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Johnston Press shareholders urged to ask about blueprint for future

Barry Fitzpatrick and Lawrence Shaw hand out letters  to Johnston Press shareholders

Barry Fitzpatrick and Lawrence Shaw hand out letters to Johnston Press shareholders   -  © Private

13 June 2012

The NUJ handed out a letter to Johnston Press shareholders, meeting in London, which asked them to ask searching questions about the newspaper group's plans for a major overhaul of its titles. Johnston Press is changing dailies to weeklies and its plans for a digital future are based on half the content supplied by readers.

Barry Fitzpatrick, NUJ deputy general secretary, said:

"This is a bold strategy of chief executive Ashley Highfield at a time when new solutions are needed. But he must not lose sight of the fact that he will not succeed without quality journalism. We need to know more details. How will the weekly paper and seven-days-a-week daily digital output integrate and how will it affect the working practices of staff?
"There will clearly be savings on print but how will it recoup money lost from cover prices and advertising revenue? These are questions the shareholders should be asking. We have also said that shareholders must ensure that senior management consult with staff and have regular meetings with the NUJ ."

At the meeting held in Edinburgh, Ashley Highfield said that the five daily titles that converted to weeklies last week have seen a 77 per cent increase in sales compared with their average daily sales. Shareholders were also told that early figures for the newspaper group's relaunched weeklies averaged increased sales of 8 per cent against the pre-relaunch figures.

The letter to shareholders

Dear Shareholder,

Once again the NUJ is taking the opportunity to raise with you concerns that we have on behalf of the journalists who work for the company.

Over the years that we have been attending the shareholders' meetings we have always made constructive interventions and when we have been critical it has been for genuine reasons. Sadly, many of these criticisms have been well founded.

That said we believe the digital first strategy is a bold move which deserves to be successful provided that it has been rigorously proofed before implementation.

Scores of your employees are being made redundant at the moment, including experienced journalists and commercial advertising staff. Life is Local will be a hollow benchmark if the consequence of this is that classified ad revenue falls and newspaper circulation continues to decline.

We need to know what measurement is being used to demonstrate that advertisement and cover price sales are going to migrate to the new platforms. Simply boasting that web page hits and apps registration percentages are showing high increases will not mean much if the base figure is so small in the first place.

As part of the redundancy consultation process we have asked for these statistics together with a review period to evaluate the promises against the reality. We are sure that you will agree that valuable resources, such as experienced staff, should not be sacrificed unless there is accountability from the senior management.

I have urged Ashley Highfield to engage with us and hold regular meetings with the group representatives of the journalists for this purpose. If the company wants to move forward and make radical changes, it needs to consult with the staff. In the past senior management has been reluctant to do this and we believe that has contributed to the mistakes that have been made.

Executive remuneration must be measured against share value and also positive interaction with the employees. Stress among many employees has been widespread owing to staff cuts and inadequate technical resources. In at least one JP centre where a proper survey has been undertaken, there was clear evidence of stress among editorial staff. Importantly, local management are in dialogue with the NUJ about how to tackle this situation. We feel this is constructive and should be possible elsewhere within the group.

Early experience suggests that the template system being introduced is too rigid and crudely focused on reducing the skill required for subbing and layout. The new format looks remarkably similar to The Independent design introduced by the same Spanish company. One early mishap on that paper was that the spellcheck program was in Spanish. If this is true, that suggests not enough preparation had been done before launch.

The daily web pages require as much journalistic content as the papers that they are replacing. Staffing levels are already too low and the additional need to check and proof contributor copy places an extra responsibility on the journalists. If we are to maintain the quality of content that success demands and your journalists pride themselves in, then we need proper investment in editorial resources.

A target of 50 per cent content from these new sources needs far more explanation than just implying that it will be free to use. But any savings made will be meaningless if the quality of news gathering is degraded: the readers will notice. We also want to take the opportunity of registering our concerns about the group debt. In an interview with the Press Gazette, Ashley Highfield said the company's £352m debt did not overly worry him. We think it should.

Do not fall into the well-trodden path, used by other groups, of seeing reducing staff as the cure to the pressures on the newspaper industry. It does not work: in a recession, quality counts even more.

We wish you a positive shareholders' meeting and hope many of these points are addressed.

Yours sincerely

Michelle Stanistreet,

NUJ general secretary

Tags: , johnston press, newspapers, regional newspapers, shareholders