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From picket line to podium

Tim Dawson with supporters of the strike in Blackburn  -  © NUJ

26 June 2014

"Jobs shocker – Telegraph bosses want to move production of LANCASHIRE newspaper to SOUTH WALES" announced the banner carried aloft by 43 Newsquest strikers yesterday in Blackburn. Seventeen production staff will lose their jobs when subbing moves to Newport and they, and their colleagues, are understandably angry.

Chris Gee, Father of Chapel, said:

"I have not had to play the role of union recruiting sergeant: members have come to me demanding that we take action. Statutory redundancy pay has been capped capped at 20 years. Members are furious."

Chris Morley, the NUJ's Northern and Midland organiser told pickets:

"Newsquest are one of the worst companies that I have to deal with. They don't care a damn about their products or the people they employ."

Despite the dire straits faced by the Blackburn journalists, theirs was an upbeat picket line. Dozens of cars honked their support, trades unionists from other unions in Blackburn came by to lend support, as did NUJ colleagues from Manchester, London and Birmingham.

There are two issues in contention, job losses, and the anticipated reduction in the paper's quality that journalists believe will be the result remote production. "Little mistakes, the kind that would be spotted by a local, always cost us readers," one striker said.

I was there to promise the support on behalf of the union's national executive. The pickets seemed pleased that their initiative had attracted attention beyond east Lancashire, the limitations of my megaphone oratory, notwithstanding.

My next engagement was at a BBC event at Media City, Salford. James Harding, the corporation's director of news and current affairsm had invited an audience from the local and hyperlocal media from around the UK to ponder their prospects for longevity. Harding opened proceedings with a keynote speech in which he promised that the BBC wanted to mend bridges with local newspapers and find new ways of working together. He said:

"The squabbles in recent years between the local press and the BBC are getting us all nowhere. The assault on the business models of the local press is not the BBC's fault. But we genuinely would like to help."

He went on to outline a range of extant co-operative initiatives between regional papers and the Corporation and signaled his enthusiasm for more.

More striking though, was the contribution by Ian Murray, editor of the Newsquest-owned Southern Daily Echo and current chair of the Society of Editors. He said:

"This is the most exciting time for local newspapers in the entire 30 years that I have worked in them. We are living through a new golden age of local media".

He delivered his address at such excitable speed that it was hard to keep up with his barrage of facts and figures. But the essence of his case was this: with 31 million readers and 62 million unique visitors to their websites, local newspapers reach a massive audience. They are the most trusted of all UK media (according to their own research) and more than 10,000 journalists are employed producing some 1,100 newspapers in the sector.

"My message to staff on my paper is that it ain't all that bad at the moment", he said, although he conceded that many do not buy into his narrative. It is not that surprising. When he took over the editor's chair on the Southampton daily there were more than 75 journalists on staff – today there are just 50.

My sympathies in this debate are hardly surprising, not least as the editor is paid to voice his opinion, while the strikers incur personal cost to get their view across. Whichever side it is your instinct to believe, though, the gulf in perceptions surely signals a company in which toxic differences are endemic?

It would be reassuring to think that among the initiatives showcased at the BBC's event a clear way forward for local reporting might emerge. There were certainly ideas. Several hyperlocals – Edinburgh Reporter and Filton Voice among them, reported that they have built strong followings in their respective patches. Neither has evolved a sustainable business model to date, however.

Local TV has launched in five areas, ten will broadcasting by the autumn. Nigel Dacre, chairman of the Local TV Network, told the conference that this new sector, the city-based TV stations whose franchises were the brainchild of Jeremy Hunt when he was culture secretary, is about to become a major presence in the UK media market place. Dacre had, however, the air of a man who was hoping for the best rather than one feeling that success was assured.

And there was Dom Chambers from the Community Media Association, whose members control more than 200 non-commercial radio licenses. Save that these stations provide useful community services, and a starting point for aspirant media professionals, he did not explain how volunteer-run radio might be the savior of local journalism.

Peter Barron and Joanna Geary, from Google and Twitter, respectively also made interesting contributions, the main thrust of which was that their platforms provide indispensable tools for those journalists who are left covering local beats.

That maybe so, but the impression that Blackburn's striking reporters gave me was that their preferred style of reporting requires the expenditure of shoe leather: "It's when we get out of the office and actually meet people that the real journalism starts", one told me. "The paper is suffering today because most of our time is spent in the office recycling material, something of which readers, and former readers, are all too aware."

The tragedy is, despite its staff's obvious enthusiasm for creating quality papers, Newsquest appears to be further than ever from finding the means to harness this beneficially.

Tags: , local newspapers, newsquest, strike, tim dawson, salford, james harding, local tv, google, hyperlocals, newspapers, bbc, twitter, blackburn, newport, london, manchester, birmingham, southern daily echo, edinburgh reporter, filton voice