An uncertain future
With media job losses escalating and little help from government, isn't it time to plan for the future of grassroots journalism, asks Ray Snoddy?
Everyone knows about the employment crisis that has hit the UK in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
The bell tolls daily as 2,000 jobs are under threat at Jaguar Landrover and another 2,200 at DHL, which delivers components for the car industry.
Already more than 200,000 job losses have been announced since the March lockdown and a second wave of the virus followed by a second lockdown would be almost too painful to think about.
The OECD believes it could take UK unemployment to 15 per cent or 5 million people, the highest figure in recent history.
Even against such a grim background two recent media job loss announcements are interesting, although they stem from different underlying financial causes.
In April Reach, publishers of the Daily Mirror, Daily Express, Daily Star and many regional titles, put 20 per cent of its staff on furlough and cut the pay of all staff by a minimum of 10 per cent.
Now, as the furlough scheme begins to be phased out, Reach plans to get rid of 550 jobs or 12 per cent of the workforce.
The drastic action comes in the wake of understandably bleak performance figures - revenues to June down 27.5 per cent compared with the same period last year, although print was hardest hit at 29.5 per cent while digital was down 14.8 per cent.
In an ideal world Reach would take losses on the chin and invest more in what the company sells – journalism and the journalists who produce and prepare reliable information in a sea of nonsense and conspiracy theories.
That however was a process that should have got under way long ago, before the unexpected blow from a pandemic.
The savings from job cuts and restructuring the company is designed to save £35 million, but will cost £20 million to implement.
The true costs are likely to add up to far more than that - not all financial - because the great plan is to push for a more centralised structure based in fewer locations “to avoid duplication”.
Decoded, that means there will be fewer journalists in the towns and cities Reach local titles purport to represent.
In terms of quality and local-ness it is a downward spiral, and surely goes against the spirit of these socially cautious times where there is an increasing emphasis on lives lived locally.
But perhaps the most surprising thing about the Reach announcement is the emphasis on persuading readers to provide more information about themselves.
The surprise is of course that the company hasn’t been doing this for years. It’s hardly rocket science.
Publishers who sell subscriptions already have a lot of information to sell to advertisers – not least the fact that the very act of subscription suggests active involvement rather than passive page flicking.
For those going down the advertiser-funded route, registration to know your readers is vital if you are going to form a continuing relationship. Email addresses are an absolute minimum.
In May the group had 47 million readers but only 2.5 million of them were registered with consent to access email addresses or even postcodes.
It’s a hell of a time to be cutting 12 per cent of the workforce and waking up to the importance of registration.
By coincidence, the BBC is cutting almost the same numbers from regional programmes across the UK - although the cause is the need to save £25 million. This is partly the result of out-going director general Lord Hall’s licence fee settlement with the Government and the postponement, because of the pandemic, of the reintroduction of licence fee payments for most over-75s.
Again the financial pressures are real, but the BBC is supposed to be doing something about a widely perceived metropolitan bias amid promises to move more staff out of London.
The loss of 450 staff from the English regions comes on top of 150 job cuts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland announced earlier.
The era of the single regional presenter has arrived in both radio and television, and has arrived along with the axing of the award-winning Inside Out, the current affairs programme with 11 regional editions.
The largely speech-based BBC Local Radio, which many have praised for keeping local people in touch and informed during the pandemic, will be reduced to three daytime shows – something that had been introduced as a temporary measure during the crisis.
Here again there is an element of centralisation with current affairs being conducted over larger, less local, regions.
It is difficult to see how all of this fits in with Lord Hall’s vision that by 2027 two-thirds of BBC staff should be based outside London to redress the metropolitan bias, and with it the lack of understanding of life and opinions outside the Home Counties.
The fate of staff at Reach and BBC regional production are small examples in the scale of things and much worse for the media industries will probably follow when furlough schemes come to an end (although the £1000 post-furlough retention scheme might help a bit).
There will be a drought of jobs for aspiring young journalists, the growth of a more casualised, freelance employment market, and what is going to happen to the cohorts of new graduates coming out of the many university journalism and media courses?
What is very noticeable as Chancellor Rishi Sunak moves to spend £2 billion to help fund young people on work placement schemes for six months on minimum wages is how little, if anything specific, has been done for the media industries.
It is far from clear whether the new work placement scheme intended for those under-25 on universal credit and aimed largely at hospitality is relevant for those with post-graduate journalism qualifications.
The arts sector was delighted to be promised £1.5 billion not just to support “the crown jewels”, but local theatres and cultural institutions as well.
The media industry doesn’t want to be last in the queue - even though aid schemes would be difficult to devise because many media organisations are quoted companies and the BBC has, at least for now, its universal licence fee.
At the very least, thought should be given to the creation and funding of an institution to help pay for grassroots journalism. We will all be impoverished by the melting away of local newspapers and locally produced radio.
The central dilemma remains and has not been properly addressed – never has journalism and honest information been more vital and never has it been more difficult to finance.