Regional press journalists have contacted Press Gazette raising concerns about the effect of cutbacks on staff and editorial quality.
Former reporters got in touch after Press Gazette yesterday invited journalists on regional newspapers around the country to share their experiences following four-time regional press reporter of the year Gareth Davies’s lambasting of Trinity Mirror over changes made at his former title the Croydon Advertiser.
Davies said web-first publishing and redundancies had led to lightweight online ‘listicles’ filling the print edition with no input from reporters.
A journalist on a large daily newspaper (not owned by Trinity Mirror) said they left the title two years ago because of ever-higher expectations placed on a dwindling pool of reporters.
They said: “In the 12 months I was there about a dozen senior reporters and staff members left, and were replaced (although not completely) by junior reporters, fresh out of university.
“While I have nothing in particular against young reporters (I was once one of them!), there is an issue when you have a team of 15 reporters covering an entire county, with one daily paper (six editions) and seven weeklies, and just three of four senior reporters able to give them advice, with absolutely no support from the newsdesk or higher.
“The knowledge of key patches (crime, council, health, education etc) was lost, and never attempted to be regained. In fact, as a former education reporter, I was last year contacted by the news editor two days before A-level results day (obviously huge in the world of local papers) to ask when it was happening and what they needed to do.
“The court reporter was eventually pulled from daily reporting to work on the newsdesk as one of the only seniors left able to help the news editor out.
“Each reporter was expected to file five or six lead stories a day, a number of ‘downpages’, ten nibs [news in briefs] (before 10am or face another ten before being able to go home), two new photo stories a day (with a dwindling supply of photographers!), as well as filing community news pages each week and/or a long-read/column specific to your specialism, and writing copy for the seven other weekly titles (splashes from the weeklies had to be re-written for the daily, with new quotes).
“The mental health of the entire staff deteriorated massively while I was there. Finding someone, myself included, sobbing in the toilet after being screamed at for only filing eight nibs, or for not being able to get a quote from three-year-old Jonny who was pictured on page 14, was a daily occurrence. The newsdesk appeared to take pride in humiliating staff in front of the office.
“Every single person who has left has said all of the above, and more, to senior staff, only for their concerns to be dismissed and told ‘no one has ever complained about that before’ or ‘that doesn’t sound like this office’.
“Since I have left, I have found myself providing copy from basic sources (government press releases, Ofsted data) to the newsdesk, out of embarrassment for them, as huge announcements affecting the area have been completely ignored because there is no specialist knowledge from the over-stretched junior reporters.
“We former reporters even have a Whatsapp group (entitled ‘survivors’) where we send regular screenshots of mistakes from the web and in the printed edition (headline goes here, for example, or names of senior politicians spelt entirely wrong).
“Reporters were not allowed to publish stories online themselves, but were expected to take photo, video, audio, and somehow get shorthand notes as well for the paper version, for major events. Oh yes, and you had to tweet it all at the same time.
“This doesn’t even cover the shambles that was the two papers I worked at previous to this, which were taken over by Local World just as I was leaving. I can’t even look at those papers anymore without shame.
“Two weekly papers with amazing patches, writing advertorials about local beauty salons and claiming it as news or producing those infamous ‘listicles’.
“I feel like I could go on, but I am too angry and depressed to talk about it anymore.”
‘News editors would ask if it was possible to avoid covering council meetings’
Another former local newspaper staffer reported on their 18 months working at a large daily where they said they would often work up to 60 hours a week.
With a workforce which they said some days totalled six reporters in the office, they were “were expected to fill a daily and also provide content for seven weekly papers”.
They said: “After spending a day working on live news – often ten nibs, several picture stories and three or four lead stories – we would be asked to file at least three overnight leads before going home.
“This request was often made after 6pm, and would keep some reporters in the office past 10pm when they had started almost 12 hours earlier. If we didn’t complete our ten nibs by 10am, we were told we would have to write a further ten before going home that day.
“Specialist reporters also had to commission a long-read op-ed every week, and most staff also had a community news page to fill on top of that workload.
“Towards the end of my tenure, news editors regularly asked if it was possible to avoid covering council meetings, despite it being the specific specialism of one of the reporters. We weren’t paid for lunch breaks, but expected to work through the hour.
