More than 900 regional journalists have been made redundant since July - with further cuts to come. What does the future hold for them, those still in work and the next generation of journalists
IT has been a cruel six months for regional newspaper journalists, and the last two weeks have been tougher than most. Last Wednesday, Surrey and Berkshire Media, part of Guardian Media Group's regional division, said it was to axe up to 95 jobs, 35 of which are from editorial. Two of its weeklies will close, along with four district offices, and the Reading Evening Post will move from a five-day to twice-weekly publication. Also on Wednesday, the chief executive of Johnston Press, publisher of the Scotsman and the Yorkshire Post, warned of further job losses and title closures over the next 12 months, despite cuts of 15% in its workforce last year.
The day before, GMG's MEN Media, the publisher of the Manchester Evening News and 22 weeklies based in the north-west, announced it was closing all editorial offices of its weekly newspapers and axing 150 jobs, including 78 journalists. On the Manchester Evening News, the editorial staff of 90 will lose 39 posts. It was also revealed that up to 150 jobs, up to 30 in editorial, were under threat at the West Midlands-based Observer Standard Media Group, which has called in the administrators.
The previous week was little better. Staff at the Kent Messenger Group were told there would be a further 159 redundancies, including around 32 journalists. Archant in Norfolk announced plans to cut 54 out of 179 editorial staff as it introduces an integrated editorial system across its Eastern Daily Press and Norwich Evening News titles, and Northcliffe Media said it was to cut up to 95 jobs, around 20 in editorial, and close or merge a number of its weekly papers in Essex, Kent and Surrey.
According to figures just compiled by the National Union of Journalists, there have been 903 confirmed editorial redundancies in the regional press since last July, although if non-replacement of posts were included the union believes that the figures could be much higher. "New definition of optimism," one journalist posted on an industry website. "A newspaper journalist ironing five shirts on a Sunday night."
Regional journalists are angry, frustrated and fearful for the future. A seismic shift is taking place: local paper circulations and ad revenues are suffering unsustainable double-digit falls due to the recession and the rise of the internet, which is not yet generating enough money to employ journalists on the same salaries, or in the same numbers.
"The industry is being butchered by some international newspaper conglomerates in a vain bid to maintain unrealistic profit levels," says one ex-regional editor. "The last time we went through a recession, we made the cost savings, but we left enough of the business to come back to when things improved. This time around I fear it's gone too far for that.
"One newspaper editor tells me how he has to pause on his doorstep on the way home every night and compose his features into a smile. If he goes into the house looking glum, his wife immediately panics that he's lost his job and the daytime stress then carries on into the night."
And what happens when these journalists do actually lose their jobs? There is nowhere to turn, he says: "There's simply nothing out there. Six weeks ago they were an editor, a man of significant substance in their community; today they're signing on."
It is not just editors who are worried about finding more work. "Journalists losing their jobs are wondering 'Where the hell do I go?'. The jobs just aren't there. There may be an explosion in internet jobs in the future but it isn't happening yet," says long-standing Yorkshire Post reporter Chris Benfield, who last week picketed the offices of a London PR firm, where Johnston Press chiefs were briefing analysts on the company's financial results, over compulsory redundancies and 18 job cuts at Johnston-owned titles.
Benfield's colleague, Yorkshire Post City editor Ros Snowdon, believes like many regional journalists that there is a lack of online investment in their papers, and that publications were milked for profits in good times. "Last year YPN made £25m," says Snowdon. "We need continuing investment in the papers to develop in other areas. They are throwing the baby out with the bath water."
The frustration is felt keenly by regional journalists trying to get involved in the web. "If our editor had come to us and said, 'We're restructuring the business, these are the products we want to produce, this is how many people we need to produce them, this is our strategy for growing the audience, this is the standard we expect, this is what our newspaper stands for,' we could accept that the cuts had a purpose," says one reporter on a southern daily paper.
