19 February 2012

Why should we care about local papers?

The following is a note I worked from yesterday when speaking at the Netroots North West meet-up in the workshop session Engaging with Local Media, with NUJ member and PR expert Matt Finnegan and Mike Rawlins from Pits and Pots in Stoke:

33 million people in the UK pick up and read a local newspaper at least once a week. Websites run by local newspapers attract unique users totalling 42 million every month. It remains the case that the local press, in its entirety, has a bigger share of the media market than either television news or national newspapers.

Crucially though, local newspapers are more trusted and liked by the public. We live in an unprecedented age where traditional journalism as a profession is right up there with banking in the unpopularity stakes.
But still, surveys show that more than just under 50 per cent of people believe their local papers contain news that can be trusted – a rating perhaps far above that of the national press or TV news.

But somehow, in spite of this huge base of public support and healthy market share, any of the very many media commentators around these days will fall over each over to tell you as loudly as possible that all that local newspapers are dying and will probably not be around this time next year.

Certainly, it is true that we are already seeing daily regional newspapers start to disappear – witness the recent death of the Liverpool Daily Post which has turned into a weekly edition. We are seeing circulation reductions in some areas that are posting year-on-year percentage declines in double figures. Interestingly though, it seems those downward trends can be bucked where journalists are properly resourced and managed and given the tools and support they need to do a decent job.

But in turn, the growth of online audiences on local newspaper websites is heartening. There are good and bad examples of local newspapers online, The Stoke Sentinel’s latest incarnation of its website is one of the most user-unfriendly I have ever seen as I am sure Mike will talk about, but slowly local newspapers are finding their way online.

The problem for the industry is that it hasn’t worked out how to turn these audience increases online into hard cash revenue that will both adequately sustain their operations and also deliver their shareholders the bumper profits they have been used to for years - not long ago it was not unsual for newspapers to make profits in excess of 40 per cent on turnover. It is also arguable that having given away professionally produced content for nothing on the internet for so-long has devalued journalism in the eyes of the public who now view unlimited access to entirely free information as a right and not a privilege.

Business model concerns aside, the key lesson here for anyone trying to campaign or highlight issues in society is that local newspapers, and crucially their websites, remain central and key to communities in the UK. To ignore or write them off if you are trying to engage with people in your community is deeply unwise.

In that context, I would just say a few words about the realities of life on a local paper for NUJ members. There remains, I think, something of a perception about local newspaper reporters sitting around in the pub all day drinking and smoking, attending the office only briefly for a few hours to churn out some lines before deadline. I have heard many times people seeking press coverage complain that no journalist ever bothers to turn up to events and cover them any more in spite of being invited.

Staffing cuts have seen in some local newspapers over the past five years have more than a third, despite workloads remaining largely the same. Papers may have slimmed in size, but filling the blank space between the decreasing number of adverts has become for many a far more difficult job.

Moving online still hasn’t changed this situation - in fact it has largely made it worse. Although the websites are supposedly 24-7, the reality is that most journalists on the local newspapers are working to strict deadlines set by print, mainly because the newspapers themselves are the main sources of revenue, and making serious money from online operations still hasn’t happened. Yet still, they are expected to report "live" too - bringing continual and constant pressures to an already difficult job.

Even when I started full-time in journalism in the mid-90s on a weekly local paper, leaving my desk to go out to find stories, meet people or even understand the patch being covered was a difficult task, but at least I managed a day a week on average. But particularly for those on weekly local papers, it now becomes almost impossible to spend any time outside the office covering events as they happen as there is simply too much to churn out to fill the newspapers.

In an even worse development, newspapers are now going down the route of losing most staff photographers. The mantra is that with cameras so widespread and the available numbers of usable pictures from the public freely available, there is no need to spend money on employing professionals to take pictures documenting what is going on.

The situation is poor for working journalists and the NUJ will continue to argue for properly resourced professional journalism at every turn. But the situation I believe is also ripe to be taken advantage of by clever activists.

Simply telephoning the local paper to tell them something is happening, unless it is seismic, will not result in coverage these days because of the desk-bound nature of the journalists working there.

But presenting decent stories to the paper, including decent pictures and words and an angle can reap huge benefits in terms of coverage. Whether I like it or not, material that can be used online and in print that does not require a huge amount of work to present it will inevitably end up being used above less usable information. I think most people here will realise this, but it is important that we do not ignore or write off what continues to exist as the biggest provider of local news to our communities.

