20 October 2014

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Journalists send protest letter over ‘swingeing’ cutbacks

Journalists at an East Midlands daily have issued a sharp condemnation of plans to axe editorial jobs.

As revealed on HTFP earlier this month, bosses at the Leicester Mercury are proposing a newsroom restructure which could mean the loss of up to 11 journalist roles.

In an open letter published on the union’s website, the paper’s NUJ chapel accused the company of adopting a “cavalier attitude” towards editorial jobs and endangering the future of the business.

It calls on publisher David Simms and acting editor Richard Bettsworth to guarantee no further journalist job losses this year.

The open letter, addressed to Mr Simms, states: “The devastating job losses proposed amount to a 20pc reduction in staff in a department that has already been savaged time and again by swingeing cuts.

“Five years ago, editorial had 97 employees. If these cuts are implemented the departmental headcount will have halved.

“Put simply, we are are already doing more with vastly reduced resources. To further undermine a department that is already stretched to breaking point not only jeopardises the wellbeing of those who will remain, it endangers the entire business.”

A press release on the union’s website says Mr Simms, who joined the Mercury last summer, had previously gained “a reputation as an axeman” from his days at Trinity Mirror, where he was managing director of the group’s North-East division.

The union’s Northern and Midlands organiser Chris Morley said:  “Our members at the Mercury are at the end of their tether. They have seen wave after wave of swingeing redundancies in recent years that have halved their number.

“These assaults on jobs may have helped prop up profits but they have also driven away readers in droves and hurt advertising.”

Neither the Leicester Mercury nor Northcliffe Media have so far responded to the union’s comments.

Here is the open letter in full.

AN OPEN LETTER TO DAVID SIMMS

The Leicester Mercury NUJ chapel condemns the latest ruthless round of redundancies in the Leicester Mercury’s editorial department.

The devastating job losses proposed amount to a 20% reduction in staff in a department – the people who produce this newspaper’s coverage of news, features and sport – that has already been savaged time and again by swingeing cuts.

Five years ago, editorial had 97 employees. If these cuts are implemented the departmental headcount will have halved. Put simply, we are are already doing

more with vastly reduced resources. To further undermine a department that is already stretched to breaking point not only jeopardises the wellbeing of those who will remain, it endangers the entire business.

The refrain that used to run beneath the Mercury’s masthead was “clearly better”. Now senior managers are telling us “good enough is good enough”. Quality, no longer, is a watchword.

We are being run by a man – you, Mr Simms – who recently told journalists here that you did not read a daily newspaper. You also said that you did not like sport – one of the main drivers of the Mercury’s sales. Neither statement inspired confidence, and now our fears have been abundantly justified.

For many of us, the Leicester Mercury is not just a place of work. It is our local newspaper; something that has been read and enjoyed by our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents; something some of us used to deliver as paper boys and girls long before we had the privilege of working in its newsroom.

To use one of the business buzzwords you seem so fond of, we are stakeholders in this newspaper – and we have grave concerns for its future viability.

The cavalier attitude to axing editorial staff is actually at odds with your own stated plan for taking the business forward.

Your plan is to develop new revenue streams by extending the Mercury’s brand into other areas and across other platforms. But how do you propose to do that Mr Simms if the core product of that brand – its daily newspaper – becomes a tarnished shell of its former self?

Our readers are not stupid. If we can no longer offer them local journalism that entertains, informs and stands up for their interests by properly scrutinising the decisions that affect their lives – holding our elected officials, public bodies and companies to account – then they will desert us in their droves. Advertisers will swiftly follow. The “brand” will command no respect whatsoever.

We are well aware that hard-working, loyal and talented people across Leicestershire are being put out of their jobs. We have reported their stories and we are not seeking special treatment.

The Leicester Mercury, in common with newspapers nationally, has faced a sharp decline in revenues. However, at a time when this paper remains the most profitable in the Northcliffe group, slashing editorial numbers by a fifth appears to be nothing more than profiteering.

Northcliffe’s parent company DMGT reported operating profits of £320 million in 2010. Its directors received £13.39 million in total remuneration last year, including £6.5 million in bonuses alone.

It has been stated that Northcliffe has asked for a set level of cost reductions from the Leicester Mercury.

We would like you to tell us how much money that is and whether you argued against those reductions or put forward alternative proposals. We also want to know why editorial is bearing the brunt of these so-called “efficiency” savings. Were they your idea? If not, who is the architect of these plans?

