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Stressed-out staff ballot for strike action at Newsquest titles in London

Strike action by Newsquest journalists in south London last summer  -  © nuj

22 August 2016

Journalists on Newsquest titles in London are balloting for industrial action over inadequate staffing levels, excessive workloads, reduced quality of newspapers, the health and safety of employees, plus pay.

A stress survey earlier this year covering staff in south London showed many were suffering from high workloads, struggling with a new production system and poor communication from the company’s senior management. Staff say they live in fear of losing their jobs because of the company’s many redundancy rounds.
It is not just the health and safety of staff that has driven the journalists to ballot for a strike. They are passionate about their jobs and want to produce the best newspapers and websites as possible, but understaffing and the loss of experienced colleagues have put quality under threat. One NUJ member said that at least one newspaper had been sent to print without being read by anyone more senior than a content editor and concluded: “I could not recommend Newsquest as an employer.”

The chapel reported that newspapers covering Merton and Epsom have been staffed by lone trainees with no permanent editor for months and the 142-year-old Richmond and Twickenham Times will have just one trainee reporter from September. The Wandsworth Guardian will have no reporters once the intern currently expected to cover the entire borough leaves in the coming weeks.

Journalists on the London titles say there appears to be an unofficial recruitment freeze, with staff who leave not being replaced. They say they have had no guidance or communication from managing director, Tony Portelli, regarding the future of a newsroom where staffing is at dangerously low levels. Repeated requests for clarification have been ignored.

The titles balloting include the Croydon, Epsom, Kingston, Richmond, Sutton, Wandsworth and Wimbledon Guardians, the Richmond & Twickenham Times, the Surrey Comet and the News Shopper (Bexley, Bromley, Dartford, Gravesend, Greenwich and Lewisham editions) as well as their associated websites.

The NUJ’s stress survey found 88 per cent often or always worked intensively, 36 per cent said they had unachievable deadlines, more than half (52 per cent) did not have supportive feedback on their work, 56 per cent did not have sufficient breaks and 88 per cent said they were not consulted about changes at work.

Comments included:
•    “I have had no support from my editor or those above throughout my time at Newsquest, despite being given an unrealistically large and high-pressure workload in my first job as a trainee, and being the sole trainee expected to complete a large paper alone. Changes are agreed behind closed doors with no consultation with reporters and apparent total disregard of how it will affect them.”

•    “There is plenty of support and encouragement in the office from colleagues, but not enough from the company. Each desk is working with the bare minimum of reporters and every reporter is stretched to their limits to cover everything going on in their patch. Stress levels are exceptionally high at times because of this.”

•    “The company’s strategy of managed decline has created a pervasive negativity in the office. Staff are expected to produce a lot of work in little time. The opportunity to produce quality, in-depth journalism is lacking for that reason, which gnaws at reporters who know they are capable of better journalism than they currently produce. That said, their attitude in the face of all this is generally good and good work is still done here. Newsquest’s approach has soured the collective attitude to the point that even trainee reporters are leaving the company in disgust.”

A statement from the NUJ chapel said:

"Newsquest's willingness to lie to the trade press, by denying just how desperately under-resourced its newsrooms are, came as no surprise to the teams working in them.  Our journalists remain in the dark about what the managing director's plans are, because he has not communicated with us. This chips away at our morale and emotional well-being week by week.

“Newspapers covering Merton and Epsom have been staffed by lone trainees with no permanent editor for months, while the 142-year-old Richmond and Twickenham Times will have just one trainee reporter from September. The Wandsworth Guardian will have no reporters once the intern currently expected to cover the entire borough leaves in the coming weeks. Henry Faure Walker, the chief executive, must take our concerns seriously by ending his hiring freeze and relinquishing his veto on bringing in any new staff.”

"Last week, the Gravesend edition of News Shopper folded owing to under-staffing and the Lewisham and Greenwich editions were merged,  weakening the identity of both in one fell swoop."

Laura Davison, NUJ national organiser, said:

“The situation on these titles has become critical in terms of the strain put on the staff. What is so upsetting is that we have a group of professional journalists who are thwarted from being able to produce work to a high standard, but it seems the management doesn’t care. Young trainees who start off thinking they are beginning their dream career are dejected and burnt out by the workloads and lack of support.
"More experienced staff are leaving because of the way they are being treated and there is nowhere else for them to go – in vast swaths of the south east, Newsquest is the only newspaper employer in town. They don’t want to go on strike. They are loyal to their readers and care passionately about the titles but their management refuses to listen. The union is seeking urgent talks with Newsquest to address these critical issues and avoid industrial action.”

Last summer, members in south London went on a 10-day strike over redundancies, understaffing and to persuade the management to pay trainees a living wage. They won unanimous support from the London Assembly and the council leaders of Merton, Kingston, Sutton, Richmond and Croydon councils who complained to the then Newsquest managing director. At the end of last year the chapel put out a press release saying that more than 300 years’ worth of experience had been lost from Newsquest’s south London titles in the past two years because of redundancy or reporters leaving in disgust because of savage cuts to newsrooms.

The ballot will conclude at noon on Friday 9 September.

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Tags: , local newspapers, local news matters, newsquest, newsquest south london, croydon guardian, epsom guardian, kingston guardian, richmond guardian, sutton guardian, wandsworth guardian, wimbledon guardian, richmond and twickenham times, surrey comet, news shopper, bexley, bromley, dartford, gravesend, greenwich, lewisham, ballot