Local reporter – a fantastic job and we do it well

Gill Oliver_1399 resized

Gill Oliver, business and property reporter

This comment piece is entirely my own personal view and not that of the Oxford Mail, The Oxford Times, or any other journalists there, nor of Newsquest or Gannett.

I KEEP hearing and reading scathing descriptions about how terrible regional and local newspapers have become.

It’s a sad truth that many UK local titles have been axed or reduced to a shell of their former selves and that is a tragedy and a scandal.

But as we mark Local News Matters week, please don’t tar all regional and local newspapers with the same brush.

Daily regional the Oxford Mail (which, as business and property reporter, I am extremely proud to be part of) is one of very few still reporting pages and pages of original news every single day.

That is entirely thanks to its hard-working and award-winning team of professionally trained reporters, newsdesk editors, photographers and sports and features teams who cover Oxfordshire’s health, education, crime, political, eco and business scene.

It comes from hours and hours spent at county, town and parish council meetings, often late into the evenings, diligent and accurate coverage of magistrates and crown courts, rapid response to breaking news (including live blogs needing skill, speed and accuracy), press conferences, health committees, digging through company accounts and reports and even more hours and hours spent on the phone and in person building local contacts with and talking to people living and working in our patch.

No one could argue the Oxford Mail’s parent company, Newsquest (and its parent Gannett), are anything other than geared towards profit and shareholders. Newsquest’s cynical actions around the UK, in terms of redundancies, cutbacks and most recently with the closure of the Newport subbing hub, are nothing short of despicable.

You are right, you critics out there, the regional newspaper industry in the UK is bleeding to death, slowly and painfully. And yes, we in Oxford are suffering too – understaffed, under-resourced and with reporters not able to get out as much as any of us would like, so too much contact is now via phone and email.

But you are hugely mistaken if you think the Oxford Mail no longer breaks powerful and original local stories which really matter. Here are just a tiny fraction of some recent stories, which speak realms about why blanket and scathing attacks are unfair and inaccurate: http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/15012718.APPEAL_TO_READERS__Last_chance_to_help_us_fight_for_a_free_press/

Many Oxford Mail reporters are praised for attaining high marks in NCTJ exams, nominated for Regional Press Awards and go on to high-flying national journalism jobs, thanks to first-class training and skills learned at the Oxford Mail.

I’ve worked in many newsrooms during my 20-odd year journalism career and I can tell you standards here are exacting and my colleagues are faster, more accurate and better qualified than anywhere I’ve ever worked before.

The paper is hampered by being owned by an unscrupulous corporate – I desperately wish all regional newspaper-owning corporates would sell their newspapers to the community, or other less shareholder-driven owners.

But although we are struggling with a lack of resources, there is not a single journalist or editor on the Oxford Mail & Oxford Times team who doesn’t give 100 per cent towards challenging power and uncovering things some would rather stayed uncovered.

But what is also important (actually, more important), is that we don’t just try our hardest, we actually do uncover those stories that matter every day of every week.

I don’t know how much longer it will be possible for Oxford Mail reporters and editors to carry on breaking exclusives and covering our patch as thoroughly and professionally as we do now, but whatever the future holds, anyone who thinks we aren’t doing it now simply doesn’t know what they are talking about.

So, don’t do us the injustice of dismissing all our hard work and hard-won original stories.

We may be down but we are most certainly not out.

This comment piece is entirely my own personal view and not that of the Oxford Mail, The Oxford Times, or any other journalists there, nor of Newsquest or Gannett.

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Why local news matters

"Local News Matters" campaign logo.

Oxford and District NUJ has always stood up for local news, arguing that strong news gathering is vital to local democracy. Now this matters more than ever, as more and more local newsrooms are being expected to do their job with fewer and fewer people.

That’s why we’re supporting the NUJ’s Local News Matters Week, starting this Friday (24th March). Continue reading

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Join us Dec 13th to talk media and migrants over mulled wine

mulled-wine-shutter-stockJoin us, Tuesday December 13th, for an evening of friendship, mulled wine and mince pies, where we will turn our attention to groups who feel increasingly excluded, vulnerable and friendless in today’s Britain.

If you work in media and/or have an interest in this topic, you are welcome to join us for a discussion on media/social media that are fuelling racist agendas, and look at the journalistic challenges of engaging audiences with asylum seekers’own stories.

Bill MacKeith will lead a discussion about language and narratives that fan the flames of hatred – of which the story below, which appeared in The Express last month, is a prime example

express-hate    express-pic-portrait

Dai Richards will show “Stepping into Safety”, a film he produced and directed for Asylum Welcome, which gives refugees who are living in and around Oxford, like Taghi Mortazavi from Afghanistan (pictured below), the chance to tell their stories.


