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Newsquest's "shabby scheme" gives new meaning to free newspapers

24 April 2017

Newsquest is to give £9,000 in prizes to its centres which publish the largest amount of free copy and photographs taken by readers.

Henry Faure Walker, the company's chief executive officer, has written to staff giving details of a competition which will result in a league table of newspapers and websites which can produce as many pages/stories as possible on the cheap. The "good, competitive fun", as he described it, will involve a top prize of £4,000 plus £3,000 for second place and £2,000 for coming third.

The letter says the competition will be based around each publishing centre’s performance on publishing unpaid content (pictures and words) from their communities. There is no reference in the letter to the importance of quality of the copy or images.

According to research commissioned by  the NUJ, launched last month, Newsquest was the regional newspaper publisher which shed the most staff – with the loss of 139 posts – in the preceding 17 months and over the past few years has systematically sacked most of its photographers. [Mapping changes in local news 2015-2017. More bad news for democracy?]

Newsquest staff are horrified that they are expected to take time to solicit free copy when they are already over-stretched producing stories and features and fear they do not have enough resources to cover the forthcoming local and general elections.

Members said they found it "gobsmacking" that Faure Walker expects them to encourage amateur camera clubs to replace the work of their professional photographer colleagues, many of whom have been forced to become freelance after losing their jobs.

Staff were particularly riled that Henry Faure Walker, who earns more than a million a year with huge bonuses, is espousing this pile it up high and keep it cheap approach to journalism. One Newsquest journalist said he would be treating this race to the bottom with the contempt it deserved and would wear it as a badge of pride if his centre was bottom of the free copy league table.

The letter also announced two prizes for the most successful Facebook pages. In case staff cannot contain their excitement, the league tables will be circulated by editorial development director, Toby Granville, each month so they can "track their performance against peers".

Chris Morley, Newsquest group coordinator, said:

“Our members are aghast at this plan to pit colleagues against each other in a race to the bottom to fill pages and websites with material whose only criteria for publication seems to be that it is free.  There is not one mention of the importance of quality or making sure content is appropriate and suitable. It’s only about filling space as cheaply as possible.
"The fact that the chief executive has personally put his name to this bizarre scheme could not illustrate more what is wrong with this company. A chief executive earning more than a million a year with huge bonuses being carried on the back of newspapers and websites filled with reader's material beggars belief.
“Henry Faure Walker claims in his memo to staff that 'professional journalism is the bedrock of our business'. But this is a perfect example of the company appearing to do all it can to undermine its journalists in the hope of putting them out of work. Members are appalled at this shabby scheme and want nothing to do with it. In fact one member said he would wear it as a badge of pride if his centre was bottom in the free copy league table.”

Tags: , newsquest, local newspapers, local news matters, henry faure walker, toby granville, photographers, cuts, free content