You say voluntary redundancy. I say the sack

The Observer's asking 15 to fall on their swords. Blood is still running down Telegraph towers. Even the Mail is doing it. Why the panic?
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Other cuts have been announced. The Express is closing its Manchester office and telling its reporters (all two of them) to work from home. The Telegraph is closing its business and finance office in the City of London and moving staff into its Canary Wharf headquarters. It will save costs.

There is a domino effect to these things. Managements look at what others are doing and get ideas. If the Beast feels it can lose a few journalists then why cannot the Bugle? Aren't we all a bit overstaffed? Will sales suffer if we are 10, or 20, or 30 journalists lighter? Well, sales are suffering anyway. Why does it take around 600 journalists to produce The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph and fewer than 300 to bring out the daily Independent and The Independent on Sunday?

There's nothing wrong with the questions. Managements have a duty to shareholders to run their companies efficiently. Businesses shed staff, and sometimes take on additional staff. You won't find former MG Rover employees at Longbridge shedding tears for Telegraph journalists who have taken voluntary redundancy on pretty decent terms. The newspaper business is an industry like other industries.

But is it? Yes, it manufactures a product that people (in decreasing numbers) buy. But it is more than an MG or a Rover. At its best, it holds politicians to account, oils the wheels of democracy and represents the powerless against the users and abusers of power.

The upmarket argument deployed by journalists at times of cuts is that there is a proportionality between the number of journalists employed and the quality of the journalism published.

Journalists say, sometimes rightly, that digging, finding out what others would rather was not found out, takes time, and reducing staffing means less of it will be done. The Sunday Times has just cut its investigative "team", Insight, to one journalist. Journalists as a breed tend to display self-importance; they are articulate, and they have professional access to outlets for their views. The very qualities that make them good journalists often bring them into conflict with those who manage them. So they believe that cuts means worse coverage, while managements believe that cuts mean profits. Between these conflicting positions lie some realities. Some are unpalatable. Here are a few:

The Observer is losing £10.5m a year, according to its managing editor, John Duncan, in an email to staff last week. The Scott Trust, publishers of The Guardian and The Observer, want to reduce that figure to £7m, "the maximum loss figure that is acceptable to the trust as the price of the owning The Observer". Duncan said the workforce would have be reduced by 12 to 15 people. If volunteers did not come forward over the next two weeks there would be compulsory redundancies.

The Express had been cutting costs and staff for years before Richard Desmond bought the titles. It had been cut to the bone, said the journalists, but Desmond has managed savage further cuts. It is a rubbishy paper, but it makes money.

Promotion does more for sales than good news stories, a free DVD more than a new reporter. The Mail titles spend a fortune on such add-ons (£100m a year); so do The Times and The Sunday Times. You can turn the tap on and off. You don't have to make a DVD redundant.

Advertising revenues are taking a hit, and the medium-term prospects for revenues in general are not good. In the space of a few days Trinity Mirror said its national titles suffered a revenue fall of seven per cent in the first six months of this year; Johnston Press, one of the big regional publishers, gave a figure of 4.7 per cent for the past month, and the Mail, too, admitted that revenues were down.

Bucking the trend, The Independent claimed a "high single-figure" increase in ad revenues for the first half of the year.

Advertisers want more colour than newspapers can provide, so publishers are investing in new presses to deliver it. News International, the Telegraph, Guardian, Mail and Trinity Mirror have all announced investments ranging from £50m to £150m in printing presses.

The impact of news websites on newspaper sales is now being felt, with real evidence that younger, former readers are turning to the web for their information. Nobody has yet cracked website profitability. But it could come from a migration of classified advertising to the web, which would be critical for newspapers with a strong dependence on this form of advertising.

Newspapers may be declining but they are doing it profitably. Venture capitalists stalk the City in search of newspaper acquisitions. There was a queue of potential buyers for the Telegraph. In the regional press, profit on turnover moves towards a staggering 40 per cent while young graduate journalists are paid less than a newly-qualified nurse, police officer or teacher.

Fat papers - and they have never been fatter - soak up more editorial costs. Do readers really mind if they are getting 200 pages or 160?

New owners buy because they see potential increased profits through greater efficiencies. The Barclay brothers saved about £5m a year by cutting 90 Telegraph journalists.

In America they use the expression "corporate newspapering". But what is the opposite? Philanthropic newspapering? There are no proprietors like that any more, those to whom publishing papers is an expensive hobby, a way to buy power and influence, an indulgence.