The most important thing I want to get across today is my experience of dealing with the 5000 NUJ members I cover in the north and Midlands of England employed in local media every single day. Many of them, in fact the majority, are members of the NUJ. They may not be activists in the sense of people at this event today, but there is a definite awareness amongst most of what a trade union is, the job it carries out and how it operates.

In our region we have had several key industrial disputes in the last year which, because of their very local nature, have gone largely under the radar. Journalists working in Doncaster and South Yorkshire took 55 days of unbroken strike action over job cuts and the attack on their papers in summer 2011. Journalists working on the Warrington Guardian – the same series that back in the 1980s was infamously owned by Eddie Shah – took decisive and widespread action last September to defend jobs and won the dispute hands down. We have recently ensured, through a militant and solid stance, that not a single union member lost their job when the Liverpool Post turned into a weekly paper.

My point here is that many local newspaper journalists are trade unionists too. They are brow-beaten, overworked and low paid like everyone else – most will not earn a great deal more than around £20,000 a year and will often work far more than their contracted hours. But they are also largely ready to listen if you are prepared to spend the time getting to know them and learn what they need from you. If I can impart anything useful to you today other than ensuring you do everything you can to engage with local papers, it is to try your best to get to know your local journalists and find out what they need from you. It can only benefit what you are trying to achieve and ultimately help you win the battles you are fighting.

28 September 2011

How Twitter can get you sacked

Journalists are expected, as a matter of course, to engage and interact fully with social media. Twitter has quickly become one of the single biggest global sources of breaking news.

With stories and seismic political events like the Arab Spring being driven and played out through Twitter, it’s not hard to see why desk-bound and under-resourced journalists are trawling the network regularly for stories.

The problem is that journalists are not simply using Twitter and Facebook to find and follow stories. Many use it as a platform to promote themselves and their work and interact with readers and viewers.

This is where trouble lies. Too many journalists willingly list and link to their employer on their personal facebook and twitter profiles. Even where the link to the employer is not made directly clear, or people follow their profile with the classic “views my own”, staff journalists everywhere are now laying themselves wide open to potential disciplinary action or even dismissal.

Many hacks fall into the trap of thinking that in our celebrity obsessed world, having a big shiny twitter profile and lots of followers will equate in some way to increasing their professional standing and gravitas.

Whether or not this is true, it leads many journalists trying hard to build up their number of followers.

One surefire way to guarantee piling on a big following is to be reporting live from some major event before the live cameras manage to get there.

But in the absence of this good fortune, the only other way to bump up the follower count is to tweet constantly on the big trending topics - and in most cases, say something controversial on those topics. In other cases, even the profile pages themselves are controversial – over sexual or over sensational – to try to attract attention.

All of this can all too often end up with journalists being hauled up by employers for appearing to sully the good name of the publication or organisation they work for.

I have dealt with a multitude of disciplinary hearings in the past few years relating to conduct on Twitter – and unfortunately seen several people lose their jobs as a result of that conduct.

Many journalists (and non-NUJ members) will read this and sniff, saying that they get on fine with their editors and are doing well so need not worry about a bit of ugly twitter banter.

But as many people I have represented will testify to – employment relationships can change overnight and very often, particularly in the smaller workplaces, the golden girls and boys can quickly go to being the dunce in the corner.

Facebook also brings with it many dangers. Virtually every workplace bullying or harassment case coming into my orbit at the moment has evidence involving some comment or status made somewhere on Facebook. 

Colleagues you had counted as friends can have a nasty habit of copying and sending on those little barbed comments you thought were just amongst a small select group of people all the way up to management. Something similar to this happened to me in the dim and distant past, so I’ve had first-hand experience of this.

Regular readers of this blog will even know how we managed to expose the behavior of the scabs on the recent South Yorkshire Newspapers strike by simply looking at their publicly available interactions on Facebook. Funny as it was, we should all learn from this.

I recently authored a draft set of points that I hope the NUJ New Media Industrial Council will adopt as formal guidelines for our members using social media, setting out ways journalists can use the technology professionally but safely in terms of protecting their rights at work.

In the mean-time I urge all journalists to play safe online and try never to mix business with pleasure in the online world.

My basic advice is thus:

If you’re not happy with a picture or comment being put on a piece of paper and put directly in front of your entire team of managers to look at, then don’t say it ANYWHERE on the internet, even privately. If you must live out your entire life and all your personal interactions online – remember that everyone in the world could potentially be able to see everything you write and you should work on the assumption that a permanent record of everything you say will exist FOREVER.

22 August 2011

Huston - we have a problem!

