Published: 21 April, 2011
by JON SLATTERY
JOURNALISTS went on strike at a London newspaper group this week in a dispute with a difference.
It was not about pay or conditions but an attempt to stick up for the quality of the local newspapers they work for.
The nine members of the National Union of Journalists at the North London & Herts Newspapers, which publishes the Enfield Gazette, Haringey Advertiser and a series of other weekly titles, are taking action because they believe the quality of their newspapers is suffering from low staffing.
Journalists on local papers are often poorly paid but have a devotion to their titles and closeness to their communities that puts cynical, big-earning national journalists to shame.
Jonathan Lovett, the leader of the striking journalists, says: “This dispute is solely about the quality of our papers. We are not asking for more pay. We are hard-working journalists trying to do a decent job without having to rely on people doing work experience. Staff are not being replaced and we have three reporters churning out nine newspapers every week.”
His use of the word “churning” is deliberate. “Churnalism” is lazy journalism where press releases are published unchallenged with little or no rewriting because they are a quick, cheap way to fill pages.
According to Lovett, more than a third of editorial staff at North London & Herts Newspapers, have left without being replaced and key positions are not being filled.
The sports section and arts & leisure sections have also been cut and, he says: “Reporters do not have time to leave their desks and we are unable to cover a range of council meetings, attend community events, court cases and inquiries and report them to the public.
“This leads to a failure to uphold the papers’ fine tradition of holding public bodies to account.”
Sadly, what is happening in north London is reflected across the country where the local press is suffering severe cut-backs or disappearing altogether.
In March, Guardian Media Group closed its only remaining local newspapers, the 117-year-old Woking News & Mail and free Woking Review.
This means Woking, which has a population of 92,000, no longer has a local press.
A combination of factors has put the local press under pressure. It is suffering from a loss of advertising revenue because of the recession and, with far more long-term impact, because the web has taken much of its traditional classified ads for jobs, property and cars.
Many local newspapers in London and around the country are owned by big companies like Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press, Newsquest, Northcliffe and Archant.
They used to make bumper profits but some borrowed heavily to expand, swallowing up smaller local newspaper groups, and are now saddled with large debts and have seen their stock market value tumble.
Hundreds of local journalists have lost their jobs, others have seen their local offices closed and been moved to centres far away from the communities they are writing about.
North London & Herts is owned by Sir Ray Tindle who began Tindle Newspapers with £300 demob money given to soldiers at the end of World War Two.
He started with a paper in Tooting, south London, with a circulation of 700 copies a week.
Through launches and acquisitions the group now has more than 200 titles. Tindle Newspapers specialises in weekly newspapers and does not have the debts or groups of shareholders to satisfy, like the big regional newspaper owners, but the company says it has to make a profit.
It warned this week: “The rest of the group is currently supporting Enfield, but it is not possible for the group to continue to support the current level of loss.
“It follows that unless we are able to increase our profitability dramatically over the coming weeks, we will need to take action to make the papers profitable.
“We may do this by restructuring the newspapers, which could potentially result in redundancies.”
There’s the rub. If local papers can’t make enough cash, there are more cuts and more restructurings and the quality of the papers goes down, making it less likely people will buy them.
This is why some believe the current business model for the local press is broken and other ways of financing it must be found, whether it be via subsidies, co-operatives or charitable trust status.
Local newspapers matter. Without them the powerful won’t be held to account, justice won’t be seen to be done and the social history of an area will go unrecorded.
The striking journalists held a mock funeral in Enfield for their papers this week.
If they fail in their stand to save a quality local press, we should all be in mourning.
• Jon Slattery is a freelance media journalist and former deputy editor of the journalists’ magazine, Press Gazette. He blogs about journalism at jonslattery.blogspot