Dai, “a jobbing film maker”, has produced and directed documentary programmes for thirty years, making films and series about current affairs, history, science and international politics for the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Discovery Channel, German and French public-service broadcasters and more. He will talk briefly about the challenges of making the film, from convincing participants to share their stories, to creating a coherent and engaging story arc, to the logistics of filming with a small budget and a largely volunteer crew.

If you care about these issues and want to join the discussion, you are welcome to join us.

When? Tuesday Dec 13th.  Discussion, chat and wine starts at 7.00pm and is open to non-members

Where?  New Road Baptist Church, Bonn Square, Oxford OX1 1LQ. Couldn’t be more central.

Please bring along some festive eats to share!

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Stuck in the doldrums: notes from a freelance editor

Drawing of a person sitting in a huge rut in the ground.IT IS NOT just newspaper publishers that are cutting costs and seeing quality drop: this is becoming prevalent across many sectors within the NUJ. A branch member with long experience in educational publishing reports on the issues facing freelance editors.

The ELT world seems to have got stuck in the doldrums. Projects are on hold and very little seems to be happening. The mood at the IATEFL (International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) conference back in April was grim, and not just because of the announcement of yet another round of redundancies at Oxford University Press – hot on the heels of redundancies at Cambridge University Press.

The general view is that publishers feel they should be doing something more with digital but don’t know what, so everybody is watching everybody else and not making the first move. One successful author told me they were looking at their first patch without a contract in decades. Another told me they have been able to get only minor writing jobs. Another was about to finish a contract and for the first time in years has nothing else lined up. My freelance editor friends report the same: very little work, and now a lot of freelancers competing for it.

Fees for freelance ELT editors

Another worrying trend, clearly related to the above, is around the way freelance editors are now paid. This was confirmed by a recent (unscientific) survey of 113 ELT editors about their fees, which compared the results with a similar survey conducted in 2013.

The survey revealed that publishers are shifting from the traditional hourly paid rates set by the freelancer to flat fees set by themselves. These fees regularly underestimate (whether deliberately or through incompetence) the number of hours included in the contract. This leaves the freelancer feeling that their options are a) raising the issue with the in-house editor handling them, risking being considered slow and pricing themselves out of the next job, or b) working below their standards to complete the job within the timeframe and risking being seen as incompetent.

The good thing about the survey is that the 113 now know they are not the only ones – it’s happening to most of us. The hourly fees, where allowed, have flatlined since 2010, just like in-house salaries.

It would appear that publishers, having pared in-house staff down to a skeleton missing a few bones, have reached the limit of the squeeze they can apply on their employees and are now directing their attention to freelancers.

Having pared in-house staff down to a skeleton publishers are now directing their attention to freelancers

Meanwhile, in the trade publishing world, job adverts frequently list the ability to work in InDesign among the essential skills in editorial job descriptions. This suggests that most trade publishers are now making do without designers. Perhaps the NUJ could conduct a survey among its members working in trade to verify what editors are required to do with InDesign and what the job of designers is.

Last but not least, adverts for freelancers to work in-house within the publisher’s offices – without the security of a staff contract – are also creeping in. http://jobs.thebookseller.com/job/editorial-freelancers-childrens-publishing.The publishing industry seems to be driven by accountants who believe they can keep squeezing quality, overheads and salaries and still make attractive profits for their shareholders. Unsurprisingly, many editors feel that the industry has become very insecure.  Without an organised push back things can only keep getting worse.



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South London colleagues warn of Newsquest’s kamikaze plans


How can 12 journalists produce 11 local papers and 8 websites? Last week, the journalists at Newsquest’s South London titles got a feel for how when, after a week on strike, they returned to work for a few days before walking out again for another week.

Speaking at a meeting called by the Oxford branch at The Punter last Thursday, one chapel rep described the process. “You just have to get the paper out: Do we have the age of this girl? No? Do we have a name for her? No? F*** it! That’ll do. Off it goes.”

Newsquest, he said, has chosen South London to pilot a strategy based on a concept of “editorial cost per page” – covering the costs of reporting, subbing, images – which it wants to halve from its current level of £109 to £50. That’s why they are seeking to halve the numbers journalistic staff from 23.

As another chapel member said, even before the latest cuts announcement, previous rounds of cuts and unfilled vacancies had left staffing levels so low that people were tied to their desks all day writing copy. Leafleting and talking to people about the threatened cuts was the first time many of the reporters had visited their own patch in weeks.

In fact the strike had originally been called over the unsustainable status quo – it wasn’t until the deadline for returning the ballot had passed that management informed them of the latest plans to further decimate their ranks.

What can we do to win this?

The South London chapel has returned to work for now, but the dispute goes on and they will be working to rule – arriving and leaving on time, to avoid futile attempts to make up for the hopeless lack of staff.

