The failure of Trinity Mirror to invest in its newspapers is killing off local and regional press with dire consequences, evidence from the NUJ has found.
The newspaper group publishes five national papers and more than 130 regional titles, serving the major cities of the UK. But, under the leadership of chief executive Sly Bailey, the regime of cutbacks means that journalists can no longer follow council meetings, court cases and admit to “increasingly going for the easy stories”. Evidence shows that to save money the company is focusing its distribution of some weeklies in only affluent areas. Birmingham, with a population of 1 million, has one newspaper vendor; there were 17 four years ago.
Trinity Mirror’s results are due out on Thursday. But already there are signs that shareholders are unhappy with Bailey’s performance. Since joining the company in 2003, she has collected around £12.5million at the same time as the share price plunged by almost 90 per cent. In 2010 her pay and bonus package was around £1.7m. Newspaper reports at the weekend said that shareholders – Schroders, Aviva Investors, Standard Life and Legal & General – which control 42 per cent of Trinity Mirror have “demanded deep cuts to Bailey’s pay package”.
The NUJ dossier paints a picture of poorly paid journalists covering for redundant posts, spending most of their time uploading websites rather than finding and writing up stories. Photographers are becoming a dying breed, with papers relying on readers’ pictures. Papers are thinner and editions fewer. The only good news is that there has been some investment in websites on a number of the titles.
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary said: “This dossier makes grim reading. It shows that local papers are having the life-blood sucked from them. Creative and investigative journalism is seriously under threat as journalists no longer have the time or resources. It means that local papers cannot fulfil their vital role as a public watchdog, holding local politicians and businesses to account. It means that the special relationship between the reader and their local reporter is being broken. A similar exercise carried out among papers owned by Newsquest tells the same story. What is true in both cases is that the sacrifices being made by staff is not being shared by the managers and directors of these companies who are pulling in vast salaries and fat bonuses.”
One rep from the Huddersfield Examiner said: “Reporters are increasingly office-bound because of the demands of the job. Each reporter was supposed to spend half a day on their patch looking for stories. The idea was abandoned two years ago owing to staff shortages. Management’s refusal to pay staff for reviews done in their own time – theatre, comedy, restaurants, books – has led to a shortage of volunteers.”
The situation on the Birmingham Post & Mail was summed up by one rep as: “Staff are increasingly going for easy stories – those which can be filed and concluded as quickly and with as little fuss as possible, from press releases and announcements with a quick reaction from the end of the phone. Some good, but not explosive stories are missed because we do not have production staff able to make late changes to the paper. We no longer routinely cover the transport authority. All this means that community or grassroots news has suffered and we are becoming increasingly reliant on reader generated news and pictures.”
A rep from Trinity Mirror Southern, which includes titles such as the Ealing Gazette and Surrey Advertiser, said: “Reduction in the number of photographers in 2011 means that they cannot get to as many jobs. Loss of image processers mean that journalists must load up all their own content and contributed pictures into the system and cover for the web, leaving less time to research and write stories. Cuts to the agency copy budget means that we can’t carry as much court/tribunal agency copy, if journalists cannot get to hearings themselves.”
In Media Wales, one rep said: “The impact of the big redundancy round last summer has been most obviously felt in the Celtic weeklies. The papers now have little more than one dedicated reporter each with much of the content given over to a cross-Valleys news section culled from the Echo, a common sports section and the dreaded ‘user generated content’. There is much less court coverage, only four photographers for the whole centre and loss of city newspaper vendors.”
The rep from the North West said: “Job losses have had a huge impact on staff. The job losses in 2009 have meant every single worker has to take on the duties of one or more departing colleague. The cuts have meant reporters have to work longer hours spending less time on each story to produce more copy. Sub-editors cannot spend as much time laying out each page or carrying out checks. News editors must pick and choose jobs such as court cases carefully to ensure they can spare the bodies. The photographic cuts mean that we are unable to take as many pictures as we used to, such as images outside courts right through to images of nativity plays that parents may buy a paper for.”
There was some good news in the North West, where investment has reaped rewards. The opening of satellite offices has allowed reporters to spend longer on their patch and readers can drop in to share their news.
Martin Shipton, NUJ Trinity Mirror Group Chapel Chair said: "The union's Alternative Annual Report on Trinity Mirror exposes the reality behind the group board's yearly announcement of 'savings' totalling many millions of pounds. These cumulative cuts are having a devastating impact on the ability of newspapers to report on their communities with the consequence that readers are turning off in droves. The board's strategy in recent years has had nothing to do with producing excellent journalism that readers will want to buy, it is about slashing costs to pay off debts. By wilfully damaging the quality of its own papers, the board is destroying its chance to create a sustainable business for the future."
Bailey has also been attacked for her failure to capitalise on the closure of the News of the World. Trinity Mirror owns five national newspapers, including the Sunday Mirror and People. Roy Greenslade, professor of journalism, City University, London, said in his blog: “She had the playing field to herself when the News of the World vanished. The key was to lock in the new buyers, securing their loyalty, because everyone knew that Murdoch would one day launch a Sunday issue of the Sun. It was important to make his task as difficult as possible, and he certainly granted Bailey plenty of time. Given the best part of eight months to accomplish the task, she failed to capitalise on the opportunity.”