"But we seem to have no strategy. They can't agree about social media. They have no idea who their audience should be or how to reach them. They ghettoise web teams. Advertising staff are chasing their tails trying to persuade companies who got their web ads for free last year that this year they're worth paying for - while at the same time having to heavily discount paper ads because of the recession. There's no joined-up thinking about how to make the web pay."
Regional newspaper managements dispute this. They say it is proving difficult to recoup advertising revenues lost from print titles on the web, and that the current business model for regional press is not delivering the financial backing to support its journalism. The future, they say, is publishers that are smaller in terms of costs and the number of journalists.
But where does that leave those judged surplus to requirements - or forced to cover the work of ex-colleagues? According to one 24-year-old reporter who left a top daily in the north to go into magazines: "It was appalling. There seemed to be cuts every few minutes, which would set off another round of grumbling which was very demoralising. There was a feeling that the bean counters didn't understand the paper. All the young journalists wanted to get out and work as council PRs."
The scale of redundancies among regional journalists has left many chasing those jobs. "The best jobs in the regions are now in council PR. They pay well, are professional and no one's shouting at you," says another ex-regional editor. But despite the trend for local authorities to set up their own newspaper-style publications, not all redundant journalists will be able - or want - to secure jobs with the council.
Those who can't, often find themselves applying - against their better judgment - for other PR jobs. One journalist sent me this email: "I love the news industry. Journalism is all I ever wanted to do. But today I applied for a PR job because I don't believe the news business today has a career for me. Can I aspire to being an editor one day? Not any more. My dream job doesn't exist any more. The papers are all closed or merged or subbed off-site. So what are the choices? Hope you don't get made redundant before a job comes up at a company that has got it right? Take your ideas and set up by yourself? Or leave a job you love because you can't bear to see it devalued any more?"
Certainly, alternative jobs in journalism are becoming harder to find. The BBC is cutting back, and plans to expand its local websites were blocked by the BBC Trust after objections by regional publishers. Journalists are having to set up by themselves or look outside the sector.
Jonathan Bartholomew, a photographer for 16 years, was made redundant from the Stoke Sentinel last month. He has taken a job as a support worker for people with special needs. "I am pleased to have the job but it pays less than half what I earned at the Sentinel," he says. "I was made redundant before in the 1990s but found a job. What is happening is quite extraordinary. It is impossible to get another job in newspapers."
Those going freelance are finding that nationals are cutting pagination and rates. "It is not easy. I've had to be very resourceful," says Mike Donovan, who worked for the Argus in Brighton for 17 years writing and subediting before taking voluntary redundancy in August. "It was a very hard decision and one I took with trepidation given the economic climate. But I felt things would get worse at the paper."
For journalists committed to reporting for their local community, launching their own publications - usually on the web - could be the only answer. David Jackman, editor of the Epping Forest Guardian, Harlow and Bishop's Stortford Citizen and Epping Forest Independent, was made redundant in October after 21 years with the titles. He took a job in NHS communications, but also runs a community website. "A reorganisation meant there was no local newspaper office left in Epping," he says. "If redundant local journalists want to stay in local news and on their patch then starting local websites like mine could be the future."
But even as regional journalists are forced to find jobs outside the industry, demand for journalism courses is booming. "No sane person involved in journalism education can feel anything but uneasy about preparing students for an industry where so many senior jobs are disappearing and so few entry-level positions are becoming available," says Ian Reeves, director of learning and teaching at the Centre for Journalism, University of Kent - although he adds that he hopes the situation will change within the next few years.
But even for those who did manage to find a traineeship before the cuts started, things are tough. Just before Christmas, two years into her career, trainee journalist Lucy Reynolds was made redundant from the Stourbridge News. She is now working as an admin temp at a local hospital. "I've tried to get another job but it is really bleak." she says. "I loved my job and worked really hard to get it doing work experience. I left before I had the chance to do my NCE qualification."
Alternative business models to sustain the regional press - endowments for journalists, start-up grants, trusts, partnerships with public service broadcasting, state aid and local consortiums - are being discussed. But the industry is going to need some really big ideas to plug the gap between a failing print model and an undeveloped digital model that regional journalists are currently falling through.