Life by a thousand cuts ...

Mathew Horsman says get used to newspaper job losses

Moves last week by two major newspaper publishers, theExpress group and Associated Newspapers, to lay off as many as 400 employees startled an industry already used to belt tightening. But it may be just the beginning. The very economics of the newspaper business in this age of high technology and accountant-driven management is changing. "The world is so competitive, so commercial," complains a senior executive of a national newspaper.

New technology was once a one-off, exogenous shock to the system - seismic, perhaps, but unlikely to be repeated in anything under 10 years. The move by Rupert Murdoch to Wapping in 1986, for example, was seen as forever changing the way newspapers were produced in the UK. Suddenly, the world of hot metal, compositors and a phalanx of copytakers was gone. In its place, journalists directly "input" their stories, to have them edited on screen and sent, electronically, to the printing plant. That brave new world, so wrenching for so many, was at least comprehensible as a revolution: once the transition was accomplished, one could settle in to a new orthodoxy.

Not true; or at least no longer true. The new constant is constant change. "Technological upgrade", far from being a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, is now likely to occur on a regular basis. Consider the jobs that no longer exist. Newspapers can now call up photographs from a digitally composed library, shared by several newspapers, and no longer necessarily send out a photographer for each fresh event. Moreover, there is no need to retain an employee on staff to produce a print of a photograph. Calling up the image on the screen is all it takes.

A senior manager at Associated Newspapers, where 40 jobs have already been slashed in personnel and accounting, to be followed by another 140, says: "We are managing to make savings using desktop scanning [of photographs and text]." Translation: we no longer need the people who used to do these tasks. Each new technological breakthrough - digitised photographs, "network servers", optical readers, centralised and shared editorial libraries - means another raft of redundancies. A senior executive at a tabloid newspaper tells it like it is: "Software upgrades are happening more and more often, and the savings are to be found in labour costs and multiskilling."

So much for those who believed the newspaper market was on the mend and job prospects improving. But yet, the damaging price war launched by Murdoch in 1993, is apparently abating. The advertising market is not all that bad and advertising rate cards are being respected. True, the newsprint crisis is acute. Prices have risen by 40 per cent since last summer, with another 15 per cent rise possible in the second half of 1995. But there are ways around this, as most newspaper publishers have realised: print runs can be reduced, and sections redesigned, transformed from broadsheet to tabloid format (this page being a case in point).

But on the job front, there is little solace in the (slightly better) outlook for national newspapers. As most industry executives admit (off the record), theirs is a mature and declining industry. The only hope is to lever their considerable editorial assets into the new media markets of online information services, local cable, commercial radio and CD-rom.

Associated's job cuts do not yet include journalists at the group's main papers: the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard. "We do not want to hit the quality," a senior Associated manager says. Perhaps, therefore, there will always be a place for writers. But the time is not that far off when a handful of hacks, surrounded by the best that technology can offer, will generate all the pages you read. All the rest - photos, layout and the whole pre-production process - can depend on "new technology".

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