The chapel, they say, is very upbeat. The huge support from across the NUJ has been tremendously important, not least because it shows a recognition of what is at stake. More significant, perhaps, is the cross party support they have had from local councillors, London Assembly Members and members of Parliament, who also recognise what their constituents and local democracy will lose if Newsquest’s “F*** it! That’ll do’ approach to local newspapers carries the day.

Most significant of all is that discussions about how to challenge the downward spiral in local newspapers are now finding a place on political agendas, including proposals the NUJ is advocating that would

  • give monopoly local papers a duty to provide an adequate news service (which would balance the requirement for councils to pay to have their statutory notices published), and
  • give community asset status to newspaper titles so they cannot be closed without giving potential new owners, including local co-operatives, the chance to bid for them

The branch agreed to ask for a meeting with Oxfordshire MPs to raise our concerns about Newsquest’s plans, and ask for them to write to Newsquest boss Henry Faure Walker to seek assurances that what is being piloted in their South London titles will not be introduced in Oxon and Wiltshire.


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Dreaming Spires branch Inspires


More than 60 journalist from every sector came to Oxford NUJ branch’s ‘digitally-converged summer social’.

Those attending included a sizeable contingent from BBC Oxford – whose chapel co-organised the event – on-screen reporters from Meridan TV’s newsroom, Chapel representatives from the Oxford Mail and Oxford Guardian and members working in book publishing.

Anna Wagstaff, branch secretary, explained the thinking behind the event:  “Our local media is interlinked. And in this fast-changing media sector, we all have an interest in fostering a local media ecosystem that offers opportunities to earn a decent living, doing whatever we do to the best of our ability. We wanted to bring together the broadest possible range of members to start to explore common areas of interest.”

The energy generated by the event – which was held in an arts centre near BBC Oxford – was palpable.  Alison Campbell, a Banbury-based PR said: “I can’t believe it when I meet PRs who aren’t in the NUJ – this event is another example of how relevant the NUJ is to us”.  Several others at the event were equally committed to building NUJ membership.

Paul Jenner, BBC Oxford FOC, said: “I was delighted at the wide range of people who came to the social, and as a result we have had several new membership enquiries. We truly are stronger when we work together.”

NUJ president, Tim Dawson, who was invited to the event to speak, later described the social as one of the best NUJ branch meetings he had ever attended.  “The plan to bring people together from every sector really worked.  The mix of people made for an enormously stimulating event – if other branches could emulate this success it would be an enormous boost to the entire union,” he said.

Cross-posted from the nuj.org.uk

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Branch secretary becomes Member of Honour

At the recent NUJ Delegates Meeting, Oxford and District Branch secretary Anna Wagstaff was made a Member of Honour. Anna was nominated by the branch in recognition of her untiring grassroots, branch level activism.

Members of Honour: Anna Wagstaff, Jim Boumelha, Dave Rotchelle and John Horgan

Members of Honour: Anna Wagstaff, Jim Boumelha, Dave Rotchelle and John Horgan – © Paul Herrmann

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Our first digitally converged summer social: will you be there?

If you play a role in Oxfordshire’s interlinked and multi-platformed media ecosystem then  you’re invited to our summer social. Don’t let us down.

When? Thursday July 7th, 7.00-9.00pm

Where? North Wall Arts Centre, South Parade, Summertown, Oxford, OX2 7JN

Who? News reporters, photographers, documentary makers, press officers, comms workers – staff and freelances, print, broadcast and online, working for small outfits or global giants, serving hyperlocal or international audiences…

Why? Because news and information know no boundaries, because we all care about ethics, quality and professionalism, and getting a fair return for what we do, because you never know where you might find an opening to change job… and because all of the above are a good excuse to party

The social is being hosted by the BBC Oxford NUJ chapel, complete with free buffet and first drink and a bar. Continue reading

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Yeah but… no but… weighing up the EU options for Oxon

Anne Hall - Jan 2016

Blogpost by Anne Hall freelance member of the Oxford NUJ branch


David Cameron and Nigel Farage weren’t the only ones facing difficult questions about the EU referendum on Tuesday evening. While the prime minister and the UKIP leader were busy practising their soundbites ready to face live questions from the audience, NUJ branch members in Oxford were having their own debate about what the referendum result could mean for them. Continue reading

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BrOxit or Bremain? Join us June 7th for a discussion and a drink

Oxford Town Hall flying the Oxford City Council flag. Image shot 2009. Exact date unknown.

To exit or remain: what’s at stake for us in Oxfordshire?

We’ve invited Antony David, managing director of Solid State Logic, a local high-tech business, and Robert Wilkinson, a former teacher and a trade unionist, to tell us what they think, and explain why they will be voting “in” and “out”, respectively. We’re inviting you to come and join the discussion. Continue reading

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