The offending leaflet
For a man in charge of a newspaper facing its sixth week of indefinite all-out strike action by almost the entire journalistic staff, it’s nice to know what the "innovative and charismatic" South Yorkshire Newspapers MD John Bills' main priorities are.

Fresh from the embarrassment of revelations that he paid his own son to sit in the Doncaster editorial office slagging off the papers he runs on facebook, and publicity over his ludicrous Linked-In profile text, we can now reveal that Mr Bills has sent his first formal communication to the NUJ since the beginning of strike action all those weeks ago on July 15.

An invitation to negotiate perhaps? An acknowledgement of the genuine and heartfelt concerns of his loyal and hardworking staff?

No. Not a chance.

Instead, Mr Bills has broken his self-enforced public silence to chastise the NUJ over a leaflet (posted right and below) circulated at the Doncaster Rovers football ground critical of South Yorkshire Newspapers editor-in-chief Graeme Huston.

Better still, Bills shares with us the knowledge that poor old Mr Huston was sent a copy of the leaflet with a “derogatory note” attached as he manned a lonely editorial office last week with only a handful of scabs for company.

You can see Bills' letter to the NUJ here.

The leaflet detailed Huston’s decision to lay off the well-respected long-serving Doncaster Free Press Sports Editor Peter Catt.

Whilst clearly satirical, the leaflet was not factually incorrect in any way - my colleague Chris Morley said to Bills in response: "It appears to me that the material is both accurate and fair comment.". 

It is very telling that Bills has chosen not to write to the NUJ for any other purpose than to defend the self-described “third most important man in Doncaster” from some gentle ribbing.

Huston has presided over a huge decrease in circulation at the Free Press during his time at the helm. From my own observation as a union officer servicing the strike, it is very clear to me that it is opposition to Huston’s management style that has united the NUJ Doncaster chapel. It is a strong unity that has lasted longer than virtually any industrial action in recent domestic history.

Yet still, all Bills seems to do is defend his manager from some honest satire and continue repeating the mantra that he will only talk to the NUJ when members return to work.

In my experience, any boss with sense would have opened up negotiations and would have got the members back to work by now and been able to call it a draw. But Bills is different. He is actually making more moves to inflame and entrench positions to ensure this damaging dispute continues into the distance.

It is a mark of the arrogant and pathetic Johnston Press approach that they would sit back and destroy their own papers rather than admit they might have been slightly wrong or change their management approach one iota.

Still, it is heartening to know that after weeks of principled serious campaigning and protesting, the weapon that has finally succeeded in bringing the management heads out of the sand is the simple weapon of mockery. If that’s what forces them to talk - then there is a lot more of it to come.

Text of Bill's letter to NUJ:

Dear Chris

We bring to your attention the enclosed leaflet which we understand is being distributed by your members who are currently out on strike action.  A copy of this was sent personally to Graeme Huston with a derogatory note included.

It must be stressed that actions of this nature are not acceptable and I am sure that you are as disappointed as I am that this literature is being circulated.

I trust that the NUJ does not condone this literature and type of behaviour. I would ask that you remind your members of their responsibilities and code of practice whilst taking part in industrial action

Yours sincerely

John Bills
Managing Director

Chris Morley's response:

Dear John

Thank you for sending on a copy of the leaflet "The Man Who Kicked the Catt" and your letter dated yesterday.

It appears to me that the material is both accurate and fair comment. It is also presenting important news to the people of the town that has been withheld from the pages of the Doncaster Free Press during the strike.

I suggest that if the story of Peter Catt's dismissal had been properly reported in the DFP, then derogatory comments about the prime mover would have come to your offices directly.

As you know, the actions of the company in targeting talented journalists who were known by management as leading members of the NUJ chapel has angered my members so much they are on indefinite strike. Denying them the chance to bring about a satisfactory settlement of the dispute by your refusal to hold talks without withdrawal of the action, can only increase my members' determination to hold management to account.

Instead of asking me to repudiate the actions of my members, I suggest you instead ask me for my availability to hold talks to resolve the dispute. I am happy to do this at any time.

Yours sincerely


Back of "Who Kicked the Catt" leaflet:

5 August 2011

Ever wondered what the strike breakers are thinking? Now we know...

Tom Bills - son of SYN Managing Director John Bills
I have often wondered what goes through the mind of people who willingly and openly cross trade union picket lines to replace striking staff.

Now, thanks to the miracle of social media and a lax attitude to privacy settings, the 24 NUJ members about to enter their fourth week of indefinite strike action against South Yorkshire Newspapers group now know what the scabs are thinking and saying.

