SubScribe: June 2013 Google+

Sunday 30 June 2013

Endangered journalistic species I: Photographers

You can't sell news without pictures

Placing the flag at Iwo Jima, 1945. Joe Rosenthal, AP

Do you recognise this photograph?

It was taken on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, at 12.15pm on February 23, 1945. Joe Rosenthal used a Speed Graphic camera set between f8 and f11 with a shutter speed of 1/400th of a second.

The picture earned him a Pulitzer prize and today, 68 years later, it is still reckoned to be the most reproduced photograph of all time. It has even been recreated in bronze as a memorial to the US Marines outside the Arlington national cemetery in Virginia.

Rosenthal was working for the Associated Press and was one of two professional photographers (the other was from Newsweek) on the little island with the Marines at this key moment of the Second World War. Within 18 hours the picture was being published in hundreds of newspapers across the world.

Do you recognise this photograph? 

If you read a newspaper or look on the web and have any interest in finance, pensions, care homes, property, heating bills or social benefits, the chances are that you'll have seen it at least once.
SubScribe can't help with the photographer or the circumstances of the session, other than that at least one other picture was taken and distributed. 

The picture has a certain elegance: the slim wrinkled hand, the long fingers undistorted by arthritis, the manicured, painted nails that suggest a more privileged life in the past. But it hardly captures a moment in history. Yet it has been used in papers and on websites over and over again.

Since 2009, the Sun and the BBC have each used it four times, the Guardian and Huffington Post six. I've placed it myself in The Times, as have my successors. and the Express are really in love with it. They've used it 15 times apiece - three times in three weeks in March last year, in the case of the Express.

So what's so special about it that it has such constant and universal appeal? 

It's free.

You'll have seen this one - or a version of it - too. The street of estate agents' boards must be the ultimate in stock shots. House prices are of great interest to many people (almost as great and almost as many as the Express thinks) so stories about them going up, down or even stabilising eat up forests of newsprint. And they have to be illustrated. Unless you have a willing case study, it's complicated to find a specific house to photograph, so we all fall back on the boards or bunches of keys. 

It gets a bit tiring after a while - and telephone codes change, estate agents merge or go out of business, so the pictures need rethinking, reworking or at the very least updating. For that you have to have a photographer. And photographers cost money. Much cheaper to stick with the agency shots and take what you're given.

Chicago Sun-Times, June 2013

Stock shots have their place. They are readily accessible and a godsend when you have a difficult subject to illustrate, but they have no place in live news stories where the reader wants an image of the event. If you use one in such circumstances it is tantamount to admitting that you missed the story, got to the scene too late - or didn't have anyone to send.

The picture above shows how the Chicago Sun-Times presented the story when people queued round the block for a freebie chickenburger. The picture below, of customers waiting outside the diner,  is the rival Tribune's effort.

Chicago Tribune, June 2013

OK, so it's not the liveliest of pictures, though the two men in the foreground have charm. But at least it was taken on the spot and isn't a handout picture of a burger.

The reason for the difference has been well documented - the Sun-Times sacked its entire 28-strong picture department at the end of last month with the explanation that online readers wanted more videos and so big changes were necessary to facilitate that. But what about still pictures? Ah, reporters with iPhones and agencies would have that little problem covered.

The decision has been greeted with alarm and astonishment on both sides of the Atlantic. Which is apt because it is alarming and astonishing. A newspaper/website without a picture department? How can that work? How can any organisation lay off the likes of the legendary John H. White, below? 

John H. White photographed by former colleague Brian Powers for CNN

White, 68, had worked at the Sun-Times for 35 years, and also taught photojournalism at two colleges.  In 1974, at a time when race issues were still explosive in many parts of America, he was commissioned by the Environment Protection Agency to document the lives of  African Americans who mainly lived in the deprived areas on the south side of the city. The community that emerged from his photographs was undoubtedly struggling, but it was also one capable of exuberance and grace. 

Cabrini Green on Chicago's South Side by John H. White

White was awarded the Pulitzer prize for feature photography in 1982 for 'consistently excellent work'. His portfolio included the picture above taken in the notorious Cabrini Green high-rise housing project, which has since been bulldozed. On accepting the award, he said: 'I don't really take pictures. I capture and share life. Moments come when pictures take themselves.' 

The White trophy cabinet also houses the Chicago medal of merit, five photographer of the year awards, three headliner of the year awards. He was also the first photographer to find a place in the Chicago journalism hall of fame. A shining star without doubt, but not the only one in the constellation. The scale of what the paper has thrown away is laid out in this article from American Photo magazine.

