Why the Newsquest journalists are right to go on strike

couple of months ago Frances Rafferty wrote: “The newspaper industry is in crisis… The response of newspaper owners has been to cut staff and costs often at the expense of investing in quality journalism.”

You might well reply that since Rafferty is the communications officer for the National Union of Journalists she would say that, wouldn’t she?

Sure, but that doesn’t mean her analysis, and her concern about journalism, is wrong. And the current situation at the south London division of Newsquest/Gannett, where a week-long NUJ strike is into its second day, illustrates her point.

No-one can deny that the newspaper business – as a business – is in dire straits. No-one, if they are sensible, can deny that cost-savings by publishers are necessary.

But the point I have made time and again is that cutting too many people at the coal face, journalists, is counter-productive. I am not saying that there should be no loss of newsroom staff. My concern is about the increasing numbers being forced to leave.

Publishers are imposing redundancies that suit the bottom line, but without regard for the qualitative impact on their newspapers’ output.

Similarly, I am worried by the fact that the survivors of the regular culls are not being paid a reasonable wage and that their working conditions have deteriorated. This is making journalism a less attractive trade to enter, especially at local level.

The Newsquest situation is illustrative of journalism’s plight. Up to 11 jobs are set to go at its south London titles where 27 out of 29 staff have been put on notice of redundancy.

The NUJ has tabled a wage demand with Newsquest because most of its journalists have not had a pay rise since, would you believe it, 2008.

The package includes a basic 1.5% cost-of-living increase with an entry salary of £17,500, together with a 1% increase in company pension contributions. A reporter on a £20,000 might get £1,500, or 7.6%, more.

Consider those figures for a moment. They illustrate just how little Newsquest staff are currently receiving. It’s no wonder there is such support for the strikers, as reported by HoldTheFrontPage.

I note that a Newsquest spokesman defended its “need to revisit its cost base” and the “regrettable… restructuring [that] puts a number of roles at risk of redundancy” in order to ensure that business “has a credible future.”

Here, of course, lies the problem. There is a distinction between the “business” having a credible future and journalism having a credible future.

I readily concede that both, historically, went hand in hand. What we need to explore is a future in which journalism, the original raison d’être for newspapers, can be preserved when an old-fashioned business enterprise is no more.

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