Category Archives: quality

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. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading

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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.” Continue reading

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Making money from hyperlocal journalism: open meeting


Rich Coulter

Rich Coulter, founder and editor of the Filton Voice


We’re opening up the first hour of our October branch meeting for a discussion on making money from hyperlocal journalism, led by Rich Coulter, editor of the Filton Voice. 

 7.00pm, Thursday 15 October, Panel Room, Oxford Town Hall, St Aldates, Oxford. Everyone is welcome. Continue reading

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Covering stories from the migration frontline: an open meeting

Thursday Sept 10th, 7.00-8.15pm, St Aldates Tavern, opposite Oxford Town Hall

Discussion with videoclips led by Jason Parkinson 


Videojournalist Jason Parkinson spent 10 days in August recording events around Calais, one of Europe’s many migration frontlines, which he first visited in 2007.

He used his camera to document the realities of  daily life for the people trapped in this permanent transit camp on the Calais dunes, and to give a voice to people like Alpha, pictured below, to tell their stories – (you can see the full 5-min video here.

At our September meeting, Jason will show some of his footage, talk about his experiences and lead a discussion about covering the stories of migrants and migration.

This part of the meeting will start at 7.00pm and will be open to anyone interested in joining the discussion.

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Subbed by the hub: the impact of shifting production to Newport

Our after-work get together with journalists at the Oxford Mail and Times, February 12th, offered the first opportunity to review the impact of losing almost the entire team of subs.

Over recent weeks, the papers have moved to a new system of production whereby reporters send their copy to a subbing hub in Newport. Here it is assigned, call centre style, to the first person available, who will upload it onto a template, check it, cut it to length, give it a headline, and deal with any picture and caption.

The content management system they use goes by the name of Knowledge – perhaps to remind everyone of the wealth of local knowledge, experience and critical input that it has been brought in to replace.

So what difference has the shift to the new system made?

We learned that the past weeks have been pretty miserable ones, particularly for the departing subs who were asked to smooth the way for their own replacement by continuing to report for work until such a time as management considered they could get along without them.

The reporters don’t have a lot of confidence in the Newport subbing hub. They know that most of the staff there are newly out of college and are on rock bottom pay. And they doubt very much that the sense of collective responsibility for and commitment to the paper is as strong when you are sitting in Newport and working on a wide spread of Newsquest titles, as when you are part of a team of subs and reporters working side by side on a daily basis and seeing the product on the news stands the following day.

The Journal 15-01-2015 cropped

A timely warning. This story, subbed in the Newport hub, was published in The Cotswold Journal in mid January, just before production of the Oxford Mail and Times was moved to the same subbing hub. Gaffes like this one don’t seem to worry Newsquest management, but they do upset readers


Quality suffers

Concerns range from: what happens if something slips through? Who is responsible in the case of libel? to a general awareness that the overall quality of stories suffers when the daily interaction between reporter and sub is lost.

The Newport subbing hub does have a system for raising queries or asking for clarifications, which it does by ringing the newsdesk, though experience so far seems to indicate that this facility is rarely used except for front-page leads.

But reporter–sub interaction is anyway not only for formal queries and clarifications. It can also be useful, for instance, when subs are looking for a catchy headline that can do justice to the story, but want to avoid striking the wrong note. There’s a feeling that this may partially account for the bland character of many headlines coming out of the hub. Subs can also contribute depth to a story through their own knowledge, see links with stories appearing elsewhere in the paper, or alert reporters to possible stories in their patch.

Indeed as one reporter pointed out, the sub on one of the weeklies had effectively been acting as the paper’s editor, so key had he been to locating stories.

Equally if a reporter felt a sub hadn’t got it quite right, a short walk across the newsroom could sort that out. All of that has now been lost.