Chicago skyline by John H. White

Chicago (as seen by White, above) regards itself as America's second city. A lot happens there - it's the world of Al Capone and of Barak Obama. History has been made there time and again, and local photographers have been there to record it. Not any more. 

Of course there are always agency photographers - Joe Rosenthal who took the Iwo Jima picture was one - but if you rely on them you are never going to have an exclusive on your own patch. And when you have a powerful rival like the doorstep like the Tribune, that's a risky position to put yourself in.

In the era of point-and-press megapixel cameras, we all think we're photographers; we share our efforts on Facebook and some of them are not bad. But we haven't been trained to choose the right angle, the right exposure, to judge the right moment as professionals have. Nor have the Sun-Times reporters. 

It's bringing the DIY mentality into the professional arena.
How hard is it to wield a paintbrush to brighten up the spare room? Not hard, but someone who has served an apprenticeship in painting and decorating will do the job far more effectively - and economically - than the home handyman. Once again, newspaper managements are devaluing the talents of their staff, discarding trained experts because they think they can get someone else to do it more cheaply. It's a flawed strategy.

The Chicago purge is an extreme example of economies being enforced all over the place. One national newspaper picture editor told me three or four years ago that the picture budget - including cartoons, drawings etc - for an entire department was £11 per day. Yes £11. Ok, this was on top of the subscriptions to the big agencies, but buy one mugshot from Alamy and he'd have blown two weeks' cash. The result, I was told, was that he had researchers on the phone all day begging company PRs for pictures.  That's why we pay specialists? To beg to PRs?

This approach is hard enough to comprehend in the context of newspapers, but when you think in terms of the digital age, it's bonkers. Websites and tablet editions are voracious consumers of pictures. Where a newspaper might have one or two per page, the digital versions require an image with every story. The demand for original photography will increase rather than diminish in the new era. How many times does an online reader want to see the same mugshot or stock photo?

The alternative, if there is an objection to paying agency fees, is the PR handout. These are already rather too much in evidence in so-called serious papers, particularly if they feature a comely woman. Here's Liz Hurley doing X or Pippa Middleton doing Y. Some papers have gone so far down this road that they can't even pick up on widely available agency photographs of true merit. 

Last Sunday the Moon was as close to Earth as it's going to be this year. Quite a sight. The Guardian treated readers to a splendid centre spread, the Independent also pushed the boat out. But you had to struggle to find even a single photograph in the other papers and some were so tiny and hidden in corners that they were barely distinguishable from the adverts. Pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow in her underwear (above in Friday's Telegraph)  preparing for a film or Glastonbury preparing for the crowds were, of course, so much more important.

If we've come to the point that we can't recognise special natural phenomena because we're so bound up with our 'up with the kids' news agendas, what hope is there for the spot news picture? And who's going to take it?

Let's go back to Chicago and Obama, reminding ourselves that this is the city in which he built his power base and is therefore the city that holds the key to elements of his personality, for example the White Sox fan pictured above. The home town papers need to be on the case take the opportunity to archive off-duty and off-beat moments that may have little significance now, but prove important or illuminating in decades to come.

Here's an example from the Thirties.

John Dillinger was a bank robber who, largely on account of escaping twice from jail, became America's first Public Enemy Number One and eventually met his end at the Biograph Theatre near Lincoln Park in Chicago in July 1934. 

A few months earlier, while being flown from St Louis to Chicago, Dillinger was approached by an enterprising young photographer seeking to make his name. The Chicago journalist Kevin Davis tells the story 

On a cold January day in 1934, my grandfather shot John Dillinger. Sol “Dixie” Davis steadied himself in front of the notorious bank robber, aimed his Speed Graphic 4-x-5 camera and took a picture. Dillinger, who was handcuffed and under police guard, let him take a few more photos and then said enough. “Taking these pictures’ll drive me screwy,” Dillinger said.
Dillinger was not in a good mood. He and members of his gang had just been captured in Tucson, Ariz. My Grandpa Sol, a photographer for the Chicago Daily Times, was riding in a plane with America’s most wanted fugitive. He got a tip that police were bringing Dillinger to Chicago and would stop in St. Louis to change planes. He drove down to St. Louis to get on that plane, and bought up all the empty seats so no other reporters or photographers could get on.
“Mr. Dillinger,” Sol said as he walked up the aisle after the plane took off.
“Whaddya want?” Dillinger barked.
“I’m the only cameraman on the ship. I want a break.”
“Whaddya want?” Dillinger asked again.
“I want some pictures.”
“All right, kid, go ahead and shoot.”

