Tag Archives: quality

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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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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A Cold War skirmish in a cosy venue

A big spasiba to our two expert speakers, Neil Clark and Mike Taylor, for leading a discussion about the quality of coverage of the conflict in the Ukraine at our June meeting. This was a pilot for a more informal, discussion-led style of branch meeting, and we were delighted to see a record turnout with many familiar faces as well as first-time attenders, some of whom may not even have been born at the time of the fall of the Berlin wall.

We asked our speakers to address the question: Are we seeing a return to Cold War journalism?

Mike Taylor, a senior analyst at Oxford Analytica argued that UK reporting had been largely balanced, using measured language to describe the anti-Kiev activity in the east of the country. He gave the example of a report for the Daily Mail online headlined “New president of Ukraine is sworn in as pro-Russian rebels launch latest assault in beleaguered country’s east”, arguing that the article didn’t overstate the severity of the fighting, it quoted a Ukrainian paratrooper who said the aim had been to destroy a building housing the powersupply at Luhansk airport and there were no injuries, and reported that a spokesman for the ‘Luhansk People’s Republic’ would not even confirm that the attack took place at all. Mike argued that the article used measured language, “referring to the militants in eastern Ukraine as ‘separatist’ or – perhaps more controversially – ‘fighters of mostly Russian nationality’”.

He accused the Russian media, however, of systematic negativity in its reporting of the West as decadent and debauched, reminiscent in its hostile tone of the Soviet media of the 1980s. “If there is a new Cold War in journalism,” Mike concluded, “it is coming from Moscow.” The core arguments of Mike’s presentation can be found here.

Neil Clark (NeilClark66.blogspot.co.uk), a prolific freelance journalist argued, in contrast, that Western coverage of the conflict in the Ukraine has systematically employed double standards in its reporting of the Maidan demonstrations and the toppling of the Yanokovych government on the one hand, and the subsequent demonstrations and referendums in the east of the country on the other. Neil, who contributes regularly to a very broad spectrum of publications including The Guardian, The Week/First Post, the Morning Star, the Daily and Sunday Express, the Mail on Sunday, the Spectator and Russia Today’s OpEdge column, questioned how measured or balanced the language used to describe protestors on different sides of the conflict really is. Why were the Maidan square demonstrators referred to as “pro-democracy protestors”, despite the important role played by fascist groups, who now hold five positions in the government, while people in the east of the country, protesting against what they see as the undemocratic overthrow of their elected government, are described as “militants” or “pro-Russian separatists”. And why are referendums held in the east of Ukraine derided as meaningless by many commentators who are simultaneously cheering the return of democracy to Afghanistan when elections are held there under foreign military occupation? Part of the problem, he suggested, is the extent to which coverage has tilted towards comment at the expense a straight reporting of events. The core of Neil’s presentation was based on an OpEdge piece for the Russia Today website, ‘I’m Confused, Can Anyone Help Me?

As part of a lively discussion, Jim Boumelha, who is the NEC member covering the Oxford area, talked about the many meetings that had taken place, under the auspices of the International Federation of Journalists, between representatives of its member unions, the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine and the Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine on the one hand, and the Russian Union of Journalists on the other. They were brought together by the IFJ last March at a roundtable in Brussels, where they agreed co-operative measures to provide support for journalists and to uphold professional ethical standards and journalist safety, in a co-ordinated plan of action to help journalists covering events in Crimea, Kiev’s Maidan Square and across Ukraine. The three unions came together again on 19th May under the aegis of OSCE in Vienna to agree a detailed memorandum including opposition to violence against journalists and their detention, call for ease of procedure for freedom of movement, and rejection of manipulation and propaganda.

 

July branch meeting 

The July branch meeting will focus on Making Journalism Pay in the Digital Age. It will be a networking event, with introductions from two experienced freelance journalists, an contributions from many branch members who have experiences, good or bad, in finding diverse ways to use the opportunities offered by digital media to build up an income from the work they do. It will be a week earlier than usual, on Thursday July 3rd, and will be held upstairs in St Aldates Tavern, opposite the Oxford Town Hall.

 

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