Unreasonable pressure

Nor is it just the quality of the papers that stands to suffer. Without a team of subs who feel a shared sense of responsibility and can be relied on to cast a critical and knowledgeable eye over stories, to query ambiguities and double-check names, places, titles and dates where necessary, reporters are left feeling exposed and under unreasonable pressure.

They care about the quality of their stories and the papers as a whole, and they feel they need to spend time they don’t have doing some of the work they don’t trust the subbing hub to do.

The good news is that there are fewer vacancies for reporters than there have been for many years. There’s a sizeable group of young journalists none of whom have been at the Oxford Mail/Times for more than a year, and they clearly have confidence in one another, enjoy working together, love journalism and are optimistic about their future.

But they know, as does anyone who has worked on a newspaper, that they can’t sustain a quality paper through their own efforts alone, as has already been demonstrated at other Newsquest titles that have already completed the switch to a subbing hub.

What next?

The Oxford branch and NUJ national officers will continue to work with the Oxford Mail/Times chapel, as well as MPs and others to bring the subbing role back to Oxford.

We will also all be watching closely to see whether the considerable savings Newsquest is making by getting rid of the Oxford subs go the same way as all previous savings from almost a decade of continuous cost cutting – straight into the pockets of the shareholders of the US parent company Gannett. Year on year pay freezes have seen real pay at Newsquest papers drop by between 15% and 20% over recent years, and the NUJ Newsquest group chapel is now putting in for a rise of 3% or £750, whichever is greatest.

The union will also continue efforts to address the gap in pay and conditions that makes the Newport subbing hub such a lucrative option for Newsquest. At a national level, in the run up to the general election, the NUJ is raising the alert over the threat to informed democratic debate that is posed by underinvestment in local papers, and it is calling for a short sharp inquiry into the future of the local press.

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We say thanks to a great Father of Chapel

Members of the Oxford Mail/Times chapel, the Oxford branch committee and the NUJ National Newspapers Organiser have paid tribute to William Crossley for all the work he put in to supporting members, over several years, as Father of Chapel at the Mail and Times.

William left his job as sub on the Witney Gazette following Newsquest’s decision to move to a content management system operated by a subbing hub in Newport. His was one of around 15 subs jobs lost in this way.

At an after work gathering called to review the impact moving to the new production system was having on journalists and on the quality of the paper, NUJ National Newspapers Organiser Laura Davison thanked William for his long and dedicated contribution to his chapel and the union. “He was a really excellent FoC,” she said. “I could always depend on him to supply us with accurate and highly detailed information, and he will be greatly missed not just here in Oxford but across the Newsquest Group Chapel.”

The “few remaining subs” at the Oxford Mail/Times group put together a farewell Gazette front page where they gave testimony, in their own particular style, to William’s fastidiousness and professionalism, acknowledging also the number of stories he regularly contributed to the paper.

An “un-named newshound” is quoted as saying:

“We can now spell Royle Logistik Core any way we like and it doesn’t matter if we miss the hyphens out of Morton-in-the-Marshes. However, it’s a bit of a bugger as someone will actually have to write all the crappy bits for the Witney Gazette that William used to do himself because he couldn’t be arsed waiting.”

william p1 gazette

The tribute front page to William Crossley, former FoC, Witney Gazette sub… and train buff

Anna Wagstaff, speaking on behalf of the branch, said: “We all owe William a great deal for shouldering the responsibility of being Father of Chapel at the Oxford Mail and Times at a particularly miserable time. There was no way he was ever going to agree to work with the Knowledge content management system, yet he stayed engaged and doing his best for his chapel members until his last day.”

Even after leaving the paper, William remains engaged in efforts to ensure that the chapel continues to provide an effective voice for the journalists at a very uncertain time. He has also promised to continue to catalogue the more high-profile gaffes that are published in his own local paper, The Cotswold Journal, which has been subbed by the Newport hub for more than a year now, producing some superb examples, one of which can be seen below. We can therefore look forward to remaining in regular contact.