This is the resultant front page of the Daily Times, a forerunner of the Sun-Times.
To get a great news picture, you not only have to be in the right place at the right time, viewing from the right angle, but also have the experience to be aware of unexpected movements in your peripheral vision. 

If you are reporting on a story, you should be so busy focusing on what someone is saying that you will likely fail to spot what they - or anyone else - is doing.  Not only that,  to get that memorable shot you almost have to take the picture before the action starts. Anticipation and instinct are everything. But even if our reporter has them, how can he or she respond to the visual? It would be the height of bad manners to interrupt the conversation and hold up an iPhone to grab a picture.

No doubt the Sun-Times has done the calculations and concluded that its picture department is costing too many thousands of dollars for every exclusive photograph. In case other news organisations are planning to follow Chicago's lead, here are some instances of professional photographers' work that have not only impressed the reader, but also changed our view of the world.
Vietnam, 1968: The summary execution of  a Vietcong prisoner
 Eddie Adams, AP
Vietnam, 1972: Children flee napalm attack.
 Nick Ut, AP

Beijing, 1989: The 'unknown protester' defies tanks  in Tiananmen Square.
Jeff Widener, AP

Diana at the Taj Mahal, 1992. Tim Graham/Getty Images
Taj Mahal, 1992: Diana, Princess of Wales makes  a point about her marriage
 in front of the great monument to love. Tim Graham/Getty Images
For those with any kind of interest in newspaper photography, presentation and the importance of pictures, to my mind the bible is still Harry Evans's Pictures on a Page from 1978. It may sound antedeluvian, but there are a few managements and editors who could benefit from giving it a read.

*SubScribe is happy to give full credit for all pictures used on this website, since there is no intention to breach copyright. If your photograph appears and you wish to amend the credit, please email

What do you think was the greatest news picture of all time? The greatest photographer? The best front page? The worst stock shot? Please share your opinions in the comments below or by clicking the address

Thanks to CatbeL8 for four suggestions: the eruption of Mt St Helens in 1980, the Boeing 767 flying into South Tower  of the World Trade Center on 9/11,and these two examples of anticipation, instinct and quick thinking.

John F. Kennedy Jr salutes as his father's coffin passes on November 25, 1963. It was his third birthday.
The photograph was taken by Stan Stearns of United Press International. He had frequently covered Jacqueline Kennedy and so knew her habits.
Stearns therefore had his lens trained on Mrs Kennedy as the funeral cortege approached. He saw her bend and whisper to her son and suddenly the boy raised his right arm. 'The hand went up. Click - one exposure. That was it. That was the picture,' Stearns told the New York Times.
Stearns died, aged 76, in March last year.

Alfred Eisenstaedt explains how he captured this picture in Times Square on VJ Day in 1945. 'I saw this sailor grabbing any and every girl in sight. I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking over my shoulder but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly in a flash I saw something white being grabbed. I turned round and clicked the moment the sailor. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.'

CatbeL8 also recommended Matthew Brady's photography from the American Civil War. There are many graphic images from the battlefields and the trenches. This one, from Gettysburg in 1863, is the sharpest and least gruesome I found, while still showing the abject misery of war.

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.


Wednesday 26 June 2013

Women of note

Feminists face a tough battle, it's time for some tactical thinking

When you've been a woman for as long as I have - almost as long as the Queen's been the Queen - you get used to the way that sexism pervades our society.

It ranges from builders' wolf whistles to rape; from ironic references to cushions and hoovering to violence of the tongue as devastating as a blow to the stomach. And for all the equality laws of the past four decades, women are still lower paid and still find it harder to get full-time jobs.

There are the ignorant - people who lump women together with the disabled, homosexuals, immigrants and 'other minorities', forgetting that women are the majority - and the unthinking. Female votes put the brake on 80mph shouted the Times splash headline on Saturday, almost inviting every bloke who picked up the paper to blame the missus for spoiling the fun.

In fact most drivers, both male and female, were in favour of the higher limit. But Downing Street was apparently afraid of losing the votes of  women who were against the change and so abandoned the plan.

The logic of this escapes me, so I'll run through that again: 53% of women were in favour of an 80mph limit, 41% were not - so rather than upset the 41%, the plan was dropped. Sounds like nonsense, and of course it is. But it's so much easier to put the focus on unidentifiable 'females' than on the safety campaigners and vested interests that lobbied against the change.

When it comes to equality, certain sectors of society are locked in the first half of the last century,  most particularly business and finance, politics, the police and the media. They beat their chests and wring their hands saying 'We'd love more women to come forward/move up'. But they don't mean a word of it. They talk about ratios and quotas and positive discrimination.

