Group empire has been a shambles. We have seen enough of the way the employer has forced through changes in working practices to know that the group is sacrificing quality journalism and creating sky-high stress levels for our members.
“At a critical time for the survival of local newspapers, the apparent indifference of Johnston Press Group to the service it should seek to provide to readers is recklessness of the worst sort. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that management just doesn’t care about driving away readers and advertisers.
“There is only one sensible way forward in the interest of readers, journalists and the Johnston Press Group itself. If the company sits down with the union to discuss the implementation of the Atex system properly, a damaging dispute can be avoided. I urge the management to start talking.”
The new system involves reporters writing their stories straight on to templated pages. The NUJ says this means work will appear in print unchecked by sub-editors.
A Johnston Press spokesperson was not available for comment this morning.