The Journal 06-11-2014 cropped

Typos like this one, published in The Cotswold Journal last November, are admittedly quite funny, but what they reveal about the outlook for the future of local papers is not


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We’re standing up for book/journal publishing workers

Publishing workers in Oxford will be aware their pay is among the lowest earned by graduates, they know about the unfair pay discrepancies, the long hours culture, and that being valued and treated with respect at work is heavily dependent on having a competent and supportive line manager. What many of them don’t know, however, is that this sector used to be a better place to work – and could be again.

We in the Oxford NUJ branch want to make that happen. We are reaching out to everyone working in publishing in Oxford to join us in this quest. Specifically, we are looking to work with the Society of Young Publishers and Unite to get publishing workers talking to one another about how to get the most out of the work we do. We are interested in how we can all work together to ensure that, in this period of rapid change:

  • Publishing remains a place where traditional values of creativity, diversity and quality are valued and rewarded
  • The expanding areas of multimedia and digital publishing enhance and add value to content, but don’t become the main drivers
  • Everyone gets the opportunity expand their skills and exploit the new career opportunities opening up
  • The people who do the work have an effective say over both their terms and conditions and professional aspects of their work and working environment.

We don’t want to talk about turning the clock back. We do want to talk about some of the valuable things that have been lost, and how we can regain them. And we want to open up a discussion with everyone working in Oxford’s publishing industry about priorities and what we can achieve by working together.


Aside from Oxford University Press, which is bound up with the earliest days of printing in the city, much of Oxfordshire’s publishing industry today is based on companies that relocated here in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Companies like Butterworth Scientific (now part of Elsevier in Kidlington), Heinemann (relocated to Elsevier’s Harcourt site in Jordan Hill, Summertown, but now part of Pearson at the same site) and Routledge (now part of Taylor & Francis in Didcot) had some of the best organised chapels in the NUJ, and had negotiated good terms and conditions for their members over a period of many years. But as most of the staff chose not to make the move to Oxford (thanks in part to generous redundancy agreements they had negotiated!), the chapels were hugely weakened. Managements took the opportunity to terminate the union agreements, and as a direct result they have been able to systematically increase workloads while pushing down real pay and driving down terms and conditions.

A salary survey conducted in 2006 at Harcourt (then part of Reed Elsevier, now Pearson) –  showed that salary levels had dropped from around 80% of average white collar earnings in 1991 to less than 60%. The concept of being paid ‘the rate for the job’,  with transparency about grades and negotiated pay scales, has been replaced by schemes ostensibly linking pay to performance, which seem to be designed to squeeze the most they can from each employee while concealing what are often significant and unjustifiable pay discrepancies between people doing similar work. The general workplace culture has also changed for the worse.  Where once working lives were organised by negotiation and agreement, roles and responsibilities were clear, hours were specified, today it can feel as if there are no limits to what can be demanded of you and what you can be held responsible for.

Before Butterworth Scientific was bought by Reed Elsevier and relocated to Oxford to it had transparent pay scales that were negotiated annually along with contractual hours, rates for voluntary overtime and more. The same was true for Heinemann, Routledge and Macmillan. The starting salary of £13,564 shown here for an editorial assistant (Grade 6) is worth £22,176 in today’s money – well above the starting salary currently paid by Elsevier. We don’t call that progress.


butterworth pay 1990048

Transparent, negotiated salary scales, like these featured in the 1990-1991 NUJ Annual Survey of House Agreements in Book and Magazine Publishers, meant people were paid according to the job they did and the responsiblity they had, rather than a secret figure based on what the company felt it could get away with



We’ve spent time in recent weeks discussing members of our book chapels, with members of the Society of Young Publishers and with Unite activists about a broad, inclusive initiative exploring what we can do to make publishing in Oxford a better place to work. These talks have resulted in a preliminary suggestion for a series of high-profile events that we build for within all the big publishing workplaces in the area, possibly starting this September, which will now be further discussed by the constituent groups to make sure it reflects key interests and concerns of their members and can capture their enthusiasm.