Fresh from being hauled over the coals for using 16-year-old work experiences to break the strike, Johnston Press has had two University Students manning the editorial department on and off over the past three weeks.

One is Tom Bills – by happy coincidence the son of South Yorkshire Newspapers Managing Director John Bills. This is the same John Bills who yesterday refused again to negotiate or even speak collectively with the NUJ while the strike continues.

The other is Tom’s mate Jack Rees.

Tom Bills indeed confirms several times on his Facebook banter that he has been workin in a newsroom in doncaster, av been for a couple of weeks! Its reaaaaalllly goood! ;) x” - presumably without a hint of sarcasm.

It seems he and Jack enjoyed themselves at first, maybe even more than could be expected. On one of his first mornings at work on Monday July 18th Tom asks his 586 friends is it bad that I found the word 'erection' funny at work in a story about a building being built?!! :D

Sadly, the task of bringing local news to the Doncaster and South Yorkshire community clearly wasn’t something that really inspired Tom or Jack in the longer term.

By the following Tuesday July 26, as he mans the newsdesks some 24 hours from the Doncaster Free Press deadline, Tom reports he is: sooooo bored at work I've actually started look at the clock more than my computer screen!”.  

Jack joins in on this thread with his own unique insights on their work and how to dispel the boredom: “nothing get a man erect like doncaster editorial. lets toss each other off”.

Jack particularly is clearly unimpressed with what he is doing: “well work is where i want to be in this mood wahhhhhhhh” the next day at 9.48. Less than two hours later, in desperation, he asks his 525 pals: “can u listen to ur ipod in a newsroom wen ur sposed to be workin?”

There’s more on there if you're quick. If the boys eventually clock on to this and change their privacy settings so the entire world can’t see their facebook status updates, then contact us for the multitudinous screengrabs we have saved for posterity. (UPDATE 20:00 - screengrabs now available below as Tom Bills has blocked his wall from view - although the individual links on here still work!)

Ultimately it’s good to know Tom’s not doing the strikebreaking out of any anti-union ideology or because his dad has forced him into it. He informs everyone he is: just thinkin of the dollar atm!"

Presumably Tom and Jack aren’t getting anything near the 10 million shares the new chief executive of Johnston Press will be when he deigns to take up the reigns of the beleaguered group in November.

But they have both clearly been paid to work at the same time as experienced and skilled journalists lose their jobs through no fault of their own. The placards, vuvuzelas, theatrical productions in the street, not to mention the extensive local media coverage shouldn’t have escaped their attention, so they knew full well they were breaking a strike that has a huge impact on peoples lives.

The deeper and more serious aspect to this is John Bills’ judgment. Why did he employ his own son and his friend to work in editorial when neither appear to have any journalistic training or experience, then allow them to sarcastically spout forth on facebook belittling the newspapers he runs? It reinforces the belief held by the NUJ that John Bills cares not a jot about the editorial coverage in the newspaper, or even the reputation of the papers.

Had any ordinary NUJ member been caught mouthing off on facebook in the same way, they would have almost certainly been sacked for bringing the company into disrepute. So seeing as John Bills is ultimately responsible for employing his son to sit in the office and mouth off about how crap it is working at the Doncaster Free Press, surely Johnston Press directors should be seriously questioning his suitability for running a newspaper group.

As the full-time officer covering the action, I have come to know the members on strike very well over the past few weeks. I know they are doing this as a last resort to save the papers they love and respect. One journalist told me yesterday how the hardest thing about striking was how he missed the actual day to day work and reporting the news that matters.

It's a shame Johnston Press doesn't seem to value this dedication and professionalism, choosing instead to throw money at the children of the bosses who proceed to ungratefully sit and publicly slag off doing the jobs our members love.

21 July 2011

Cr-Ed-it where it's due

After a couple of days sustained tweeting and sharing of my blog-post, Ed Miliband MP finally decided this afternoon to release a short statement in support of the work of striking NUJ members at South Yorkshire Newspapers group.

He said: “I hope the issues facing staff at the Free Press and the South Yorkshire Times are solved soon. They are great local papers and I have always appreciated the work they do, with their campaigns and local stories. A strong local press is a big part of our community in Doncaster.”

He also tweeted a similar message at our chapel - marking him out from nearly all other mainstream politicians who have so far failed to acknowledge the dispute.

Some very welcome assistance from top journalism blogger Jon Slattery no doubt led to the story being picked up by Hold the Front Page which definitely helped shift things along. Thanks must also go to all NUJ comrades for re-tweeting and not letting the story go away. It goes to show the pressure of social media means politicians can no longer hide away from the real issues facing people.

