Monday, 6 April 2009

Regional Newspapers - Why?

House of Commons Lobby, 25th March 2009

Since being based in Nottingham (it’s ten years since I moved up here) I haven’t spend much time in London just going down for the occasional meeting, seminar or suchlike, perhaps twice a month.

The last visit I made was to the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) lobby of parliament in support of an early day motion requesting support of local journalism.

Parliament is very different from my last visit (last century), Police with guns, security fences and an anti-war protest camp right outside the front gates!

I was first to arrive, and was able to see the room reserved for us fill to capacity. It really was packed, literally standing room only by 2.30 (it started at 2.00pm), and I certainly got the feeling that the MPs present, there must have been nearly fifty, maybe more by the end, were taking the matter very seriously.

Hard though the NUJ is working on this, here is no guarantee that this work will help us, but it is good to see that others outside our industry are beginning to understand the ramifications of what is happening. This isn’t just a matter of jobs and redundancies, although of course for those who are working local papers, these are the very real issues.

Local journalism has changed from being the backbone of our communities to something that has twisted and changed, and simply become unrecognisable.

I have been a journalist, in my case a photojournalist, all my life; it is all I have ever really done. For much of my career I have been a supplier of material to the regional press - local newspapers, all over the UK. Indeed, like many, my first ‘proper’ photo sale was to a local newspaper, in my case the Advertiser and Gazette in Uxbridge, in the mid seventies and I received the, (to me at the time), princely sum of £5.

In those early days, local newspapers were often owned by local companies who actually provided a service to local communities. They employed a number of specialists who produced the publications, and supplied work to numerous freelances. The community was advised of what the local authority was doing, because council meetings were reported properly rather than just having the councils PR office churn out Press Releases used (often) verbatim. Local courts were actually properly reported, so that those in the community knew who was amongst them. Today many of our local papers report only the most ‘gory’ of cases, or those upon which a press release has been received. Gone are the days of the ‘court reporter’.

Ever since the Wapping dispute of 1986, there has been a gradual erosion of quality in local journalism, as newspapers are taken over by larger organisations whose aims and goals, are not servicing the community, despite what many papers proclaim on their mastheads, but simply to make good profit for their new owners. We have had a situation where fat has been trimmed, and trimmed again, until of course it is not fat being trimmed but simply the people who do specific work are dispensed with. Court reporting as already mentioned has become a thing of the past, as has many of the specialist positions once boasted by regional newspapers.

In my own field of photography, we have seen picture desks serviced by numbers of photographers and an equal or larger number of freelances squeezed, so that in many instances there are now one or two or even no photographers working where once there were a dozen, or a score or even more.

A recent example of this is the Manchester Evening News whose photographic output has been heralded for a hundred years and even today the paper proudly puts on exhibitions, yet in 2007 all their photographers were made redundant, in one fell swoop.

Post redundancy, the papers management, very generously offered to give these professionals all formerly on £27,000 + equipment + cars + pensions + expenses etc work at £120 per day all in – a drop in pay of more than £10,000 per annum (a photographers overheads are in the region of £90.00 per day). And the management are still scratching their heads and trying to work out why they cannot get these same guys back to work for the paper on a freelance basis!

The NUJ believes that more than 2,000 jobs have been lost in regional journalism in the past year, newspapers, radio and television, and the threat is for a lot more to go.

Here in the East Midlands, Northcliffe has announced another potential 50 jobs to go at the local Northcliffe titles and another 66 to go at the sister group Harmsworth Press.

I believe that it is clear now that Regional journalism in this country is undergoing a dramatic change, a change that started with the Wapping dispute, and has been accelerating ever since. Newspapers have become something that they never were, and were not particularly intended to be, and that is a profit-making machine, and in a climate where profit is king, content suffers, and when there is a recession, in order to keep up profit, people are dispensable. Once worker (journalists) are going, content suffers, as content suffers readership goes down and advertising follows, so more people are made redundant, and content suffers. Advertising is more difficult to get, so to keep up profit more jobs go, and it becomes an unbreakable chain of events.

In 2001 I predicted that there would be no full-time freelance photojournalists working solely in regional media by 2010. We have already reached this point.

It is clear that without a reversal of this cycle, newspapers are doomed, certainly in their current form, and local news at Radio, and TV stations will suffer as well. We have already seen jobs go at both the BBC and Carlton here in Nottingham, and more will surely follow.

Most likely the best that can be achieved is that better terms are obtained for those being made redundant. It is not going to be an easy ride and many more people will find themselves as out of work or redundant journalists before it gets better.

Already many local authorities are producing their own newspapers, at the moment to churn out their own propaganda, but it is possible that new publications will come from these somewhat narrow viewpoint ones. Will new publications and magazine programmes arise from the ashes like some kind of news phoenix? It is possible. The rise of the Internet which is still very much in its infancy has not yet established itself in a stable form, and as and when appropriate subscription and advertising models settle in place, we may well find that the new local news information sources will be found here.

Member of: The National Union of Journalists

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