Watch this space for the finalised proposals, which we hope will be ready by the end of April.

If you work in books and journals publishing in the Oxfordshire area, as a staff or freelance, in any capacity, this is about you and your work. We would love you to get involved and contribute your own  ideas and help shape and organise this unique and long overdue initiative.  Contact us at

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How BBC Oxford won the 2013 best news story coverage award

ImageBBC Radio Oxford bagged the Gillard award for best news story coverage, against stiff competition, for its reporting of the ‘Bullfinch’ child grooming and exploitation storyPaul Jenner, NUJ Father of Chapel at BBC Oxford, was the producer for the story. He writes here about the challenge of reflecting the severity of the story with sensitivity, whilst protecting the anonymity of the victims.

Paul is pictured receiving the award, alongside  BBC Chairman Lord Patten, and Radio Oxford News Editor Alison Dawes


The Bullfinch trial, focusing on grooming and child sexual exploitation, is one of the largest cases handled by Thames Valley Police and one of the biggest stories BBC Radio Oxford has ever covered. The trial lasted five months and involved seven defendants facing more than fifty charges. Many of the details were horrific and unbroadcastable.

With the story attracting national interest, we focused on the Oxford community, asking how and why these crimes happened here and what is being done today to ensure our teenage children are safe? We spent months preparing interviews, including an exclusive with one of the victims and her adoptive mother. When the verdicts came through, we broke the story from the Old Bailey with our Home Affairs Correspondent Alex Forsyth.

The following morning we broadcast a special programme from the Cowley Road, gauging reaction from the community and calling those in authority to account. It generated reaction on our Facebook site.

Andrew Trinder: (it) was an extremely good programme – informative without being sensational and seamlessly produced. Congratulations to all involved.

Jules Paxton Carr: The coverage of this was really good! Well done to all involved!

After sentencing, we gained two further exclusives with another mother whose daughter was abused, and a mother whose son attends a school where one of the children of the convicted men is being bullied.

As a result of our output, we won a coveted Frank Gillard Award in the “Coverage of a News Story” category at a ceremony held in Windsor in October. The awards celebrate the best of BBC Local Radio and we were up against stiff competition.  Our colleagues at BBC London had entered their coverage of the murder of Lee Rigby in the same category.

The judges commented that the entry “showcased a station which displayed wonderful commitment in covering a sprawling and highly sensitive story of child abuse, institutional failure and crucially demonstrated real enterprise in unearthing new testimony.

They added: “There was breadth and ambition in the coverage the judges heard, and a tremendous sense of team effort from all the reporters, producers and presenters involved. It added up to a very impressive body of work. Any BBC station – local or national – would justifiably be proud of what Radio Oxford achieved.”

The story does not, however, end here. A Serious Case Review is underway, investigating the failures of police and social services. It is due to be published next year.  When it does, we will continue to hold those in power to account, and examine how they plan to stop such heinous crimes taking place in our community in future.

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Where are your red lines? Blurring the distinction between journalism and PR

A recent survey of 390 ‘science journalists’ – predominantly freelances, predominantly European – found that only around one-quarter of respondents earn their living entirely from independent journalism. The majority either supplement their earnings or earn the bulk of their income working in other capacities, either in research (33%) or for governments (10%), NGOs (22%), commercial companies (18%) or other interests.



The term ‘science journalists’ was used loosely to describe the sorts of journalists with some specialist knowledge who write not just about ‘academic’ topics but about contested issues of great public interest in the areas of health, climate change, genetics, energy, water and food supply and more.

So the finding that the majority of respondents who say they work in as independent journalists also do work for organisations that have an interest and agenda, presumably in the same (or closely related) field, raises worrying questions about how independent that coverage really is.

The survey was conducted online in advance of the World Conference of Science Journalists, which took place in Helsinki this June under the title “Critical Questioning in the Public Sphere”.