We were never really expecting Ed to turn up and man the pickets, or even utter a word in favour of industrial action. But it would obviously be nice if he did.

With things changing in the media as they are, hopefully the idea of taking industrial action in the UK will stop being portrayed by the national press and broadcast news as a deviant and unusual act. If Ed had supported the recent June 30 action, I suspect he would be riding even higher in the popularity stakes than he has been thanks to his good position on News International.

There will inevitably be more strikes - except they will be strikes with far more public support than before as more and more people reach the point of realising direct action is the only way to protect what they have. By supporting some key struggles of principle, Ed could define himself away from the tired and discredited neo-liberal consensus and move the whole British political discourse into a new era - standing with those brave people prepared to stand up to the rich bullies who control our lives.

That's a debate for another day. The main thing is he recognises the vital work NUJ members perform for their community.

As it stands now, the South Yorkshire NUJ all-out indefinite chapel strike in Doncaster, Mexborough and Selby is making waves. We have overwhelming public support and today were the main item on BBC Radio Sheffield's breakfast show. We have released a bootleg newsletter in all three main areas of the strike with plans for much more. We have totally and utterly shocked the management who had clearly initially thought the strike was to be a narrowly supported protest that would quickly fizzle out in the July rain. Instead the sun is shining, and we are strong.

The bosses are now facing up to the prospect of a week of trying to fill another pile of newspapers, during the "silly season" holiday period with hardly any journalists and no "stock" items from the week before to back them up, They have reportedly even stopped using unpaid teenage work experiences to fill the paper up after NUJ pressure.

The ball is now very much in the court of the management to come to us to reopen negotiations. Early this morning we made it clear to them we would be happy to enter any talks they wished to put to the chapel formally. We await a response.

19 July 2011

Where's Ed?

Well OK, we know where he is. He’s on the Murdoch-bandwagon. And, to be fair, who can blame him? Not many people disagree with him on dismantling the media empires at the moment.

But he’s entirely ignoring another major media crisis.

Ed impressed me with his recent speech on the question of the printed press.

He said something that the NUJ has been saying for years - that local newspapers are being produced on a shoestring and this simply cannot be a good thing.

So you would hope that, with this new-found zeal for reforming the media landscape entirely, Ed might be concerned about the severe cuts on the South Yorkshire Times run out of a small office in the town of Mexborough in the heart of his Doncaster North constituency.

These are cuts that will see the already tiny editorial team cut by a half and the paper ultimately edited from Doncaster some 10 miles down the road. And they are cuts that have led to the NUJ within the wider South Yorkshire Newspapers group taking the astonishing step of all-out indefinite strike action.

Labour MPs, even shadow ministers, have already been supportive. John Healey who represents the neighbouring constituency to Ed has voiced his strong support for the NUJ’s position calling for the company to think again about the cuts.

But Ed has said nothing. Replied to no direct communication from the NUJ, or any of the members who have contacted him in relation to this dispute.

Johnston Press, the company that owns the South Yorkshire Newspapers group, is laden with crippling debt after a spending binge funded by cheap finance that has turned decidedly toxic. In the space of six years, the directors have overseen the share price fall from a high of 426p to a low of 4p. The Chief Executive John Fry has been rewarded for this failure with 1 million pounds a year in salary as he serves his final 12 months notice.

If Johnston Press was the UK PLC, we would be in a worse position than Greece and rewarding our failing politicians with our final remaining bars of gold from the emptied safe.

If JP and the other regional newspaper companies continue down this road, there is no question about it – local papers like the South Yorkshire Times will simply close. The company will bleed what is left by driving the products into the ground to satisfy the bailed-out RBS bankers who hold the debt, and constituencies like Ed Milibands will be left with no local paper.

This means millions of people in the UK will have no straightforward method for bringing the rich and powerful to account, or simply informing them about other events taking place in their communities.

Ed doesn’t have to agree to the NUJ strike action, or turn out on a picket line.

But as a politician in the spotlight who is going for the jugular of the biggest beast on media ownership, why is he not also taking the opportunity to attack the companies, and their systems of private debt, that are largely destroying our fragile local newspaper industry?

His abject failure to even comment on a crisis taking place on his doorstep lead me and all NUJ members involved to the conclusion that his grand talk about media ownership is little more than posturing. If Ed really cared about sorting out the media in the UK, he would address more than just Murdoch’s empires and the national papers.