Women don't need these things; the need is for there to be a will to treat everyone equally - for without that will, no artificial devices can correct the imbalance.

More women than men are qualifying as doctors, vets,  lawyers and dentists - the most competitive fields of study - and there are far more female undergraduates across our universities than there are male. So there is no doubt the talent is there, it just all goes pear-shaped in the workplace.

There are only three women at the helm of FTSE 100 companies because businesses and boardrooms are stuffed with stuffed shirts in black suits who think that a woman's role is the packed lunch in their briefcases. Tory deadwoodsmen in the shires are the same, picking wideboys over intelligent women as their parliamentary candidates. We had a woman prime minister once, didn't we? What more do we want? (The irony of that is that these diehards would have shaken the ladder as she climbed the first few rungs, and then ended up adoring her.)

But they've always been like that. They just need educating - though preferably not by the Australian political classes.

More worrying are the police and the media, who seem to be regressing towards the 19th century.

No matter how often codes of conduct are revised, no matter how many public inquiries condemn police practices, nothing seems to shift the mindset that only white men are worthy of respect - whether inside or outside of the force.

Meanwhile television networks that regard grey hair in male presenters as a sign of gravitas continue to push women off camera the moment the first wrinkle appears. Within the Press, middle-aged white men are again dominant in setting the news agendas while women, with few exceptions, are once more consigned to features or subordinate roles. This is especially galling after the great strides of the 80s and 90s.

Given all this, it's hardly surprising that there has been an upsurge in interest in the feminist movement - and the centenary this month of Emily Davison's Derby death has been a convenient peg for a new call to action.

Lest there is any doubt that action is required, take a look at the Everyday Sexism Project,   an alarming catalogue of evidence of the contempt in which women are held, especially by young men who should have been taught better by baby-boomer parents. Fresh examples appear on the site and on Twitter every minute (no exaggeration), here is a random selection:

So how are we women countering the louts and the dinosaurs?

By demanding an end to page 3 girls and a petition to have a woman's picture on a banknote.

I'm treading on dangerous ground here, but these don't seem to me to be the vital issues of the day. Pretty young girls are queueing up to feature on page 3 and if they want to take off their bras and pose for photographs in the hope of advancing themselves, why stop them?  The budding lawyers, doctors, vets and dentists have their opportunities, is it right to deny those with a little less up top (but a bit more further down) their chance of a richer life?

Is it exploitative? Is it demeaning? Is it offensive? Perhaps, but I find I object more to the nudge, nudge, wink, wink captions than to the generally cheery photographs. I'm glad the days of women draping themselves over boats and cars are over, and I wouldn't be sorry to see page 3 disappear, but I think there are more troubling matters for feminists to worry about.

The No More Page 3 campaign believes, however, that the easy accessibility of what it describes as soft porn helps to shape men's view of women and diminishes their respect. Given the oafish behaviour detailed in Everyday Sexism, it is a fair argument.

The banknote campaign is different and, whisper it softly, I don't think it serves the feminist cause very well. You can never be equal if you need or demand special treatment.

The Bank of England clearly didn't think too long or hard, if at all, about the gender of the next person to be honoured on the £5 note. And that's a good thing.

In whatever walk of life or area of society, people should be treated in the way merited by their actions and achievements. It's a shame there will no longer be a woman other than the Queen on our currrency, but it would have been a greater shame if whoever chose the replacement for Elizabeth Fry had thought 'We'd better have another woman.'

Criado-Perez. Photograph:

Caroline Criado-Perez has worked ferociously and tenaciously to garner nearly 30,000 signatures for her 'keep a woman on English banknotes' petition. That's some achievement, but no more than might be expected from Ms C-P, who is, by all accounts, one smart cookie. The Oxford graduate describes herself as a furious feminist and she is particularly angered by the under-representation and misrepresentation of women in the media. She has set up a website to ensure that female experts are available to offer opinions on any number of issues, she runs a blog with the slogan 'a pox on the patriarchy', and works as a freelance journalist - all the while studying for her master's.

In the course of her banknote campaign, she has written repeatedly to Sir Mervyn King, publishing the correspondence, and appeared in every national paper, the Huffington Post and on radio and television stations all over the country. Her efforts have wrong-footed the Governor to the point where he has been forced to say that the Bank has a contingency plan for someone other than Sir Winston Churchill to feature on the fiver and that Jane Austen is 'quietly waiting in the wings' to make her appearance.