It aimed to explore to what extent the line between science journalism and PR is becoming blurred, as the crisis in the media has left large numbers of specialist reporters struggling to earn a freelance living writing from an independent perspective, and has left organisations active in specialists fields frustrated at the lack of media coverage of issues that they care about.

The problem of journalists wearing two hats is only one part of a complex picture. The survey also asked about other ways in which independent coverage may be being subverted as even staffers are finding, for instance, that tight restrictions of travel limits their ability to cover many important stories.

What would you do?

Survey participants were asked how they respond to a number of fairly common scenarios.

  • You took a trip with all expenses paid by a subject. Back home, you write a piece for a newspaper. Q: what would you do?
  • You are paid to write a story for a research organization. They hope you (also) offer the story to a newspaper for publication. Q: Would you do it?
  • You do freelance work for a research organization. A newspaper asks you to interview the organization’s new director. Q: Would you do it?
  • You are employee at a Newspaper. A research organization offers to pay you well for some freelance work on the side for their PR Magazine. Q: would you do that?
  • You visit a research organization’s press conference. Your press pack contains tickets for a popular concert. Q: What would you do?
  • A funding organization sponsors a series of newspaper stories. They determine the subjects and will get to “read” your stories before they are published. The editor is out of budget and agrees. Q: Would you do that?
  • You write for a newspaper about a particular field. A research organization in that same field asks you to freelance as a paid communications adviser. Q: Would you do that?

The responses to all these questions, along with the rest of the survey results, can be found at But the organisers also took the opportunity to invite science journalists attending the World Conference in Helsinki to participate in a parliamentary-style debate to try to tease out some of the ethical issues at stake, and identify where individual journalists draw their ethical “red lines”, and why.

Tricky issues

That many journalists worry about the fate of independent journalism in the current climate was clear from the very high attendance at this session. The sizeable room was barely able to accommodate the format of the debate, which involved people standing on either side of the room depending on the position they took on a given question, and trying to convince the people opposite to join them.

Noticeable was the smugness of the small minority of those present who worked entirely in PR or communications jobs. Accustomed to being looked down upon by “real” journalists, they at least never pretend to be more independent than they are. As for the “real” journalists, they were pretty much split on every question, not about what would be the ethical thing to do, but whether compromising on the ethics might be necessary not just for them to earn a living but for the certain stories to be told at all.

An all-expenses trip to San Antonio to hear the latest on some new wonderdrug could be an easy one to turn down. But what if you are one of three reporters offered travel and accommodation to report on illegal logging in Borneo, or a well-organised community initiative to help AIDS patients in the favelas of Sao Paolo that could offer a model for other countries? And if you do choose to go and do the report, will your readers/listeners/viewers dismiss it as biased propaganda if you then admit that the trip was financed by an NGO involved in the initiative?

If you are offered a commission to report on an important story for which your experience makes you uniquely equipped, would you turn it down because you occasionally do work on behalf of an organisation that could be seen to have an interest in the story?

Can you avoid blurring the line between PR and journalism so long as you keep the two types of work entirely separate in your own head, or is the blurring in the eye of the reader/viewer/listener?

As the organisers of the survey point out in their concluding remarks, journalists are increasingly confronting these sorts of questions and are having to decide where they draw their own red lines:

“Responses to the eight cases, general remarks by many respondents and lots of personal communication from private and public discussions all highlight the fact that science journalists are entering this new phase while playing by many different rules, most of which made up by and for themselves as they go along.”

Whether this trend will ultimately harm the credibility of science journalism and, by extension, the credibility of science itself among the general public, is up for debate they add, as is the question of what various actors in the profession could or should do to prevent that from happening.

What do you think? Where would you draw your own red lines? Could a good guiding principle be:“If you can’t justify your actions to a meeting of your local NUJ branch, then don’t do it”?

Press the comment button and share your views.


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