Northcliffe: how not to do local

Northcliffe Media is going all local. Or, as the annual report and accounts for 2007 puts it, “[i]t has been revitalised as an integrated provider of local media services”. The company, part of the Daily Mail group, intends to expand its “online network of ultra local news […] to over 120 community portals” by the end of the year.

Tim Anderson, publisher of Bluffton Today, was invited to speak at Northcliffe’s May conference. He spoke about the success of his pioneering hyperlocal newspaper and how “the road to recovery runs through the neighbourhood”.

You might be forgiven for thinking that this focus on all things local means more decision-making power at regional level. However, journalists at Northcliffe’s regional titles have seen how the company’s top-down management strategy works. The August issue of the Journalist tells the story of the battle for union recognition at Northcliffe titles around the country.

“Journalists in Stoke have twice got as far as holding a ballot of staff under the arcane procedures of UK employment law, which require that a union must either be able to show it has majority membership in a group of staff known as the ‘bargaining unit’ – that is, all the employees in a distinct section of the company – or win a ballot held under the auspices of a government agency. At Stoke – and at Bristol and Gloucester – Northcliffe tried to rig the process by including in the editorial bargaining unit all kinds of non-editorial workers who were not even eligible to join the NUJ.”

In other words, Northcliffe is using centrally dictacted union-busting strategies to prevent local NUJ chapels from forming.

This tactic has prompted union chapels at Northcliffe’s titles to become a little less local in their approach. Cross-chapel organisation and information-sharing has helped unions to deal with misinformation and bullying. For example, when Northcliffe told staff at the South Wales Evening Post that union recognition would automatically put an end to merit payments, the Bristol chapel [1] was able to demonstrate the untruth of this from its own experience. As a result, the battle for union recognition at Northcliffe titles is looking more hopeful than it has for 20 years.

In the meantime, every Northcliffe regional title has been ordered to carry exactly the same strapline. Whether you open the Leicester Mercury, Cornwall Today or the Stoke Sentinel, you’ll see the same words under the masthead: At the heart of all things local.

[1] The Bristol chapel is a joint chapel for journalists on the Western Daily Press and the Bristol Evening Post.

This was originally posted on Kate Griffin’s blog.

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