Between them, they've stirred the pot so that every paper seems to be running 'Which woman should be on the banknote?' features. The same half dozen names appear at every turn - Mary Seacole, Ada Lovelace, Mary Wollstonecraft, Rosalind Franklin, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and the blessed Jane.

Odd that, isn't it? Well no. Asked to name great British women, most people run out of steam after Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry, as the Bank seems to have done. Yet I'd bet that anyone could rattle off ten times as many men in sixty seconds flat - and be aware of why they were in the frame. You can see how easy it was for the Bank to fall into the trap.

My problem with the debate is the letter 'a'.
Keep a woman on English banknotes
Which woman should be on the fiver?

Imagine if that has been 'which man should be on the fiver?' Or 'which black/gay/blind person...'

This isn't equality, it's tokenism. It's as though the feminists are saying 'We don't care who it is, we just want a woman', while those (presumably men) commissioning the newspaper articles are saying 'If you were allowed one, who should it be?'

There have been many, many great men through British history - and rather fewer great women. There is an interesting debate to be held on what should be the criteria for recognition on a banknote, but gender ought not to be one of them. Should candidates be instantly recognisable to all Britons? Towering giants of the arts, science, social reform? People of international renown? Or people whose retrospective importance outweighs their fame?

If  the women's cause is to be advanced, then the latter needs to be emphasised. That way we would highlight the achievements of people whose efforts have been under-reported and under-estimated for decades. People like Rosalind Franklin, above, whose DNA X-ray work provided the vital key to the mapping of the human genome. She was sneered at and patronised in the lab by Crick and Watson, who danced off to collect their Nobel prizes and then took a quarter of a century to make grudging acknowledgement of her contribution.

Had Ms Criado-Perez approached the Bank (and the media) with an extensive list and said 'You know there are so many unsung British women who achieved great things, how about raising their profile by putting them [not "one of them"] on the currency?' she might have found that the door opened easily. The Bank would probably have been grateful for the suggestions.

Instead we have a campaign that has the air of women stamping their feet shouting 'It's not fair.'

And that means we also have men patting us on the head saying 'Calm down, dear, we'll give you that Pride and Prejudice woman next time...

'Now get back to the hoovering.'

SubScribe also writes about feminism in the posts The truth is never pure and rarely simple and Women's rights and wrongs.

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station? Do you prefer print, web, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and moved to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.

Print v Digital, an unscientific survey

If we want everything for nothing, how will our culture survive?

How do you take your news? The old-fashioned way with tea and toast at the breakfast table? Downloaded to your iPad overnight? On the Kindle on the train? At your desk on the office computer? With Fiona or Huw or Natasha at one, six or ten? Between songs on 6Music? Or nonstop, courtesy of Google and Twitter buzzing in your pocket all day?

There are so many ways to keep up to the minute. Does anyone need newspapers any more? And if we do, what do we use them for? For most people, they have long since ceased to be the primary source of news, yet we retain an affection for them. They are more tactile than a screen. We can fold them up, tear out snippets, put big red circles round things we might want to buy. They may not be used to wrap fish and chips any more, but they are still a better flyswat than a smartphone.

We're still more likely to cut out a recipe that catches our eye than to print it off on the computer and will a computer bookmark ever have the same appeal as that bit of yellowing paper we come across in the attic? The YouTube cats are charming, but they will never produce the warm glow of the moment you turn over a fading KwikFit ad (wondering 'why did I keep this?') to discover that precious pantomime review on the other side.

Businesses cannot survive on sentimentality.. Circulations are falling, advertisers are turning away and a solely digital future seems to beckon.

Mainstream news organisations arrived late at the digital party and are still several drinks behind the crowd. They haven't caught up with the conversation, are unsure of the etiquette and frankly don't understand what a lot of their fellow guests are on about. Knocking back three or four shots in quick succession won't help. The others have been taking things at a steady - if brisk - pace. To try to catch up like this leaves the newcomers fuzzy-headed, confused and open to mockery.

So what are they to do? What do we want them to do? It costs money to run a news organisation: there are journalists to pay, offices to rent or buy, computer systems to set up and maintain, print contracts to finance. 

Yet we, the public, don't expect to pay for anything any more. We demand free music, free apps, free downloads, free films. 

We don't want the fag of driving to town and paying extortionate parking charges to buy something we can get online more cheaply. And we carry on cheapskating as we do our shopping in our sitting rooms, expecting 
free delivery and free returns - not to mention the 'no quibble' right to reject whatever we've bought for no better reason than that we've changed our minds. 