“One news editor would follow reporters into the canteen to discuss their news lists with them while they were eating and I once had a text message asking me to come back to my desk while I was in the toilet.
“Failure to cope with an ever-increasing workload became a matter of professional pride for the newsdesk, which would regularly pit reporters against each other in a battle for quantity, not quality of stories.
“Great scoops were no longer celebrated, and meetings in ‘the bollocking room’ were only held to give negative feedback.
“The reprimands for poor-quality copy, which was inevitable in the environment we worked in, were severe and often done in front of colleagues to maximise embarrassment and shame, but complaints about the state of the organisation were not acted-upon.
“When I started, all but two of our reporters were seniors. By the time I left, most of my colleagues were trainees. Of the 12 or so colleagues I left behind just over two-and-a-half-years ago, only two are still on that reporting team.
“Most of the others no longer work in journalism, let alone newspapers. In my entire time at the paper, not one colleague received a pay rise, and some trainees were on as little as £18,000 a year in a city where it costs upwards of £450 a month to rent a room in a house share.
“The thing that saddens me the most about the slow death of local papers is that it is the reporters, once members of a prized and noble profession, who are run into the ground first before the product, inevitably weakened by their departure or suffering, goes the same way.”
‘Newspapers are a shadow of their former selves’
A journalist who left the Newsquest-owned Slough Observer in 2014, shortly before it was taken over by Newsquest, has also been in touch. It is a paid-for weekly with a circulation of just under 5,000 copies.
They said: “We already ran with a skeleton team – for example, we had three – sometimes four reporters, a news editor, an editor and one part-time sub producing the Slough Observer, the Windsor Observer (seven slip pages from the Slough edition) and a free Midweek title.
“As well as running a website, we uploaded all stories ourselves, including pictures/headlines etc, and ran our social media team. It was tough going, but we managed and produced some great local journalism – including exposing corrupt councillors etc.
“Shortly after I left, Newsquest took over Berkshire Media Group (which also includes the Reading Chronicle and Bracknell News titles). Within weeks I believe most, if not all of the subs across the three papers, had seemingly been made redundant (in favour of the Newsquest subbing hub).
“The Slough Observer editor was made redundant, the Reading Chronicle editor stood down, two news editors gone, a features writer gone and four of five photographers culled (one remaining to oversee pics for the whole of Berkshire). The newspapers are a shadow of their former selves…
“As evidence, this email from a Newsquest editor to a freelancer (an incredibly talented, award-winning former Fleet Street reporter who had been helping out for a bit of extra cash) reveals the newspaper is now stuffed full of press releases.
“Sad times. Bravo to Gareth for speaking out about the decline of proper, local journalism.
“He has the backing of other reporters who have gone through similar scenarios. The other two reporters in my new newsroom had similar bad experiences and concur with his sentiments.”
A former journalist from Newsquest who worked at its weekly East London Guardian series (pictured above) from 2006 to 2009 has also made contact.
They said: “I don’t work in the area any more, but I’ve kept in touch with old colleagues and I know what the situation is there.
“When I joined we had, I think, 16 reporters to cover three editions (three areas of east London essentially), four photographers, about eight sub-editors and numerous support staff (part-time staffers who did the community pages, etc).
“Now, the situation, as far as I am aware, is that they have six reporters to cover the same East London patch I had. They have one sub-editor, and, I think, one photographer to cover the whole of North London. They have one news editor.
“Technically they have one editor to cover the entire portfolio of about 18 newspapers. The difference is staggering. I used to be given lots of time to come up with my my own stories and I generated lots of original ones purely through building up local contacts among shopkeepers, residents’ associations, councillors, etc.
“We would regularly cover all major council meetings, and even a fair few parish councils and we would have someone covering court on spec every week.”
A spokesperson for Newsquest said: “We take the welfare of our staff extremely seriously.
“Clearly, there are significant commercial pressure on the print publishing model and we have restructured our business in response to this, whilst ensuring that strong local reporting remains at the heart of what we do, and that our teams are properly resourced and supported to fulfill this.
“We wholeheartedly reject the claim that there has been a diminution in the strength of local news – the audiences and engagement with our local news brands has never been stronger.”