We are particularly concerned that loyal, long-serving staff are being shown the door. How does that fit with a commitment to maintaining the quality of the newspaper? It would appear to us that the company has no interest other than putting as much money as it can into the hands of its directors in the short-term.

What evidence can you give us that there is no alternative to these unwarranted and damaging cuts?

We ask you, the acting editor Richard Bettsworth and the Northcliffe board to give both us and the readers assurances going forward. Will these be the last of the job losses in editorial this year and for the foreseeable future? Are there any plans to make staff reductions elsewhere? What are your projections in terms of revenues and staff numbers over the next 24 months?

We would also like a clear acknowledgement that continued cuts in staffing will damage the quality of the newspaper, exacerbate the decline in its readership and, therefore, diminish revenues still further.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts on these matters. Please be aware that we also reserve the right to take appropriate action if the explanations and assurances we are seeking are not forthcoming.

7 Comments

  1. furryoldgreybadger

    I bet Mr Simms is shaking in his boots!

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  2. Scribbler

    They’re all at it, and they don’t care – only about the bottom line.
    Good on you for trying but your message falls on deaf (and seemingly stupid) ears. But when readers desert in their droves due to a lack of quality content, they will have only themselves to blame.

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  3. oldbill

    The most disturbing aspect of this story is that Mr Simms said he did not read a daily newspaper! If true, what is he doing in our industry? The Mercury has a proud history going back to the 1870s and in its heyday had powerful local management in the form of AW Peake, John Fortune and F Brian Thompson to name just three. All were out-and-out newspapermen who understood their industry. Oh yes, and money. Excessive generosity was not among their faults but at least they cared about what they were producing. They took sound decisions based on a lifetime’s expert knowledge.
    My view is that the only long-term hope for newspapers like the Mercury is that they are sold back into local management and run like they were in their earlier days. The licence to print money through newspapers has gone but some of the advertising will return when this appalling recession ends if the Mercury and others can keep readers. But you can’t do that if you keep getting rid of journalists to boost unrealistic profit ambitions.
    The late Arnold Hadwin summed up the state of modern newspaper management when he spoke to Press Gazette on his 80th birthday. Take a look at what he had to say.
    http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/story.asp?storycode=42763

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  4. Tellus More, Midlands

    The real problem is the ownership of the Mercury and its stablemates. Daily Mail & General Trust wanted to ditch Northcliffe but got greedy and didn’t sell it when it could. Now the easy money tap has been turned off, they have turned their back on it and have no interest in making it work. They have starved Northcliffe of investment and are screwing every last penny out of it while they can. The loss of such experienced and committed staff is nothing short of a betrayal.

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  5. Neil Ward, Midlands

    Doesn’t read newspapers or like sport?! Brilliant! What next? Maybe hire a cleaner who’s allergic to polish.

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  6. Jules

    97 employees?! No wonder they want to cut it back. How many employees does a paper need realistically? If editors and managers controlled newsroom staff structure responsibly from the start, then our industry wouldn’t require such cuts, as none would be needed. I used to work for a newsroom which had 5 staff members devoted to subbing and deputy editing, and one member of staff who solely provided the copy. 2 photographers relied on that one reporter, so its no wonder one photographer had to go, as well as some of the subs. Its all out of kilter.

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  7. Clem

    Here we go again. Not the job cuts, but the NUJ reaction. When job cuts are announced, surely the best thing the union can do is try and protect as many jobs as possible. To do that, it needs to work with management, not start dubbing an individual an ‘axe man.’ What does an open letter actually achieve, other than convincing management that the NUJ aren’t to be trusted? In other walks of life, unions have much better relationships with management and get a greater influence over decisions made.

    Putting out in the public domain that the MD says he doesn’t read a daily newspaper and doesn’t like sport only serves as an attempt by the NUJ to ridicule him. You don’t need to eat chocolate every day to run Cadbury, you just need to understand the people you are trying to sell to. In one sense, if he doesn’t read a daily newspaper, he has more in common with most people in the Leicester area than the NUJ does.

    In short, in its mad dash to be seen to be doing something, the NUJ is paying more attention to snappy headlines than it is to actually helping on the ground. Oddly, that’s always what happens when Chris Morley gets involved. That alternative would be more productive relationships with management and these companies, but that doesn’t generate headlines or appeal to the left-wing mafia running the NUJ. Sad, but true.

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