All we can ask for is recognition that newspapers are not just any consumer product but have a vital democratic role. It requires viability, through responsible management, for them to exist in the first place. And for that existence to make an impact requires investment in journalism.


Financial Times

The damage: In February, the Financial Times, under editor Andrew Gowers, lost 30 editorial staff - two-thirds of them journalists - as part of a cost-cutting redundancy programme. A spokeswoman described the process as "painless and smooth... It's completely voluntary."

Daily Mail

The damage: The regional division of the Daily Mail, edited by Paul Dacre, has announced plans to cut staff and close presses. "There will be [an unspecified number of] job reductions", they said. "We hope some of those... will come from natural wastage."

Express group

The damage: Under editor Peter Hill three senior advertising posts were axed on 12 April in a management cull. "Three individuals have accepted redundancy packages," confirmed the company. Four jobs will be merged into one.

The Telegraph group

The damage: It was announced in February that 300 jobs (90 of them journalists') were to go. Sport, the magazine and the website suffered most. Fifteen employees under editor Martin Newland were informed that they had been chosen to leave under a "report card" rating system.

The Observer

The damage: Losing more than £10m a year was no longer sustainable for The Guardian's stablemate (edited by Roger Alton, pictured). It has announced plans to make up to 15 staff redundant in a bid to cut annual losses to £7m.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield


Oh dear, Michael. That's not what to say to Huw

BBC news grandee Michael Buerk was on injudicious form when compering the Regional Press Awards on Friday. Reigniting the debate about the qualities needed to be a newscaster, he told hacks that it was one of only two jobs that required no training or talent - the other being a junior minister.

"You don't even have to be terribly bright," he added. "You don't even have to be sober. Most of my colleagues are as thick as two short planks." Will Buerk be saying that to Huw Edwards's face?

Nothing wasted

Meanwhile, letting slip further indiscretions last week was former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis, who revealed that it's not only tin foil that is recycled on the programme. "When I was doing the programme," she told Metro, "I was given a script with Val, John and Peter's names on." That would be pioneering 1960s trio Valerie Singleton, Joan Noakes and Peter Purves. "We were doing an item lifted from an old script," confessed Ellis, mother of singer Sophie Ellis-Bextor.

New Paxo-lite

We are intrigued by the signing of Jeremy Paxman to write a column at The Sunday Telegraph, one of new editor Sarah Sands's first big moves. We thought that after Rod Liddle embarrassed his then employers with his column in The Guardian, BBC big names had been banned from this practice. Is Paxman breaking the rules? A BBC spokeswoman tells us that presenters can write columns so long as they clear it with their boss first, don't reveal any political affiliations, or address current controversies. What does that leave them to write about then?

Pearson plays away

When is a newspaper columnist not a newspaper columnist? Answer, when she is Allison Pearson of the Evening Standard. Her Wednesday column last appeared in the paper at the end of March. Every week since then, a stand-in has been used, and the words "Allison Pearson is away" have appeared at the foot of the page. We are told she is writing a novel. But for how much longer can this charade be kept up?

Political vacuum

Channel 4's soon-to-depart political editor Elinor Goodman has perhaps wisely chosen to give next week's Gleneagles shindig a wide berth, knowing a media cattle-pen when she sees one. But who to replace her? Even though her departure has been known about for weeks, ITN has only just got round to advertising for a replacement. Goodman's long-time deputy Gary Gibbon continues to hang by the phone.

Oonagh says no

Meanwhile Oonagh Blackman, political editor of the Daily Mirror, has turned down an approach by John Kampfner to fill his shoes on the Westminster beat at the New Statesman. She was courted by the weekly's new editor but decided that tempting though a two-day week might be, she was better placed where she is.

Two-way split

Monday's Daily Mail front page: "FOR PITY'S SAKE LET THEM STAY - How, in all conscience, can the Home Office deport more than 100 Zimbabweans to face torture at the hands of Mugabe's evil regime?" Friday's Daily Mail front page: "ONE IN 100 IS HERE ILLEGALLY - Are Home Office migrant figures STILL an underestimate?" We don't know if we're coming or going, do we?

Pressing engagement

The mêlée at the British Awards earlier in the year has not deterred journalists from breaking bread together. The London Press Club charity ball at the National History Museum on Thursday, hosted by Carol Vorderman, raises money for the Newspaper Press Fund, the charity for journalists. Most of the industry's movers and shakers will be there, and the top raffle prize is a very flash car. A few tables are still available. Call 020-8429 7520.