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.