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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.

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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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Maggie Hartford: 40 years in journalism, in the union and at the Oxford Mail/Times

 

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CONGRATULATIONS to Maggie Hartford, former business reporter and books editor the Oxford Mail/Times, who was made a Life Member of the NUJ two weeks ago. The honour was given in recognition of her 40 years of unbroken union membership – all of it as a member of the Oxford Mail and Times chapel.

Last year, having watched the newsroom dwindle over the past decade to a shadow of its former self through successive rounds of cuts, Maggie took the opportunity of yet more redundancies to hand in her cards – but she kept her union card.

A lunchtime gathering at The Fishes to celebrate her Lifetime Membership brought together colleagues still at the Mail/Times with many former friends and colleagues from the past. Their recollections of Maggie were remarkably consistent, whether they were talking about her role in the hard-fought seven-week strike in the winter of 1979/1980 (which secured a  pay rise of around 12% as part of a more comprehensive settlement), or confronting day to day issues about working conditions or bullying, or the NUJ campaign to stand up for the value of high-quality local journalism: professional, calm, determined, and just a pleasure to work with.

 

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Maggie with former colleagues Clare Parrack and Nicky Moeran (then Kirkwood), at the lunchtime celebration of her NUJ Lifetime Membership award. All photos by Peter McIntyre

Peter McIntyre, who started as a reporter at the Oxford Mail shortly after Maggie arrived, and was Father of Chapel for many years, including during the long pay strike, paid tribute to the consistent contribution Maggie made throughout her career to chapel efforts to address workplace issues and improve pay and conditions:

“Maggie served on the Oxford Mail/Times chapel committee in many posts. She was always a voice of calm authority within the chapel and was very influential in getting important changes, particularly on maternity leave and women’s issues, ” he said.

Kate Griffin joined the Oxford Mail as a trainee and got into the habit of stopping by Maggie’s desk on her way back from the tea machine.

Her first impression of Maggie? “I wanted to be like her – calm, professional. I never saw her getting stressed out. But when management were being bastards, she was usually the first person to tell me about it.  She taught me that there is no conflict between being professional and being in the union, and the two go together. If you’re fighting for decent pay and conditions so you can do the best possible job, what could be more professional than that?”

Anna Wagstaff, secretary of the Oxford branch thanked Maggie for the positive way she always responded to requests to involve the Oxford Mail chapel in local initiatives for the NUJ’s Stand Up for Journalism campaign. “Staying positive in the face of a management business strategy that aims to keep profit levels high by endless pay freezes, cuts and more cuts, regardless of the impact on quality, is difficult. But whenever I rang Maggie for help mobilising colleagues, I could always count on an enthusiastic response, and that was a real fillip for me. Her Life Membership is well deserved recognition for all she has done for fellow journalists over the years.”

“Bet she’s found something to get constructively pissed off with, to tackle in her new free time,” wrote Jayne Gillman and Mike Watson, two of the many former colleagues who sent anecdotes and tributes.

Maggie said: “There have been good and bad times, but one thing has always cheered me. It’s been sad when colleagues move on, but they have always been replaced by fantastic new people who are enthusiastic about the value of local news, and who know that high-quality journalism needs to be fought for.
“I wish I could say that the management has been as keen to fight for the future of provincial journalism as it has been to squeeze the last profits from our local newspapers.”

The lunch for Maggie took place at a time when  15-20 subs are losing their jobs at the Oxford Mail and Times as their roles are taken over by a subbing hub in Newport, Wales, so there were mixed feelings among many at the lunchtime gathering. As one of them put it: “It reminded me that it used to fun working here.”

 

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Book reviewer Merryn Williams, former colleagues Clare Parrack and Martin Mulligan, freelance Gill Oliver and magazines editor Tim Metcalfe

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William Crossley, Father of Chapel at the Oxford Mail/TImes, presents Maggie with her certificate of Lifetime Membership of the NUJ

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Anna Wagstaff, Oxford NUJ branch secretary, thanking Maggie for staying so consistently positive during the the most difficult period local journalists and journalism have ever faced. Also shown are branch committee members Mike Taylor and Kate Griffin

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From left to right: Mike Taylor, Gill Oliver, and Maggie’s husband George Wormald

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Branch chair Bill MacKeith (left) with Martin Mulligan

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Book reviewer Phil Bloomfield (right) chats to a guest

 

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When “local” means 90 miles away

The Oxford Mail’s owners are planning to move production of the paper, and its sister titles, to Newport in South Wales. Plans recently announced would see all of Newsquest’s Oxfordshire and Wiltshire titles, including the Oxford Mail, Oxford Times and Witney Gazette, being sub-edited from this distant “hub”.

Oxford to Newport mapAs a result of the planned move, 20 experienced journalists face a stark choice: move to a completely different part of the UK or lose their jobs. But the impact on their lives is only part of the story: what about the impact on the communities these newspapers are supposed to be serving?

Oxford & District Branch does not believe that a local paper can be truly local when it’s being produced by people who have no connection with the local area whatsoever. The people hired to sub-edit the papers in the new “subbing hub” are unlikely to know, or particularly care, about Oxfordshire, its people, places and issues. And they won’t get a chance to learn, either – the new hub will be a factory-style set-up where workers handle papers from all over the country rather than specialising in one area.

