Strikes are being talked about at three national newspaper groups. Some Daily Telegraph journalists will down tools for three days on 14 November. At the Express titles editorial staff are threatening industrial action because of job cuts. There are also grumblings at The Guardian, though a strike is less likely.
The background is different in every case, but there is a common theme. Newspapers are losing circulation and advertising revenue, and their managements are responding by controlling costs. Journalists, who tend to be divorced from commercial realities, and sometimes to assume that the world owes them a living, are up in arms. Do they have right on their side?
Let's look at the Telegraph Media Group, as it has just been renamed. Readers of this column will know that I believe the company's management has made several bad decisions. At the moment, for example, The Daily Telegraph is without a single staff correspondent in Europe as a result of sackings and resignations. But whatever mistakes there may have been, the Barclay brothers are making much less out of the group than they expected, and since they are capitalists it is hardly surprising that they are reducing editorial costs.
Richard Desmond, owner of the Express titles and the Daily Star, is also a hard-nosed capitalist. Last year he paid himself £27.8m in pension and salary entitlements. Nonetheless, his titles are afflicted by falling sales, though the rate of decline is less than it was. They are also attracting less advertising. So in order to protect his margins he is proposing that one tenth of the 350-strong editorial staff should be sacked, and that the Daily Express's City coverage be outsourced to the Press Association.
By contrast, The Guardian's management could hardly be characterised as ruthless capitalists, but they must operate with at least half a foot in the real world. The paper is no longer profitable, and its stablemate The Observer, despite a feisty circulation performance, is losing cartloads of money. Journalists on The Guardian's website are demanding parity with their counterparts on the newspaper. If told there is not enough cash in the kitty, they are likely to point, fairly or unfairly, to the bonuses trousered by Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, not to mention the £100m spent on new presses. Can nothing be spared for them?
Before answering this and other questions let us consider the fate of the once mighty Tribune Group in America, which is putting itself up for sale. One of the newspapers on the block is the Los Angeles Times, the fourth highest selling title in the United States. It has won 37 Pulitzer prizes in its 125-year history. Although it remains highly profitable, its circulation fell eight per cent to 775,000 in the six months to September. There have been editorial cutbacks, strenuously opposed by senior journalists, but the paper still has an editorial staff of over 900, and employs 45 journalists in its Washington bureau.
The next owner of the Los Angeles Times, we can be absolutely certain, will insist on further cuts. Can we honestly say that he - or she - would be wrong? If a paper mislays eight per cent of its sales in six months in addition to previous losses, there have to be economies, unless there is someone out there who believes that in the present circumstances, with readers haemorrhaging , it is possible to regain these lost sales. Such a person would surely be bonkers. My guess is that there are still some underemployed journalists on the Los Angeles Times, and that it would be possible to produce as good a paper - even a better one - with somewhat reduced resources.
Journalists on almost every newspaper in the developed world will have to adjust themselves to shrinking editorial budgets over the coming years. The successful editors will be those who accept this reality, and learn how to redeploy their tighter budgets to produce outstanding journalism. This will certainly involve asking some journalists to work harder. It may also be that some newspapers will have to accept that they cannot cover the entire waterfront equally well. Richard Desmond may be right to save money by outsourcing the Daily Express's City pages on the basis that they are hardly the paper's chief draw or internationally famous.
The three newspapers where strikes are threatened find themselves in different situations. I doubt that The Daily Telegraph is under resourced, though it may be directing its resources, and more particularly its energies, in the wrong places. Are its disgruntled journalists perhaps aiming at the wrong target? Neither The Guardian newspaper or website give off a sense of having been cut to the bone. The website staff may well have a case for parity, but journalists should surely bear in mind that they are working for an organisation that is losing a great deal of money, and is only kept going by the profits of the motor advertising group Trader Media, which though healthy are presumably not infinite.
The Daily Express is a different case. It has been on the slide for nearly 40 years and now sells about 20 per cent of what it did in its 1950s heyday. It is at the opposite extreme to the Los Angeles Times. Outsource the City pages by all means, and there may well be savings elsewhere that have somehow escaped previous rounds of cost-cutting. But if the paper has a long-term future it must establish a clear superiority over its rivals, principally the Daily Mail, in two or three areas. That implies investment in new writers and columnists. If I were Richard Desmond, I would forego my next £30m pay cheque, and plough the money back into the papers.
My message is that journalists had better accept they are not immune from changing commercial realities. All but the most privileged editors will have to learn to make better use of tighter budgets. Proprietors will have to remember that there comes a point at which you cannot go on cutting costs and sell newspapers.
A Stern rebuke: stop taking these experts at their word
Modern news is a remarkable thing. One day none of us has heard of Sir Nicholas Stern. The next his prophecies about the effects of climate change are raised to the level of holy writ. Pretty soon we will forget all about him.
My particular objection to the media's response to his report is that it was so credulous. Like almost everyone else, I know nothing about the science of climate change, but I am prepared to believe that much of it is soundly based. But even the most ardent pessimist should surely recoil at the way Sir Nicholas's crystal gazing is treated as though it were hard fact.
Sixty million people could be exposed to malaria in Africa, we are told by Sir Nicholas. Why not 10 or 50 or 100 million or even none at all?
It is babyish for journalists to parrot these figures - the BBC is the worst offender - as though they are somehow inevitable and set in stone.
Quite soon we shall be able to dispense with real news altogether, and simply report what the "experts" say is going to happen.Reuse content