And so our high streets are dying and we all say 'oh what a shame' as though it had nothing to do with us. Just as we did when the village stores closed, forgetting that we went there only when we wanted a loaf or had run out of cat food on a Sunday when the 'proper' shops were shut.

Thus it is with news. We expect it to come free. We used to moan about papers being 'all adverts',  now we moan about subscriptions and paywalls, as though it costs nothing to produce something of quality and value. We pay for the BBC by the licence fee, but we don't pay for Google or AOL beyond our basic Broadband bill. We can look at the Guardian or the Mail websites without parting a penny and we gasped in horror when James Harding confirmed that The Times was building a paywall, explaining: 'We cannot afford to give our journalism away for nothing.'

And yet, and yet...the Mail Online is the most successful news website in the world. So it can be done. Is there a magic formula that would allow others (possibly following a rather different agenda) to keep going 'across all platforms' as the jargon has it?   

The answer lies with us. We, the readers, hold the fate of our newspapers in our hands, just as we, the shoppers, control the future of the high street.

SubScribe has reworked the survey published last week to make it (with luck) more user friendly. Please  take a few minutes to contribute your thoughts and, please also ask your friends and family to join in, too. Thank you.

Thursday 13 June 2013

Another sad week at The Times

The fear comes first. Then the relief. Then finally, exhaustion and resignation.

And that's for the survivors.

For the victims the fear is followed by shock, self-doubt, anger, nausea, tears.

My heart goes out to former colleagues on The Times as they find themselves mired in yet another round of job cuts - the third in three years, not counting adhoc voluntaries and early retirements along the way.

The latest round seems to have followed a pattern set in 2010 when James Harding summoned staff to a shabbily carpeted 'presentation suite' up several flights of metal fire-escape stairs in Pennington Street. With managing editor Anoushka Healy at his side, Harding announced that 50 jobs were to go to stem 'unsustainable' losses, and that staff had a few weeks to apply to join the 'voluntary leavers' scheme. In the end about 60 left, including 20 who were given no choice in the matter.

The scene was re-enacted in 2011, but this time in the smarter environment of the 13th floor of 3 Thomas More Square. The surroundings might have looked better than the previous year, but the leading actors looked decidedly worse. The suave Harding was close to tears; the glamorous Healy appeared exhausted. Again staff were told that losses could not continue. This time 100 jobs would be going, with casual sub-editors at the top of the list. The subbing operations would have to be reorganised to cope with the fallout and there would be a three-month consultation period on how this would be achieved. Three months later to the day the plan put forward for 'consultation' was enacted and the victims were out of the door, many of whom had no wish to leave.

A few floors down, John Witherow had delivered a similar message to his team on The Sunday Times. Twenty jobs would go, but there was no invitation for people to put up their hands; these would all be compulsory redundancies. Interesting, given that at least some personal contracts stipulated 'there will be no compulsory redundancy'.

And so here we are again. On Monday Witherow, now The Times's temporary acting editor, called staff to the 13th floor and, accompanied by new managing editor Craig Tregurtha, spoke of unsustainable losses. Twenty journalists would go, all, it is said,  handpicked by the editor himself. The pill was, however, sweetened by the news that there would be no merging of the two titles.

It seems that this time the execution order has gone out on some of the most long-serving and highly paid journalists: columnists, leader writers, feature writers, award-winning specialists. Some of the names mentioned - true stars in their fields - beggar belief.

In a particularly callous sideshow, five sports writers were hauled in front of the firing squad to be told that one of them would be shot 48 hours later. The graduate trainees, the lowest paid of all and thus a huge saving to the company, were subjected to the same treatment

Times are hard for everyone and there are plenty of people in all industries who have had to reapply for their jobs in competition with the chap at the next desk - as happened today at the University of Liverpool. I know several people who have gone through this procedure two or three times in the past few years.

So those who still have a berth at The Times should be grateful? Any job is better than no job when you have a family to feed, children to educate. Gone are the days of the redundancy window when a good operator  could pick up a five-figure payoff on Friday and start work with a rival on Monday. Yes, those days really did exist.

Now it is heads down and get on with the extra workload, with ever fewer people to produce a quality paper across ever-expanding platforms. And as that workload increases, so does sickness, which puts yet another burden on those who remain.

All of that would be enough to cope with, but the constant reorganisations add to the stress. Ask those working in education or the health service. Jobs are redefined, titles changed.

The impending changes at The Times will once again affect the subs. The backbench is to be revamped - well perhaps a better word would be abolished ; newsdesks are to take greater responsibility for the structure and positioning of stories and the quality of the copy. So designers will draw pages, news editors will fill the holes - and subs will be allowed 'to concentrate' on headline writing. Which probably translates as 'shovel it through as fast as possible' for print, web, tablet, smartphone, android and whatever new invention Apple comes up with next week. (Well at least until new cross-platform software is introduced in the autumn after which we can expect to hear of a further purge).