Right now the subbing is done by experienced (although overworked) local journalists, based in Newsquest Oxfordshire’s offices on Osney Mead. If they are replaced by a production line 90 miles away, where the workers are fresh out of college, how can the quality of local newspapers not suffer?

Unfortunately, this seems to be part of a national strategy for Newsquest, which owns local papers all over the UK. It’s already happened in Darlington, York, Blackburn and Glasgow. The impact on quality has been well documented by Hold the Front Page  in a piece headlined Newsquest’s Little Hub of Horrors. Readers of the Oxford Mail and Times and other local titles, who accepted Newsquest’s justification for a major price rise last year on the grounds that they were paying for improved quality, may well feel they have been taken for a ride.

As a union, we’re fighting not just to save the jobs of skilled local sub-editors, but also to save local papers from spiralling into decline as a result of this harmful cost-cutting. Over the next few months we’ll be asking people to send a strong “Say No to Newport” message to Simon O’Neill, editor of the Newsquest Oxfordshire titles. To support us, please sign our petition to keep local production for local papers. Click on the postcard to sign the petition! We’ve also printed off stacks of ( real) postcards with that message and we’re asking people to sign them and post them off to Simon O’Neill. If you’d like us to send you a handful of postcards to share, please get in touch!

Postcard saying "Keep my local paper local"

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Operation Bullfinch: how to handle a tricky story

Regular reporting is tough enough to get right – but when you’re covering a crime story involving the sex trafficking of underage girls, it’s a legal and ethical minefield. And that’s before you think about how to handle your relationship with the police. But when the Oxford Mail newsdesk found out about Operation Bullfinch, the police investigation into an Oxford child prostitution ring, reporters rose to the challenge.

Jason Collie, assistant editor, describes the situation as a “powder keg”, but points out that it’s a journalist’s job to negotiate tricky situations (and understand the relevant law) rather than shying away from difficult stories. A good working relationship with Thames Valley Police was useful. “I think we were greatly helped by TVP in terms of letting us know the details they could. However, it was more restricted than previous briefings because of the complex case and the people involved.”

Jason believes that “everybody is very nervous about police/journalist relationships” after the Leveson inquiry. But negotiation between police and journalists is crucial, which means you can’t let fear get in the way. In the case of Operation Bullfinch, there were some details which the police asked the Oxford Mail not to report. The Oxford Mail listened to TVP’s arguments and made informed decisions on a case-by-case basis. “We had to listen to their concerns. It’s a good example of police and press working together and having an adult discussion instead of being paralysed by fear.”

Legal reporting restrictions were another issue to take into account. In the UK, victims of sex crimes are automatically entitled to anonymity, so the Oxford Mail was legally obliged to leave out any identifying details. But Jason points out that even if this wasn’t the letter of the law, it would be a matter of basic journalistic ethics to avoid causing any further distress to the victims. “We wouldn’t ever want to do anything to identify these young ladies. We have a job to do, but we have to do it in a way that won’t add to their problems.”

In this particular case the prosecutor took the unusual step of amending the indictment so that the victims aren’t even named there. They are referred to by initials as an extra precaution against their identities being revealed, probably because of the vulnerability of the victims and the high level of public interest in the case.

Other reporting restrictions were less justified. For example, a district judge placed a Section 39 order on the victims. (This means placing a ban on the identification of a person under 18 who is concerned in adult court proceedings, under Section 39 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933.) This was unnecessary because reporters were already banned from identifying the victims under standard sexual offences reporting rules.

It is surprisingly common for judges to apply Section 39 incorrectly, and many such incorrectly applied orders have been successfully challenged by journalists. But in this case, there was no point in the Oxford Mail doing so. “There are minor irritations. This kind of doubling up is not needed, but is it something we really want to stand up and fight over?” If a legal point like this actually did affect reporting, they would take it to Crown Court. “But she [the district judge] was being cautious, and you have to accept that.”

One legal restriction they did question was an order preventing them from reporting a related hearing. This hearing, involving an Oxfordshire businessman, took place in the same building (High Wycombe magistrates’court) as the main hearing for the six men accused of involvement in the alleged child prostitution ring. (The businessman in question was not one of the six charged.) Despite opposition from the Oxford Mail, a district judge decided to hold the hearing in camera, excluding both press and public. The Mail reporter was forced to leave the courtroom. But, as Jason comments, being excluded from the hearing was a story in itself.

The story of Operation Bullfinch was, unsurprisingly, picked up by the nationals, and reporters at the Mail are relieved that wider coverage didn’t cause any problems for local reporters trying to cover the story. “There was concern that the nationals would come in and stamp all over the story in their size 12 boots and we’d be left to deal with the mess.” The team is also proud that national reporting didn’t cover anything that wasn’t already covered by the Oxford Mail. “It was good to see the nationals on Friday and see that they haven’t picked up anything we missed… it’s not the case that we’re a small local paper and the nationals come in and do it properly. We covered everything they did.”

So does Jason have any tips for covering a story of this sensitive nature? First, go with your gut instinct. Second, be aware that you’re dealing with people’s lives. “How would you feel to be on the receiving end of this kind of coverage?” Last but not least, “Seek advice from editors and news editors. We’ve all learnt from more senior people and we’re passing knowledge down.”

This article was written by branch chair Kate Griffin and appeared in the April 2012 edition of our paper newsletter.

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