John Witherow Photograph: Press Gazette

When the Independent was launched in 1986 there was a belief that subs were unnecessary. That attitude soon changed. When Will Lewis reworked the Telegraph he, too, wanted to get rid of subs. Roy Greenslade has written that they are not needed any more. David Montgomery is of the same view and he is putting that into effect this very week in Grimsby, where 'journalist' and 'production' roles are to be combined.

The move was inevitable, given his recent pronouncements, but when did subs stop being journalists? And why do executives everywhere now refer to them as the production department? The production department was the place where the type was made and put into pages, whether in hot metal or bits of sticky paper, and later the area from which  pages were checked and sent electronically to the printers.

Now the phrase refers to the subs. They are no longer thinking, talented journalists, masters of language, mistresses of design,  but 'producers', conveyor-belt handlers of copy, fit only to write a Google-friendly heading and to do the bidding of whoever happens to be sitting on the newsdesk. Never mind how experienced the sub or how green the news editor.

Traditionally, the news editor would commission a story and when the reporter had finished writing, the copy  would go to a copytaster and from there to the chief sub, backbench or night editor. All of these would have an opinion on whether the story worked and a judgment would be made, on the basis of reading the copy, on where to place it.  There would be consultation and there would be more than one point of view in the debate.

Now there will be one agenda. The newsdesk that starts the ball rolling will also decide where stories go, approve the pictures and headlines and see off the finished pages. Just as the person tasked with reorganising the subbing operation  in 2011 was also responsible for the 'consultation' exercise, the rejection of all alternatives and the final implementation of his own plan.

Good luck to any sub, however senior, who dares to put a head above the parapet to raise a question - let alone ask why Prince William's dash of Indian blood is regarded as a suitable splash or, indeed, why a naked woman is the best way to illustrate the business front. As the former night editor David Ruddock was fond of saying: 'Newspapers are not a democracy.'

Just to emphasise the disdain with which the subs are regarded, all titles have been withdrawn and downgraded.

How will quality control be maintained? The news editors will polish copy so that it is sent through 'clean'. Isn't that what's supposed to be happening now? Well yes, but they can't keep up. So with the best will in the world, how will half a dozen folk on the newsdesk do a better job than the team of experts being discarded - especially with their additional responsibilities for pages?

No problem. The reporters are going to be told to learn the style book. Well that's all right then. It's good to know that the subs will be spared having to change 'over' into 'more than'. It might also be an idea to give some reporters spelling lessons - and for others to be taught to count.

Is Witherow following a personal philosophy with this regime? Maybe he has a distrust of subs, perhaps someone distorted his copy or cut it more than he'd have liked when he was a reporter. For while these changes coincide with the job cuts, they do not seem to spring from economies that have hit writers hardest. Maybe it's instructive to look at his explanation for the retreat on merging the titles: 'It is important as much for commercial reasons as editorial that we keep the characters of the papers separate and this requires different staff in several areas.'

In several areas. Not in all areas. Why not end the sentence at the word 'separate'? Or are the subs about to be turned into a seven-day, seven-night typing pool?

So these are sad days for The Times. It is picking up the bill for the phone-hacking scandal;  the scandal that closed the News of the World in 2011 and cost 180 people their jobs. Funnily enough, that is the number of people who have lost their jobs at The Times since 2010. Some of the NoW staff are meanwhile back working for News International on The Sun.

Here are some official figures to chew over:

In 2008-09 The Times lost £87.7 million
In 2009-10 The Times lost £45 million
In 2010-11 The Times lost £11.8 million
In 2011-12 The Times lost £28.7 million - of which £12.7 million was down to the redundancy programme.

Yes the figures are gloomy, and no, the paper can no longer look to Fox and BSkyB to bail it out with the imminent demerger of the business. But it didn't have Fox or Sky to bankroll it when Murdoch first bought the paper. It has always lost money and for decades has depended on The Sunday Times and The Sun.

So why the harsh approach now?

News Corp shares were worth just under $18 at the height of the phone-hacking/BSkyB deal horrors of July 2011. Under pressure from shareholders, the company agreed to split into two businesses - entertainment and publishing. Today, after a month of decline, the shares stand at around $30. It's not hard to guess which directions the new Fox and News Corp stock will take when trading starts on Wednesday.

Twenty job cuts on one paper are unlikely to do much to buoy up the publishing arm's share price. But twenty here, a dozen there, a few more in Australia might help a bit. Times journalists who asked for redundancy figures in previous rounds are apparently being told that if they would like to go there would be a package there for them.

So, too, are staff on the Wall Street Journal. One writer reports that he was telephoned out of the blue by his bureau chief and asked if he was interested in a 'buyout', even though there was no general redundancy offer open to all staff. The Wall Street Journal is run by the former Times editor and News Corp chief-elect Robert Thomson, who has promised 'relentless cost-cutting'. And at his side is one Anoushka Healy.

But maybe the changes in Wapping may have nothing to do with the separation of the Murdoch empire - nor even the separation of Murdoch and his wife - and everything to do with the future of The Times itself.

You can buy a copy of the paper today for £1. How long before that quid buys the whole business?

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.

Monday 3 June 2013

Contempt and the contemptible

Can there be justice for Lee Rigby and Georgia Williams - or the men accused of killing them - if we don't show restraint?

Few people in this country will be unaware of the circumstances in which Drummer Lee Rigby died . The combination of live video, a woman's confrontation of a suspect at the scene and the unstoppable social media brought the tragedy into every living room.

Many of us will also have been saddened by the disappearance of the teenager Georgia Williams last weekend. A body that is thought to be hers has been found and a young man has been charged with murdering her.

It is in the interests of everyone that whoever perpetrated these crimes is brought to justice.

Armchair criminologists will already see both as open-and-shut cases, yet some will have to serve on the juries that determine whether the men in the dock are guilty - and of what crime.

Contempt laws are in place to try to ensure that anyone accused of a crime has a fair trial - and also that the prosecution is not hampered in holding the guilty to account.

These laws can be frustrating - I remember Harry Evans coming to my local paper in the 70s and declaring the contempt rules to be the biggest official obstruction to British journalism. This is  especially so when we look across the Atlantic and see the freedom enjoyed by American reporters. It's not quite as gung-ho as the musical Chicago would suggest, but the regime is a lot looser than ours.

For the time being, however, we are stuck with the law as it stands, which restricts what can be published once someone has been charged.

MPs have greater freedom than the media as they are protected by parliamentary privilege, and David Cameron used that freedom in his statement to the Commons this afternoon. But how helpful was this to the principles of a fair trial and innocent until proven guilty?

He told MPs that he had set up a task force to find out how 'the suspects were radicalised and whether anything more could have been done to stop them'. Those who committed 'this callous and abhorrent crime', he continued, 'sought to justiify their actions by extremist ideology'. And in conclusion he described the killing of Drummer Rigby as an horrific murder.

This is a seriously tricky case for politicians and press alike. Two men have been charged with murdering Drummer Rigby under our criminal law. They are not charged with terrorism offences. For the Prime Minister to call them 'suspects' offers barely an oakleaf of caution to cover the damning assumptions about their guilt, their motivation and their presumed defence.

Newspapers and broadcasters have been more circumspect, but they all repeatedly say that Drummer Rigby was murdered. You may think he was, I may think he was, but it is for a jury to decide whether he was murdered or the victim of manslaughter or some other crime. It is also noticeable that newspapers that maintain the 'innocentuntil convicted or admit a crime' style of allowing defendants to maintaintheir honorific are referring to the Woolwich pair by their surnames only.

The same applies to Miss Williams, who is also almost universally described as 'the murdered teenager'. We don't know how she met her death - we don't even know for certain that she is dead - and we have to be careful what and how we report the case so that we don't influence the course of a young man's trial.

I was aghast to read this weekend details of Miss Williams's previous contact with the accused man - and to see his photograph being published. Did the police say identification would not be an issue? Maybe it won't be. But it's not for police to make that judgment or for newspapers to accept their word at this stage of proceedings. Background guidance is useful, but we need to pause before we print.

Similarly, going back to Drummer Rigby, papers yesterday and today have reported links between the security services and one of the accused men. This information has doubtless come from 'informed sources' within the Establishment, but when it comes to the crunch, it is no more privileged than the word of the last man to lay flowers in Woolwich.

We need to beware of putting too much trust in the 'terrorism crisis' lifeboat. There is no guarantee that it is strong enough to see us through this turbulent legal sea and safely to shore. Who wants to see a terrible tangle of appeals through court after court and over to Europe arguing the toss about whether a trial was prejudiced?

Every journalist obviously wants to get as much as possible into his paper or onto her news bulletin. But we have a responsibility to make sure that innocent people are not convicted and that nasty killers don't escape justice just because we were incapable of showing a little restraint.

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.